Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
Every year since 1999 my wife Anne and I have taken a trip to a different part of the United States and visited attractions, wonders, and events we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. For 2017 our ultimate destination of choice was the city of Baltimore, Maryland. You might remember it from such TV shows as Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire, not exactly the most enticing showcases to lure in prospective tourists. Though folks who know me best know I’m one of those guys who won’t shut up about The Wire, a Baltimore walkabout was Anne’s idea. Setting aside my fandom, as a major history buff she was first to remind skeptics who made worried faces at us for this plan that Maryland was one of the original thirteen American colonies and, urban decay notwithstanding, remains packed with notable history and architecture from ye olde Founding Father times. In the course of our research we were surprised to discover Baltimore also has an entire designated tourist-trap section covered with things to do. And if we just so happened to run across former filming locations without getting shot, happy bonus…
Our drive home through the Midwest on Day Seven took us a few miles off the interstate for a while as we sought out a creative repository of childhood imagination. An architecturally impressive school building that opened around the turn of the 20th century educated thousands of students for nearly ninety years until the march of progress closed its doors. After laying fallow for years, a core group of dedicated fans had a vision to bring new life into the former schoolhouse, acquiring the property and turning it into a museum filled with toys, animals, Lego, and other childhood memorabilia, nostalgic set pieces from multiple generations covering the gamut of pop culture staples from Star Wars to Thomas the Tank Engine and beyond.
Sound familiar? It should if you read our previous chapter.
Across the Ohio River and the Ohio/West Virginia state border, a couple miles west of the Kruger Street Toy & Train Museum, a 1913 vintage building was formerly known as Gravel Hill Middle School, or simply Gravel Hill School in some sources I located, until it was closed in 2001. After a period of dormancy, in 2007 it was reborn as the Toy and Plastic Brick Museum. The LEGO name was originally in the masthead until the company objected and denied them permission. This unofficial Lego showcase — only open from May to August each year — is in the village of Bellaire, whose 2010 census stats and overall outward appearance indicate times have been tough around this part of the American heartland for a very long time. Our lunch options later were few, and our cell phone signals were weak to nonexistent.
Much of the former schoolhouse is closed off, with the museum comprising one main hallway connecting several rooms of varying theme and decor, or lack thereof. Legos are their primary focus, with exhibits a-plenty either acquired from retailers that no longer needed them, built by their own in-house crew, or created from scratch by a particular artist from Alaska. As one would expect in this day and age, the wondrous world of Star Wars popped out of nooks and crannies all over.
Whereas their rivals over on Kruger Street have had nearly two decades for furnishing, renovating, and generally overhauling their headquarters, the T&PB Museum showed numerous signs of its former life here and there and everywhere, evincing a vibe of the children who once walked its halls, grew up here, learned everything they knew here before graduating to the community’s workforce and later seeing their alma mater fade away. In noticing these ephemera and the unretouched surfaces and bygone tiles and such, I was reminded of a phrase we picked up when we visited Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia on our 2010 road trip: the sum of the school parts represents a sort of “stabilized ruin”.
Observant guests may notice a side passage off the front door that leads down to the basement, which was once the school gymnasium. Lining the halls are a series of castoff exhibits and accompanying placards from other, more accredited museums where curation and contextualization were a thing. The big, big showpiece is a stage setup with a Lego robot band who once graced the dance floor at an FAO Schwartz. A few minutes of fumbling around led me to the controls, which turned on the lights, activated the band, and shook the entire room with a volume-9 rendition of a Lego theme called “Just Imagine”.
To be honest, we didn’t take too many pics of their non-Lego displays. Very few items were labeled, most within reach and probably played with rather often. The gift shop and admission register are in a corner room, leaving most of the grounds on the honor system, like a large thrift store but with only one employee on duty.
Likewise, the quality and interest level of the Lego sculptures varies wildly depending on your interests. Some of them represented unrecognizable quantities; others captured the look of favorite pop culture characters.
We wandered all the rooms, spent more time in some than in others, and conducted the predictable personal survey of Hey, I Recognize That Character. Their gift shop wasn’t our thing, but anyone who brings kids might check it out if they love Legos. And if you need to use the bathroom before returning to your road trip…I can’t help you there because I had zero interest in seeing if the school bathrooms had been as imperfectly preserved as some of the other old trimmings. My adventure level has its limits.
To be continued!
[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for other chapters and for our complete road trip history to date. Follow us on Facebook or via email signup for new-entry alerts, or over on Twitter if you want to track my TV live-tweeting and other signs of life between entries. Thanks for reading!]