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The Wow Factor.

That’s what backers of a new Sioux City Public Museum sought when they talked about remodeling the former JC Penney department store five years ago. Now that the new museum nears an April opening, did they get it?

To those involved in the project, the answer is a resounding “Yes.”

“I think the scale of the place will be part of that ‘wow’ factor,” businessman Irving Jensen Jr., said. “Your eyes will take in two stories seeing the Kari-Keen plane. That Corn Palace entry is almost two-stories tall.”

A copy of one of the original architectural drawings of one of the city’s famous corn palaces surrounds the doorway into a theater.

The video that will be aired in the 48-seat Orientation Theater illustrating Sioux City history will be another “cool factor that will set the tone for the whole museum,” Karen Van De Steeg added.

Van De Steeg is president of the nonprofit Siouxland Heritage Foundation that is overseeing planning, construction and fundraising for the project.

To her, the biggest wow factor is the free-standing Disaster Wall showcasing three major calamities and outlining how the community came together in coordinated responses.

The wall illustrates the 1953 Floyd River flood that inundated businesses and homes in the Hoeven Valley and the stockyards; the crash of United Flight 232 at Sioux Gateway airport on July 19, 1989, and the Pelletier Department store fire on Dec. 23, 1904, which destroyed 2½ city blocks in what is considered the worst fire in the city’s history.

“To me that wall is interesting, perhaps because of my medical background,” said Van De Steeg, executive director of Health Inc., which oversees the June E. Nylen Cancer Center, Hospice of Siouxland and Siouxland Paramedics Inc. “It’s a good example of how the city survived these different disasters over the years, came together and still is strong.”

Museum Director Steve Hansen admitted he enjoys the view from the skyway’s glass windows overlooking the interior from a second-floor vantage point.

“And, my favorite deal right now is to go down at night and sit at Fourth and Nebraska and just look inside the windows. You can see the Kari-Keen plane backlit. It’s pretty cool! It’s all coming together like we had planned it.”

In no way does the remodeled space resemble the building’s former home as a department store.

“It’s open and airy,” he said. “The ceilings are white. It doesn’t feel like you’re walking into a dark cave.”

“I think it will be easier for people from out of town to find once the museum is located downtown,” Jim Jung, chairman of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, said.

“It will add to the cultural activities in the downtown area in addition to the Orpheum Theatre, the Tyson Events Center and the Art Center,” Jung declared. “I think this museum will be the crown jewel for downtown.”

Jensen added, “I think it will blow people away when they go in there.”

More Room

The new $12.5 million museum at 607 Fourth St. will have space to showcase the majority of the museum’s permanent collections, storage for the rest and will display traveling exhibits.

In the Peirce Mansion, at 2901 Jackson St., Hansen said there only was room to display about 15 percent of the collections – which includes more than 50,000 objects. At the Pearl Street Research Center, at 407 Pearl St. the vast majority of its collection – including more than a quarter of million photographic images – were in storage.

The Peirce Mansion contained about 9,500 square feet of space, while the Pearl Street Research Center contained 8,000 square feet. At the new museum, there are 55,000 square feet of usable space on the first floor.

An atrium has been created on the southwest corner of the building for the museum. The rest of the second floor is leased to Delta Airlines for its reservation center.

Permanent Exhibits

One of the children’s favorite exhibits is a replica of French fur trader Theophile Bruguier’s log cabin, which has been installed at its new home. His original cabin still stands in Riverside Park.

The permanent collection includes that free-standing disaster wall and exhibits on the Sioux City Stockyards and meatpacking industry, the Native American Gallery, as well as displays on Sioux City businesses and some whopper-sized vehicles.

The Stockyards wall consists of more than photographs and narrative information. Cattle pens stand in front of it, with a Black Angus cow and pig gazing back at onlookers.

“It will be an interactive exhibit with some hands-on activities for children” Hansen noted.

The museum always has excelled at presenting exhibits on the area’s Native American history, Jensen said. In addition to the variety of pottery, clothing, arrowheads and other artifacts in the collection, Hansen said the Iowa State archaeologist at the University of Iowa has agreed to allow the museum to display a number of items from the Mill Creek Culture dating to 11,000 A.D.

“These people were farming up and down the Sioux River Valley,” Hansen said.

The artifacts on loan from the state were found in the Kimball site in southern Plymouth County, just north of Stone Park. Some of the tools were made out of large mammal bones, while gardening tools, hoes and fish hooks were crafted out of fragile bird bones.

“Sioux City has one of the best Native American collections in the state of Iowa and the region,” asserted Jensen, who also is a member of the heritage foundation board.

A rotating display will feature Sioux City businesses.

“We built a trolley car and you can go inside and watch a screen,” Hansen added. “You can choose from one of five topics.”

Flying high over the exhibits is the Kari-Keen coupe, a two-seater manufactured at the aircraft plant in Leeds. It is one of only three known to exist out of the 40 to 50 Kari-Keens that took to the skies in the early days of aviation.

“From our standpoint, this is one of the most significant donations we’ve every received,” Hansen said. “It would sell for $85,000 to $100,000 on the open market, but for us it is priceless.”

Towering into the second floor atrium along a nearby wall is the red Bus Hotel sign.

Jensen, his son, Irving Jensen III, and their family have donated a 1918 Mack fire truck and a 1957 Diamond T dump truck used in the family’s construction business. The Jensens had both vehicles painstakingly restored to mint condition. The Sioux City Fire Department once used a similar fire truck.

“You can walk down one hall you will find the stuffed animal displays and Dr. (James) Hartje has given them a magnificent collection of rock artifacts,” Jensen added.

The permanent gallery covers 12,000 square feet of space.

Temporary Exhibits

Another 7,200 square feet of space will be available for rotating exhibits out of the museum’s extensive collections, as well as for traveling exhibits.

“We have the capacity to expand to 9,500 square feet if we need the room,” Hansen stated. “Most traveling exhibits need at least 5,000 square feet, like the Titanic exhibit. … A Hawkeye truck also will be on display which was manufactured at a plant on Hawkeye Drive here.”

One of the first new exhibits? Sioux City fourth graders’ history projects. The pupils’ renditions of Sioux City landmarks will be displayed in May.

Van De Steeg, a former Sioux City mayor, said another of her favorite exhibits is The Attic, located inside the Nebraska Street door.

“They are kind of these old, eclectic items you might find in the attic that merit being on display, but not a separate exhibit of their own,” she noted.

Such as? The bison head. The original Thorpe’s jewelry store clock.

“There will be an interactive mirror there,” Hansen revealed. “You look in the mirror and will see your image. If you hit a button, you will see the Rev. Haddock or John Peirce pop up in the mirror and there will be a two-minute film on them” shown in the mirror.

The Rev. George Haddock was a fiery temperance pastor who was murdered at Fourth and Water streets on Aug. 3, 1886. His assassination catapulted Sioux City into the national spotlight. Peirce was an 1890s entrepreneur who once owned the mansion that has served as the museum’s home since 1961.

Other Spaces

Holding educational classes at the Peirce Mansion was limited to a dozen or so people who met in a small backroom. In the new place, Hansen said one classroom will hold twice that many people, while two other rooms will be separated by a partition, which can be opened to a larger room for meetings and classes. That flexible space will be available for community groups.

The Pearl Street archives’ new home is on the Jackson Street side of the building.

Storage room is available on the north side. Crews who back trucks into the loading docks off Fifth Street will be able to unload exhibits into the temporary gallery or into the storage area. Another storage area on the southeast corner of the building has been designated for future expansion.

Administrative offices are located near the Nebraska and Jackson street sides of the building. The gift shop is located just inside the Nebraska Street entrance. The Museum Trustees and heritage foundation board decided not to include a café in the building.

“We didn’t want to compete with private restaurants,” Hansen explained, noting there are sandwich shops and restaurants nearby.

During warmer weather, he expects a number of people to brownbag their lunches to the outdoor plaza facing Fourth Street, which will contain green space, plantings and benches. Events also will be held in the plaza.


People driving to the museum may park on the street at the meters or in one of the nearby city parking ramps. The city allows free parking at the meters and in the ramps on the weekends.

“If you have a product worth seeing, people won’t worry about having to pay for the parking,” Hansen maintained. “The museum is free.”


“Our designers believe they have designed a four-hour experience,” Hansen said. “Even if you are visiting for just 60 minutes, you will get to see a lot and want to come back.”

The exhibits will bring the past to life through the use of state-of-the-art technology, interactive displays, hands-on elements and presentations. The hope, planners said, is that the exhibits will inspire the imagination and encourage the desire to further explore the rich history of the area.

“With our educational programs and exhibits, we’ll only be limited by our own creativity,” Hansen said, with Van De Steeg adding, “It will be a lot of fun.”

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