by Pete Mazzaccaro
In 2000, the Woodmere Art Museum received a generous donation of $5.5 million that led to plans for a large gallery expansion designed by the renowned architectural firm Venturi Scott Brown. But those plans became the grounds for a contentious debate between the museum and neighbors for more than 10 years.
Now, 13 years later, a new director and a new vision has emerged at the museum, which is going back to the drawing board, and this time will begin with a public design workshop on Thursday, Nov. 21.
William Valerio, who took over the helm of the museum three years ago,, said the museum is currently experiencing the very same pressures that led Woodmere to embark on expansion 13 years ago. And much of those needs have become greater in the last three years.
“We’ve seen a lot of growth at Woodmere,” he said. “Attendance is triple what it was. Our donor base is stronger. We now have a four-star rating on Charity Navigator, which is huge. We’ve done a lot of work to get our fiscal house in order. And with that kind of growth, it pushes your facility beyond its capacity.”
It is not unusual, now, to see the museum’s 200-space parking lot filled beyond capacity for a weekend lecture or show opening. Valerio said it was time to begin imagining just how the museum could accommodate that growth.
So the museum decided to start fresh and – through a process of listening to neighbors, museum patrons and staff – began to form a vision that was focused more on the restoration of the Charles Knox Smith estate the museum currently occupies than on the addition of a new wing.
“As I got to know the place and as I talked to people, I started to understand the history of this site,” Valerio said.
He learned that the six-acre site offered a lot of opportunities, including the possibility of rebuilding a large horse stable on the property that had been lost long ago. He learned that Smith was an adamant believer in the Emersonian idea of bringing people and art together in nature. His home in a wooded area of Chestnut Hill near the Wissahickon Creek was part of that vision. Valerio said he heard the same articulated by those he spoke to.
“Everything that I was hearing developed into a long-term vision to restore what was here and restore the aspects that connected this building to the outside and to restore the buildings that once were here,” he said.
Requests for proposals were offered to a number of architecture firms, and the one firm the museum chose was that of Matthew Baird, a New York City architect who grew up in Chestnut Hill and was more than just familiar with the neighborhood’s architectural history.
Baird moved here when he was 11 and remained until he moved away for college. He said he didn’t go to local schools (“I was shipped away to school at a young age”), but the region and its architecture – particularly that of the firm Mellor Meigs and Howe and Louis Kahn – inspired him well into his years as an architectural student.
Baird said his proposal to Woodmere is focused on three main ideas. The first is to provide a greater connection of the museum to the landscape. The museum sits on a six-acre property that is largely covered in overgrown brambles and trees. That property can be restored, and buildings like the old stable and a greenhouse can be re-imagined in expanding the museum and connecting it again with nature, Baird said.
The second idea is to give the museum a new face towards Germantown Avenue.
“When I was a kid this place was kind of scary,” Baird said. “It wasn’t always as open as it is now. We want to address how we can open the museum to create a new face to the city.”
The third idea is to “clarify” the existing structure, which includes reclaiming much of the main home for gallery space and reestablishing the building’s front door as the entrance. The current entrance is a side door on the home’s porch that is a holdover from when Smith still lived in the house and allowed people to visit his collection even when he wasn’t home.
There are also other considerations, including the repurposing of the Director’s House, a large home on Bells Mill Road that is currently unused. Valerio said it could easily be used for offices and storage, similar to the way the Philadelphia Museum of Art uses the neighboring Pearlman Building.
Baird said that his response to Woodmere’s RFP included conceptual drawings, but that the plan really is in the beginning phases. He is not sure yet, he said, how much new construction the plan will call for. It remains to be seen, though he is sure that the museum will need more space.
“That process is ongoing,” Baird said. “What is the ideal solution? That will be the master plan. With the director’s house being repurposed and in rethinking this building in an efficient way, we can minimize the disruption to the landscape. There’s no question that the institution needs more exhibition space. There’s no question this institution needs a dedicated lecture hall – an auditorium. Those are two things that are hard to incorporate in a meaningful way in what we have here.”
Valerio and Baird said they have already begun preliminary discussions with neighbors. Both are hopeful that bringing the neighbors into the process to form the plans from the ground up will produce plans that are not only acceptable to everyone, but exciting.
“It is my experience that an inclusive process gives you a better project because you get the input and ideas from everyone,” Valerio said. “The idea here is to listen. The successes we’ve had over the last three years come fundamentally from listening.”
When they have listened, they have heard neighbors’ initial concerns about the size and scope of the project, lighting and traffic.
“What we’ve heard so far from neighbors is that they are concerned with scale – ‘How big is this thing? What does it look like from the street?’”Baird said. “I think it’s a critical thing to address. We’re in a neighborhood that is on one hand on an institutional scale, but you also have houses right around us. It will be an important challenge to us as architects to keep the scale of what we do here in balance with the neighbors and with the neighborhood.”
In addition to those large subjects, both Baird and Valerio said they had the sense that any new construction will really need to be “special,” in that it will not only have to signal to the public that the Woodmere is a world-class collection of art, but also be something that is identifiably part of Chestnut Hill.
It will not be an easy feat.
“Architecture that is replication would be unimaginative,” Baird said when asked if new construction would be designed to look like the Charles Knox Smith house. “A more interesting approach is to look at what are the architectural touchstones here in Chestnut Hill. We have an incredible vernacular fabric here in Chestnut Hill.”
Valerio said he is confident that the combination of Baird and a thorough public process will produce a great plan.
“We are already incredibly excited about this project, and our intent is develop a master plan that everyone in Woodmere’s universe is equally excited about because they had input,” he said. “If we get the process right, the end product will be right for our community. I’d love to see us a year from now in the fall with a spectacular plan that has grown out of a lot of very good dialogue. There’s a lot we don’t know yet. We’re setting about to learn what we don’t know and set all those pieces together.”
The First Woodmere design workshop will take place at the museum, 9201 Germantown Ave, at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 21. The public is encouraged to attend, to meet Matthew Baird, ask questions about the master planning process and provide feedback.