Monday, May 07, 2001

Taft Museum to get major face lift

By Mike Pulfer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Taft Museum
(Museum photo)
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        A quiet building in a quiet corner of downtown will turn noisy next year when the Taft Museum of Art closes for 18 months of renovation, its first since opening in 1932.

        The $17.5 million project, to be announced today, includes a three-tier parking garage, an indoor-outdoor cafe, a lecture-concert hall and solutions to numerous space and logistics problems.

        It is the third major project for arts and artifacts in the city. By the time the power tools go silent, contributors to special building funds (including the state and the city) will have laid out more than $161.6 million for the Taft project and:

        • The Lois and Richard Rosenthal Contemporary Arts Center, at the northwest corner of Sixth and Walnut streets, due to open in 2003.

None of the changes will alter the appearance of the existing museum building.
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The expansion from the driveway to the left of the house. The driveway will lead to a new 70-car parking garage.
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The expansion will include more exhibit space (left) as well as a concert/lecture hall and indoor/outdoor cafe (right).
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        • The Underground Railroad Freedom Center, between Paul Brown Stadium and Cinergy Field, due in 2004.

        The Taft, at 316 Pike St. near Lytle Park, is the former home of Charles Taft, brother of President William Howard Taft. The expansion, under discussion for about 10 years, is scheduled to be completed in spring 2003.

        “We are providing facilities that probably should have been added in '32,” said Phillip C. Long, director since 1994. “But times were tough. It was not a logical time to have done a lot of that.”

        The plans, still being developed at Ann Beha Architects, historic-build ings specialists in Boston, are part of the museum's long-range goals, which include boosting attendance from 50,000 to 100,000 a year. The project will add 25,000 square feet to the main building.

        “None of these changes will alter the structure or appearance of the existing museum building as it currently is seen from Pike Street, an important consideration in light of the Taft's status as a National Historic Landmark,” Mr. Long said.

Designated in '76

        The museum was designated in 1976 by the Department of the Interior as a National Historic Landmark. The Federal-style house was built in 1820 for Martin Baum, merchant and banker.

A.O. Elsner sketch of the Sinton residence, 1882.
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  1820: A wood-frame house is built on Pike Street for Cincinnati banker Martin Baum.
  1829: The house is purchased by Nicholas Longworth, a wealthy Cincinnati businessman. He lives there until his death in 1863.
  1871: Cincinnati industrialist David Sinton buys the property from the executors of Mr. Longworth's estate.
  1873: Mr. Sinton's daughter, Anna, marries Charles Phelps Taft in the home's music room.
  1900: David Sinton dies, leaving the house to Anna and Charles. In following years, they purchase numerous pieces of art for their home.
  1927: Charles and Anna Taft make arrangements for their home and artwork to be given to the people of Cincinnati after their deaths.
  1929: Charles Phelps Taft dies.
  1931: Anna Taft dies, and the residence no longer functions as a private home.
  1932: The house opens to the public as the Taft Museum.
  1976: The museum is designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
  2001: The museum announces plans for its first expansion and renovation.
        Ms. Beha called the Taft “one of America's cultural treasures” and said it is “unique ... in that the museum itself is one of the most valuable artifacts in the collection.

        “Our goal is to extend the museum's architectural scale and traditions while providing a contemporary setting for its programs and services,” she said.

        Her firm eventually presented plans for two rear wings, compatible with the architecture of the existing structure.

        Other benefits of the project include enhanced educational program and classroom space, more space for special exhibition galleries and a larger gift shop (lauded in 1999 as the Tristate's Best Overlooked Gift Shop by Cincinnati magazine).

        The 70-car parking garage, directly behind the museum, will be discreet, Mr. Long said, hidden by building design and landscaping (Reed-Hilderbrand Landscape Architects, Boston), including an expanded garden that stretches over its top.

        The museum now has a small garden in the rear, separating the house from a small, lower-elevation surface parking lot.

        One prerequisite, Ms. Beha said, was “making sure the garden remains the centerpiece.” The new design forms a U shape around the garden so that “more of the museum will look out into it.”

        When completed, the garage, in essence, will become an underground structure, with an “absolutely splendid garden that stretches all way to Butler Street,” said Peter Hoyt, senior designer at Ann Beha Architects and project manager for the renovation.

        With the garage, the museum will have two and a half times the parking it has today.

Size doubles

        The new lecture hall, in the north expansion wing, will have twice as much seating as the old music room, used for lectures and recitals.

        “We're, in effect, doubling the size of the museum,” Mr. Hoyt said. Each of the new two-story wings has about 8,000 square feet of floor space. A new center section under the garage will be dedicated to mechanical, storage, conservation and security functions.

        Patty Reiter, a spokeswoman for Ann Beha, called the project “a work in progress” and said, “We're working on fulfilling schematic designs.”

        Said Mr. Long: “It's in the polishing stage at this point.”

        KZF Design, Walnut Hills, was designated as associate architect for the project.

        Mr. Long said the expansion will nearly double the museum's temporary exhibition space for things such as a 30-piece exhibit of 19th and 20th century paintings from the Procter & Gamble collection, on display at the Taft until June 17.

        The cafe, he said, will probably be operated independently, serving “simple foods,” such as soup, salads and sandwiches.

        “I don't think of it as a restaurant,” he said, “but sort of a tea room, small and cozy.”

        “If you want to compete and compete successfully today for the market of entertainment, you've got to compete on the basis of an experience,” said Anita Ellis, director of curatorial affairs at the Cincinnati Art Museum, Walnut Hills. “And that experience has to be a very positive one.”

        The CAM, which has had its own cafe for at least 30 years, is planning to move, expand and “enhance” it in about two years.

        “People are spending more time in museums and bringing more family members, so human needs are cropping up more and more,” Ms. Beha said. “The folks at the Taft have some great ideas about welcoming people and making them feel more comfortable.”

Mechanical upgrades

        Other elements in the project include upgrades in wiring, lighting, plumbing and heating and cooling equipment, an elevator, more restrooms, work rooms and bigger offices.

        The primary challenge, Mr. Hoyt said, was “to maintain the domestic scale, intimacy and charm” of the building. Mr. Long and the museum board had been clear in their desire to retain its character.

        “The major components of the project are education and the collections,” Ms. Beha said. “The Taft has distinguished itself for being mindful of those things we enjoy.”

        Ann Beha Architects, recognized nationally for its work on historic buildings, is now at work on the Portland (Ore.) Art Museum, Kalamazoo (Mich.)Institute of Arts,Jordan Hall at the New England Conservatory of Music, Delaware Museum of Art, Boston Symphony Hall and Portland (Maine) Museum of Art.

        Past projects have included the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, Tenn.

        Mr. Hoyt was the lead designer on Procter & Gamble's Health Care Research Center, built in 1995 at Mason. He also designed the Kellogg Co. Headquarters Building at Battle Creek, Mich., and Pfizer's central research facility at Groton, Conn.

        “Ann's (Beha) reputation locally and nationally is peer less,” said Richard Fitzgerald, director of the Boston Society of Architects. “Her firm's work is half restoration, half new construction and all of it is for nonprofit clients.”

        “This project will enable us to achieve a stronger presence in Cincinnati and indeed continue to serve as one of the nation's most prestigious fine arts institutions,” Mr. Long said. “Not only will the Taft Museum of Art retain its current aesthetic appeal and character, but the conserved and expanded facility will have an even greater importance as one of our region's most renowned cultural attractions and historic treasures.”

        Planners, he said, have “tried to make it as flexible as possible.”

        The museum will be closed for two months while workers pack, move and store collections. (Everything must be removed.) Actual construction, which begins in January, is expected to take a year and a half.

        A capital campaign to raise money for the project has collected $11,224,407.98, or 64 percent, of its $17.5 million goal.

Building holds families' histories
Museum will be open through Nov. 4


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