The project of a lifetime

ARCHITECTURE

April 26, 2004|By Edward Gunts

Architects build for the ages. They don't necessarily spend ages on any one building.

But one Baltimore architect has done both: devoting much of his career to the creation and expansion of one project, the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pa.

James R. Grieves got the commission in 1968, when he was 35. The museum opened in 1971, and an addition followed in 1984. This spring his firm has completed a $17.5 million expansion, and he's the lead designer at 71. That's 36 years on the same project - more than half his life.

"We've grown with this museum. We've learned from this museum," Grieves said during a press preview this month. "That's how I got started."

The museum was created by the nonprofit Brandywine Conservancy inside a converted grist mill off U.S. 1 in Chadds Ford to house the works of Andrew Wyeth and other members of the Brandywine Valley school of painting.

The latest phase, which opened Saturday, includes two new buildings, two renovated office buildings, two new museum galleries, a new classroom and more space for art storage.

Grieves said Brandywine was the breakthrough project that launched his career and pointed him in the direction of designing cultural projects.

He went on to design key phases of Center Stage, Baltimore's School for the Arts, the Walters Art Museum and National Aquarium in Baltimore, as well as the Grand Opera House in Wilmington, Del., and a visitors center for Florida's Everglades National Park.

The Brandywine museum is also a showplace for everything that Grieves does best, including creative reuse of historic buildings, sensitive blending of old and new, and subtle but sophisticated exhibit design.

Grieves said he became involved with Brandywine because his wife went to college with the wife of the man planning it in the 1960s, George A. Weymouth, and the couples became friends. When Weymouth found out Grieves was an architect, he showed him the old mill and asked what he would do with it.

Grieves was enthusiastic about the idea of converting it to a museum but recommended that Weymouth keep the character of the old mill.

"I said, `The first thing I wouldn't do is take the sag out of that roof,'" Grieves recalled. "He kind of liked that."

Weymouth had considered other architects who were prominent in museum design, including Peter Chermayeff and Edward Durell Stone. But he offered the job to Grieves, who had started his own firm after an apprenticeship with RTKL Associates and was mostly designing high rises in Ocean City.

"It turns out I was being interviewed for the job, but I didn't know it," Grieves said.

The project, 80 miles north of Baltimore, has grown in other ways besides square footage. It opened with 20 works of art. Now it has more than 3,000 by a variety of artists, including Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, James Wyeth, Winslow Homer and Horace Pippen. More than 4.5 million people have visited over the past 30 years.

Weymouth, chairman of the Brandywine Conservancy's board of trustees, said he sought to work with the same architect because he likes his approach to museum design.

"He's the best in the country," Weymouth said. "I talked to others. All of them wanted to put their stamp on the building. They wanted to make a big statement. He was the only one that kept the integrity of the building. ... He let the art stand on its own."

It's not hard to see what the client likes about the architect's work. The building never upstages the art. Phases come together seamlessly. In addition, the architects solved difficult problems with building in a flood zone, and they used mirrored glass to make the addition blend in with the landscape.

Having the same architect for 36 years gave the project a sense of continuity it wouldn't have otherwise, said James Duff, executive director of the conservancy and of the museum.

"Jim Grieves knows what the Brandywine River Museum is and how the staff works," Duff said. "We really wanted to have buildings that were sympathetic to each other, and we knew Jim would provide that."

When Grieves started working in Chadds Ford, his firm was called James R. Grieves Associates. In 1990, it became Grieves, Worrall, Wright & O'Hatnick. (GWWO Inc. Architects). Grieves retired in 1998 but continued to work on Brandywine as a design consultant to GWWO. For the latest phase of Brandywine, GWWO senior associate Paul Hume served as the project manager.

"Even though we're building all this new stuff, there's less impact on the environment than when we started," Hume said. "That, to me, is the great achievement."

Grieves said the project has been a tremendous experience for himself and his firm.

"I've worked with some great clients," he said. But "Weymouth is a genius. ... He's the most creative guy I've ever worked with."

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