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Yesterday, and tomorrow

The rich patch of green space in the heart of Naperville that celebrates the city’s past is not ignoring its future.

Naper Settlement has launched a new feature that will help draw tomorrow’s preservationists to the outdoor museum. Situated next to the Fort Payne exhibit near the south end of the Settlement’s 12-acre campus, the Rita (Fredenhagen) and John Harvard Early Learning Playscape had its ceremonial groundbreaking Wednesday afternoon and has a 90-day construction schedule.

Although the 10,000-square-foot interactive playground’s theme is firmly rooted in history, its features are thoroughly modern — including the only splash pad of its kind in the city. Designed for kids age 2 to 7, its amenities also will include a kid-sized trading post and other hands-on learning experiences, and it will be fully accessible for children with disabilities.

“You’re catching them at an ideal age, 5 or 6,” said Mayor A. George Pradel, who was “Officer Friendly” during his earlier career in law enforcement and offered comments at the ceremony. “Because when I was teaching kids that age at Safety Village, they listen and they soak up all that knowledge. … You never know what’s going to happen when they play here.”

In his comments before those who came for the kickoff, Pradel commended John Harvard and his late wife Rita for their generosity and support for the community, noting that the couple loved one another, the city, the Settlement — and kids.

“We start out from the very bottom with our children, because they are our future,” Pradel said.

Along with a donation from the couple, the $450,000 project is being funded by the city, the Naperville Park District and donations from local individuals and families.

Sally Pentecost, chairman of the Naperville Heritage Society, echoed the mayor’s thoughts about the full-circle aspect of the “new and grand adventure” at the Settlement. More than 30,000 children visit the site every year, she said, but the new attraction geared for preschoolers and young students offers a slightly different twist.

“For us, this is completing the cycle and starting where we should be starting,” Pentecost said.

Dave Kelsch, who preceded Pentecost at the Naperville Heritage Society and is heading up the Settlement’s capital campaign, noted that the playscape is just part of what the organization sees down the road.

“This is the first exciting piece of what you will see at Naper Settlement in the years to come,” Kelsch said.

Another piece, a big one, will be Scott’s Block. Planned for the Village Green, an open area in the center of the Settlement, the long-term $22 million undertaking will help commemorate Naperville’s bicentennial in 2031.

“Scott’s Block was owned by the Willard Scott family. It took up a city block where the U.S. Bank is now,” said Debbie Grinnell, vice president of museum services.

The Scotts owned the first bank in Naperville, which had a dance hall on the second floor, as well as Scott’s Department Store.

“It really fits into kind of the historic-element (role) that Naper Settlement plays,” Grinnell said.

The project will include 27,000 square feet of offices, exhibit space and space for artifacts from the sprawling Kroehler Furniture factory that operated out of what is now the Fifth Avenue Station building. Also in the plans is a 4,000-square-foot reproduction of the masonry firehouse that formerly stood kitty-corner from the later fire station that became Lou Malnati’s on Jefferson Avenue. The firehouse, to be focused on themes of fire safety and public protection, will be home to two antique implements: the Joe Naper Pumper, which was the city’s first piece of firefighting equipment, purchased in 1874; and the 1924 Ahrens Fox, the city’s second piece of motorized firefighting apparatus.

Grinnell described Scott’s Block as the second part of a two-phase program that begins with the playscape. It arose with help from community and focus group meetings that took place in 2004-2006 and 2012-13.

“We’re looking short- and long-term: how do we remain relevant?” Grinnell said.

“What’s the best way to serve the community? How do we best tell the city’s story?”

She and her colleagues recognize that any planning for the future at the Settlement must remain securely tethered to the dynamic story of the community’s past.

“Scott’s Block is kind of the capital project of our bicentennial vision for Naper Settlement’s growth and development,” Grinnell said. “We’re looking forward to that 200th anniversary and how we’re going to share that culture and that story of how Naperville got to be Naperville.”

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