The Greektown community, still reeling from a fire last month that destroyed a number of longtime businesses, is encouraged by construction activity on the site where a new National Hellenic Museum will rise and serve as a gateway to the area.

Plans for the museum have been under way for nearly a decade, but the last of 24 caissons for the three-story 40,000 square-foot structure on the northeast corner of Halsted and Van Buren streets only went in last week. The foundation is expected to be poured next month and the facility should open in fall 2011.

It will house 180 oral histories of Greek-Americans and thousands of artifacts ranging from pottery crafted before Christ to clothing worn by the first Greek immigrants to Chicago.

"It will bring a presence back to Greektown after the tragic loss of those three businesses," said Aristotle Halikias, president of the museum's board of directors. "It's been a long wait. People are anxious. Now there is a resurgence of energy and desire for the museum because they're going to see an actual building going up."

The museum, formerly the Hellenic Museum and Cultural Center, was founded in 1983 to promote appreciation for the rich cultural traditions of ancient and contemporary Greece. Since 2004, it has been operating out of the fourth floor of 801 W. Adams St., in the same building that houses the Greek Islands restaurant. Officials announced the new name last August along with a redefined statement of purpose, "Connecting Generations."

It will be a "one-of-a-kind" museum, said Executive Director Stephanie Vlahakis, who expects to expand the collection once there is more space and funds to hire guards and install industry-standard climate control for antiquities and other objects. The current 10,000 square-foot space is inadequate, but the not-for-profit facility still attracts 10,000 visitors each year, she said.

Museum officials have raised $10 million toward a target goal of $25 million to construct the building and establish an endowment to sustain operations. The city of Chicago gave the museum $3.5 million in Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funds in 2001 to buy the land at 333 S. Halsted St., formerly occupied by the Turek hardware store, which was demolished.

The new museum would be "a wonderfully exciting addition to the city's cultural landscape," said Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs Commissioner Lois Weisberg. "Our ethnic museums are civic treasures. They're precious records of the hopes, struggles and accomplishments that define our communities and ultimately bind them together. The Greek community has worked long and hard to make this dream of a new museum come true," she said.

While some in the community have been skeptical that a new museum would ever be built, Halikias said there was an "arduous" regulatory process.

"It requires a great deal of perseverance and tenacity to get through (a project) like this, especially for a museum that has its own idiosyncrasies and requirements from assembly and curation standpoints," Halikias said. Now that construction is on a fast track, he said, "We've had individuals who have come out of the woodwork to make substantial financial and archival donations of family (artifacts)."

The new site offers unique opportunities, said architect Demetri Stavrianos, who designed the proposed building. "It has exposure on three sides, which in Chicago, unless you're over 50 stories, just doesn't happen," he said. "It gives an opportunity to have three distinct faces of architecture, one that faces south, one that faces Halsted, which is the ceremonial street in Greektown, and one that faces toward the city.

"From my perspective, it is important to create a museum that embraces the past, responds to the present and also seeks out a new future. As Greeks, we have a responsibility to pioneer things. We always feel the need to push and advance. It is important to me from a building standpoint to push technology and science and art to try and bridge a gap between the old and the new," Stavrianos said.

A feature of the new building, he said, will be a dramatic east-west staircase sky lit from above that symbolizes the Greek-American immigrant experience "of looking back and forth" between the old and the new country. The staircase, he said will contain material — either wood or stone — from Greece.

The first floor, designed with a glass facade to integrate the museum's interior with the neighborhood, will feature an approximately 6,000 square-foot multi-purpose space for high-profile exhibitions, as well as a gift store and special events hall. The second floor will contain several galleries that will tell the Greek story from ancient Greek history to the Greek-American immigrant experience, to spotlighting contemporary contributions to Greek culture and art.

The third floor will contain the Frank S. Kamberos Oral
History Center. The interactive digital archive, dubbed Homer, contains 180 firsthand accounts of Greek-Americans. It was designed for the museum by local architectural design collaborative Sand_Box.

"Preserving these stories is the heart and soul of the (museum)," Vlahakis said.

The museum also has 7,000 artifacts spanning ceramic pottery from 1400 BC to the wardrobe of the first Greek woman to emigrate from Greece to Chicago in the late 1800s to wrestling shorts worn by "The Golden Greek" Jim Londos.

Curator Betheny Fleming, who previously was director of collections and exhibitions at the Illinois Holocaust Museum, said, "So many of the foundational elements of western civilization were built in ancient Greece. The challenge is to build on that and connect all of these stories into a cohesive experience for visitors."

One new exhibit under development, she said, will take its inspiration from Homer's "The Odyssey" and "The lliad," to explore how these seminal texts have informed modern storytelling from the Coen brothers' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" to the raps of
Tupac Shakur, to social networking. The catchy working title: "Homer, Hip-Hop, and the Art of Storytelling."

The museum, she said, is visited by 4,000 schoolchildren annually, and will feature kid-friendly exhibits, such as "Gods, Myths and Mortals," which is currently at the New York Children's Museum in Manhattan.