Woodmere design team shares vision for St. Michael’s Hall property

by Barbara Sheehan
Posted 10/7/21

Woodmere Art Museum expects to complete the purchase of St. Michael’s Hall property in mid-October, and has been working with a team of engineers, architects, lawyers, and Woodmere staff to dream big about how the property will be used.

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Woodmere design team shares vision for St. Michael’s Hall property

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“The sisters of St. Michael’s Hall did an incredible job caring for the building since they bought it in 1924,” Matthew Baird told a gathering Thursday night at the Woodmere Art Museum.  Baird, of the New York firm Matthew Baird Architects, is a member of the design team that presented their vision for the more than 160 year-old property at the corner of Germantown and East Sunset Avenues.

Woodmere’s director Bill Valerio introduced the session, which was held in the Catherine Kuch Gallery of the Museum and also live-streamed.  An audience of about 30 neighbors, members, and other stakeholders listened, surrounded by the art of Larry Day, whose engaging oil paintings and artifacts make up the Body Language Exhibit currently hanging in the gallery.

Valerio expects to complete the purchase of St. Michael’s Hall property in mid-October, and has been working with a team of engineers, architects, lawyers, and Woodmere staff to dream big about how the property will be used.

The purpose of the meeting, Valerio said, was to get feedback and ideas from the community on how to make the best use of St. Michael’s property once it becomes part of Woodmere’s holdings.

    “St. Michaels is 72 steps away from Woodmere,” said Valerio. He sees the expansion as “one museum that will exist in two buildings with two distinct experiences in each of two spaces.”

The expansion will enable the Woodmere to show much of the collection that is now inaccessible to viewers.  Bridging the two historic buildings will allow expansion of art exhibit space, so that the new building will primarily hold contemporary and 20th century art, while the current building will hold 19th century art. There will still be special exhibits in the Woodmere building, however.

“We envision St. Michael’s as a place where Woodmere’s permanent collection can be on view,” Valerio explained.  Due to space limitations, he said, “The collection at Woodmere is not accessible in a way that people can build relationships with the art.”

In addition to being a showcase for the work of notable Philadelphia artists, Valerio wants the property to serve as a community preservation project.  The addition of more than four acres on the St. Michael’s property will add to the Woodmere’s six acres of environmentally sustainable, biodiverse, green space. He is especially mindful of the Leni Lenape Nation’s history in the area, to whom land is not owned, but belongs to everyone. 

In light of these concerns, landscape architect Darren Damone of Andropogon Associates in Roxborough, discussed some of the intentions for the landscaping on the additional site. He will prioritize maintaining open spaces and connectivity with the Woodmere property. 

The property was first developed in the early 1800’s, he said, and has aging infrastructure.  He will work with experts from the Morris Arboretum to properly preserve the trees at St. Michael’s. As the property is part of the Wissahickon Watershed, water flow is also a concern.  His plan includes parking interspersed with open lawn area, established pedestrian access from Germantown Avenue, and continued use of the lush evergreen trees to provide a buffer from the street.

Baird and his colleague Teresa Ball presented their ideas for three interventions to recreate the circa 1855 building into an art space: create a café from the dining area, build a well-equipped multipurpose room, and put in an elevator that connects all levels. Baird’s design will also triple the amount of gallery space available to Woodmere curators.

In answer to a question from the audience about the need for a café, Valerio’s response was enthusiastic. “People come to Woodmere all the time and ask, can you tell me where to get a cup of coffee?”  “A museum café, ” he said, “can be an important source of revenue and would be a good space for our own events.   A purpose-built space is really something Woodmere has needed for a long time.”

The plan for the building will also include studio space for art classes, especially one designed for children, with sinks installed at lower levels. 

Another audience member asked if the team was still considering gallery space with “floor to ceiling” displays of art.  Valerio responded in the affirmative, the intent being to have the collection hung “salon style” in the new building.

As for a timeline, the Museum is currently in the due diligence phase of their agreement of sale with the Sisters of Saint Joseph. Valerio optimistically predicted closing on the property in mid-October 2021, acquiring legal permits by the end of December 2022, and starting work on the property in 2023.

Chestnut Hill architect Jeff Krieger is the local member of the building design team.  He was first hired by some near neighbors to do a feasibility study of the property, looking into zoning codes and parking possibilities.  The neighbors, Krieger said, were most interested in a low-density option for the property.

Krieger reported that with current zoning regulations, a developer could place up to 23 houses on the property.  He expected that a developer would probably tear down the existing historic building in order to build modern single-family homes. The institutional use of the property will require a zoning variance.

The best interests of the community are served, he believes, by the purchase of the St. Michael’s site by a nonprofit with the financial resources to develop and maintain the property.  “The Woodmere,” he said, “ended up being that nonprofit.”

Krieger represented the design team as well as most of those in attendance when he said, “Our goal is to turn this into a tremendous community asset that will outlast all of us.”

As the Woodmere moves ahead with their plans, they will continue to seek community input. Anne Standish, Woodmere’s Director of Development, said that the project will be funded through  “generous community donations.”  For more information on how to support the project, go to https://woodmereartmuseum.org/save-st-michaels.

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