by Diane M. Fiske
An architectural work can be a timeless monument or a pragmatic addition to an existing building, or any combination of the two.
In the case of Woodmere Art Museum, it became clear after 10 years of heated dissension and zoning battles that a timeless monument didn’t exactly appeal to neighbors of the rambling Victorian mansion even if the proposed addition to the new building was designed by two of Philadelphia’s best known architects, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown.
Woodmere neighbor Robert Shusterman, who was one of the leaders in the battle against the Venturi design, which he compared to a “middle school,” is now at peace about the current plan, as it does not call for a dramatic modern addition to the conservative architecture in his neighborhood.
Shusterman, who lives on the 9000 block of Germantown Avenue, said he is “very happy” with the new design by New York architect Matthew Baird, and also with the leadership of the museum’s new director, William Valerio.
“The plan pleases the neighbors and fits into the neighborhood,” Shusterman said. “And Bill Valerio has respect for the neighbors, and we respect him.”
The focus of this attention is the museum – a grey stone block-style building with a variety of wings that have been added since it was constructed in the 1840s. It is dominated by a tower with odd shaped windows and several small buildings that are surrounded by six acres of wooded land.
The museum dates back to the days when Charles Knox Smith, a successful industrialist and a former city councilman, who lived in the building from 1861 to 1911, left it to the city as a museum to display his collection of American art. Woodmere Art Museum opened to the public in 1940.
Since 2010, Valerio’s position as the director of the Woodmere Art Museum involves taking careful steps towards improving the museum’s building and its site as well as eventually adding to the campus. Valerio, who holds a doctorate in art history from Yale University and a masters in business from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, came to Woodmere from the staff of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Valerio said the first part of the plan is the adaptive reuse of the six-acre site by “using our founders’ idea about the building we own.”
“When you walk in, there should be the integration of the museum inside with the outdoors,” Valerio said.
“I don’t want to expand, I want the experience of being in Charles Knox Smith’s home and seeing the elegance of a great estate that was once someone’s home,” he said. “The property looked much different in his day. There were greenhouses, indoor conservatories, a kitchen garden, a stable and the absence of surrounding neighborhoods.”
To that end, there has been restoration of some of the features of the 19th century home. Original light fixtures have been found in storage and installed after being updated, along with stained glass windows and even the original transom with the 9201 house number on the door. Valerio said his goal is to bring back the feeling of the original estate without “the clutter of Victorian furniture.”
Valerio, who said repeatedly that “work will proceed as the budget permits,” is first using a $1.5 million state grant for the improvements, which began with replacing the museums’ roof and the utility system, but not yet the heating system. Security systems were replaced and an expanded green parking system is planned, one that will feature material that will filter storm water and not cause it to pool on the ground.
“We only show a small portion of our art work at any time, and the majority is in storage,” Valerio said. “Of course we want to expand our gallery space but that isn’t first in our plans and we will do it when we can afford it.”
The trick, Valerio said, is to “approach the six acres in a piece-by-piece way and, when we are able to rebuild, add to the museum.”
Architect Matthew Baird said the expansion plan involves a series of small buildings rather than one large one like the Venturi proposal.
“We imagined the museum less as a singular building and more as a series of smaller interventions on the six acre site,” Baird said. “Our idea is to more fully engage the visitor into the beauty of art in this park setting.”
The blending of nature and art was an important part of the plan to evoke the spirit of the founder of the museum.
“Charles Knox Smith, when he first conceived of his art collection at Woodmere, sought to merge the experience of art with the sylvan setting of the Wissahickon valley,” Baird said. “In our master plan, we have tried to renew this dialogue.”