Our Story

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J.W. Wood Building

Turning back the pages of the J.W. Wood Building’s history, one thing becomes clear: the bricks and mortar that make up this unique, Civil War-era structure have meant many things to many people. Over the course of the past 150 years, the J.W. Wood Building has served as an infirmary for the Confederate Army and a commissary store in the late 1860’s, as a warehouse and wholesale grocery firm in the 1930’s and finally, after several decades of being unoccupied, in 2001 it became the home of Lynchburg’s first hands-on, multidisciplinary children’s museum, Amazement Square.

As one of the largest and best-preserved Civil War-era commercial structures remaining in Lynchburg, the building figures prominently in the city’s history. Its proximity to both the James River and the railroad, the area’s former major trading routes, indicates that it played a significant role in Lynchburg’s economic development. Today it is a visual reminder of the city’s tremendous commercial activity in the mid-nineteenth century, the period in which Lynchburg was declared by the United States Census to be the second richest city in the country on a per-capita basis.

The J.W. Wood, which is on the National Register of Historic Buildings, reflects the same Greek Revival vernacular of many of the residential houses of the late nineteenth century. The most notable and distinguishing feature of the building is its first floor cast-iron façade, the earliest surviving example of its kind remaining in Lynchburg. Composed of seven Corinthian pilasters decorated with high-relief cartouches and Corinthian capitals, the façade is divided into six bays that support an entablature with modillion cornice. Restoring this façade to accurately reflect the building’s original beauty presented a challenge for Amazement Square during the first stages of the renovation process.

What presented even more of a challenge, however, was determining the best way to clean the exterior walls of the building without damaging its surface. By using a low-pressure, water and soda-cleaning technique, signage reflecting the building’s history as a wholesale grocery firm and warehouse was revealed.

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When the sign “Death to all Insects” appeared, Amazement Square was presented with a unique dilemma. How would it manage to preserve the history of its home as a wholesale store that sold insecticides, while also reflecting its new purpose as a cultural and learning organization that appreciates all forms of life? With the community’s feedback, Amazement Square decided to change the sign from “Death to all Insects” to “Respect to All Insects.” At that time the museum decided to collaborate with the insects to rise against the negative connotation associated with insects and created Amazement Square’s official mascots, the LynchBugs. After partially morphing itself into a can of insect repellent, Amazement Square’s infamous Scorpy Bug was able to become the instrument to project “respect” over “death” to insects.

As much as preserving the exterior of the J.W. Wood Building posed a challenge, transforming and adapting the interior of the building into a first-class, hands-on children’s museum proved to be even a bigger challenge. The building’s heavy timber framing and partially-exposed, stone basement walls did not seem to provide the warmest and most playful environment for a children’s museum. However, with the creativity and expertise of a talented staff, a supportive Board of Directors, local architects, contractors and fabricators, the building’s rather austere interior was soon transformed into four floors of one-of-a-kind, hands-on learning environment that today continue to welcome and delight children and families from across the nation.

After eight years of planning, community feedback, and a $7.8 million capital campaign, the J.W. Wood building was successfully transformed from an abandoned 29,000 sq. ft. warehouse into a hands-on children’s museum with seven multidisciplinary exhibition galleries and one of the tallest indoor climbing structures in the United Sates. Addressing themes such as architectural appreciation, the arts, health awareness, cultural understanding, science, and regional history, geography and environmental issues, the museum’s exhibitions are a reflection of Amazement Square’s dedication to lifelong learning and commitment to preserving the past 150 years of Lynchburg’s history.

To serve higher than projected annual visitation and demands for more space for facilitated school programs and workshop spaces, in 2018, after a 5 year campaign, Amazement Square opened a new facility, The Genworth Education Center. The Genworth Education Center, which is adjacent to the museum and faces the James River, provides 15,000 square feet of classroom, makerspace lab, exhibit fabrication workshop and a 6,500 square feet multipurpose gallery to host traveling exhibitions and as an event venue.

Awards

National Medal Winner

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When Amazement Square was awarded the National Medal for Museum and Library Service in 2015, Michelle Obama noted that, “The services you provide are not luxuries. Just the opposite. Every day your institutions are keeping so many folks in this country from falling through the cracks. In many communities our museums are the places that help young people dream bigger and reach higher for their futures.” (Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2015)

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Timeline  

Since 1992

Junior League of Lynchburg formed a committee to determine if there was a need for a children’s museum in the region

1993

Board of Directors was formed and Amazement Square was incorporated

1995

J.W. Wood Building was acquired to house the museum

2001

On March 24, Amazement Square opened its doors to the public

2002

Received Award of Merit from the Statewide Downtown Development Association for its contributions to the revitalization of downtown Lynchburg

2003

Department of Historic Resources selected Amazement Square’s renovation project as one of the best examples of restoration and adaptation of an historic building for new use in Virginia

2005

Established an ongoing partnership program with Lynchburg City Schools and the LAUREL Regional School

2006

Received the International Universal Design for Learning Award from the Association of Children’s Museums and Very Special Arts, an affiliate of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services

2011

Awarded the Roy L. Shafer Leading Edge Award by the Association of Science and Technology Centers for the Amazing Adventures of Scorpy Bug

2012

Completed the museum’s fourth CityArts public arts project in downtown Lynchburg, a panoramic 4,800 sq. ft. mosaic tile mural, the largest outdoor mural of it type in North America, depicting a narrative history of Lynchburg’s riverfront from the pre-contact period to present day, and the future.   

2014 

Awarded the MetLife Foundation and Association of Children’s Museums Promising Practice Award for the Hutcherson Early Learning Center Partnership Program. The museum was selected as a leader and future model for the field.

2015

Awarded the National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the nation’s highest honor conferred on museums and libraries. Only the 4th institution to ever win from the state of Virginia. 

2018

In May 2018 opened the Genworth Education Center