Newest work of art is museum's building

An extensive $24 million renovation has transformed the Walters structure, making it easier to appreciate the works inside.

Architecture : Review

October 14, 2001|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

Although its collection enjoys a stellar reputation, the Walters Art Museum hasn't always presented it as well as it should. Its largest building was a maze of disorienting spaces, plagued with mechanical defects. Galleries were filled with priceless art, but visitors largely had to make sense of it on their own. Many left without ever doing so.

After seven years of design and construction, the Walters finally has a physical plant worthy of the collection it houses. That's the lasting achievement of the $24 million renovation and reconfiguration of the 1974 Centre Street Building, which reopens Saturday.

Of the four structures that make up the Walters campus in Mount Vernon -- also including the original 1904 gallery; the former residence of founders William and Henry Walters; and a restored 1850 mansion that contains its Asian Arts collection -- the 1974 wing was the trouble spot. It held many of the museum's most valuable works but was the least capable of displaying them properly.

Museum directors, architects and builders literally reinvented this corner of the museum to make it more accessible, physically and intellectually. From the glass atrium marking the new Centre Street entrance to the reconfigured upper-level galleries, they crafted a cohesive and coherent showcase for 50 centuries of art. And they did so without dumbing down the collection.

There will be some regrets: the disappearance of the old Arms and Armor gallery at ground level and the blue slate sidewalks outside, the loss of the Charles Street doorway as a primary entrance. Some may wonder why the bunkerlike exterior hasn't changed more.

But the tradeoff is a museum that is, on the whole, more comprehensible, user-friendly and illuminating than ever before, with spaces as memorable as any in the museum and installations that bring the art to life. Galleries are more engaging. Lighting is more dramatic. Theatrical exhibits put the art in context for viewers, so they can better appreciate the objects on display and how they fit into the continuum of art and human history. All of which makes this transformation a valuable model for other museums to emulate.

"Forty years ago, people just showed stuff and you either got it or you didn't," explains Gary Vikan, director of the Walters. "How much you got out of it depended on what you brought to it."

Over the years, he said, experts have realized that a museum's success depends not just on the quality of its collection but how effectively it's exhibited. And that means giving objects a proper setting, so they have a dialogue with other works of art rather than standing in isolation.

"We didn't want a 'treasures of' kind of exhibition," he said. "We're telling the history of people through art. Our product is the experience -- the ineffable encounter with the greatest artistic geniuses of the past."

Correcting defects

The Centre Street building renovation was the most ambitious in the museum's history, providing 39 reconfigured and refurbished galleries, a four-story glass entryway and new public spaces such as a relocated cafe and expanded gift shop.

It was launched primarily to address mechanical deficiencies in the 1974 wing, designed by Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson and Abbott of Boston. They included ceiling-mounted "reheater" coils that sometimes dripped water and oil onto galleries below and a climate control system that didn't maintain the steady temperature and humidity levels needed to preserve works of art.

Directors decided that, as long as the building had to be closed for mechanical repairs, they should take the opportunity to reinstall the collection and enhance the visitors' experience in other ways.

They hired Kallman, McKinnell & Wood of Boston to serve as architect, with Michael McKinnell as principal in charge and Tim Scarlett as project manager. Quenroe Associates of Boulder, Colo., was the exhibit designer, with Charles Mack as principal designer. They treated reinventing the museum as a two-step process: removing traces of the original building that were defective or that otherwise marred the visitor experience, and preparing spaces to house a reinstalled collection.

Completed the same year as the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, the Centre Street building probably will never end up on anyone's 'best loved' list. It was designed in a raw, Brutalist style that made it look and feel like a fortress, not uncommon for urban buildings constructed just after the riots of the 1960s. Yet its design was sensitive to the proportions and materials of the neoclassical building it adjoins, and it has a muscularity that must have seemed appropriate to its patrons.

The ultimate undoing of the 1974 building would have meant tearing it down altogether and starting over. But museum directors decided it would be too expensive -- $400 per square foot as opposed to $200 per square foot for renovation -- and never encouraged the architects to explore that approach.

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