Almost one year to the day that ground was broken on the Saint Louis Art Museum’s $130.5 million expansion, the transformation is beginning to take shape, inside and out. Once complete, the David Chipperfield-designed addition will increase the museum’s galleries and public space by 30 percent, and include a three-level underground parking garage. “When we broke ground in January, the first few months of construction consisted of digging a very deep hole,” says museum director Brent Benjamin. “Now, as I look out my window, they’re finishing up the pouring of the second floor, and soon, they’ll be pouring the first parking floor.” There is still excavation underway, he notes. “It’s taking place where the cafe and museum shop used to be, and it’s one of the main reasons why the south wing is inaccessible to the public.”
Another big change coming is the addition of an underground service corridor to separate the ‘art from the artichokes,’ so to speak. “Our public doesn’t realize that there is no such thing as ‘behind-the-scenes’ in the museum,” Benjamin says. “Every space is public. When you’re moving art or tables and chairs from gallery to gallery, you’re moving them through the gallery—that’s not an experience we wanted our visitors to have.”
Perhaps one of the most dramatic changes will be the transformation of Sculpture Hall, considered by many to be the heart of the museum. For one thing, the grand Neptune Fountain that has greeted visitors for more than 50 years has been removed. “It’s currently in storage and will be reinstalled in front of the south building as part of a new entrance for school and tour groups,” Benjamin explains. “That way, it’s easier to instruct kids to meet at ‘The Fountain.’ ” But the change will in no way leave Sculpture Hall bare. When it was built in 1904, architect Cass Gilbert’s concept for the space did not include a fountain. “It was initially filled with sculptures, and the niches at the four corners displayed art,” he says. “Our plan is to repurpose those niches to display works of art.”
In addition, the visitor information desk, currently located to the side, will be moved to the center to make the entrance more visitor-friendly, Benjamin says. Behind the desk, where the fountain once stood, a new grand staircase will be built. “It will lead to the lower level and directly connect the lower-level galleries, as well as the concourse that will connect to the entire facility.”
Benjamin says current projections indicate substantial project completion by the first quarter of 2012, with a public opening in late 2012 or early 2013. “The public phase of our campaign is in its early stages, and we’ve reached $139 million of our $145 million goal,” he reports.
When all is said and done, Benjamin says the finished product will link the museum’s past to its future. “It was originally built as a one-level pavilion for the World’s Fair,” he says. “David Chipperfield thought to build on that, maximizing the amount of galleries and public spaces and connecting them organically.” He adds that the design also will allow more natural light into the galleries, as well as give passers-by views into the museum. “It’s all about expanding the sense of welcome in this beautiful setting in Forest Park.”
On the Cover: The public phase of the Saint Louis Art Museum’s $145 million campaign is underway, with construction on the new David Chipperfield-designed expansion expected to be substantially completed by early 2012. For the most up-to-date information and photos of the construction, visit slam.org.
photo by Alise O’Brien