By Meghan Hall
Seattle’s Asian Art Museum in Capitol Hill is iconic—for many growing up in the region, the 1930s-era building and large camel statues outside its doors bring back childhood memories. However, the building had not been renovated or restored since its original construction and as the museum continued to grow and evolve over the decades, an updated facility was greatly needed to reflect the museum’s changing values and goals. In February, the museum reopened to the public after a lengthy renovation process which involved nearly a decade of careful planning and designing.
The Capitol Hill location is one of three sites owned and operated by the Seattle Asian Art Museum within the city—the downtown museum expanded in the early 2000s, and the Museum also operates Olympic Sculpture Park. It was after the museum completed its downtown expansion that it set its sights on repairing and revamping its original home in Capitol Hill. It hired LMN Architects for the task after working with the firm on the downtown museum, and what was initially going to be a restoration project quickly turned into a complete building revamp and expansion.
“We were approached to do some studies on the Asian Art Museum; they knew they had some challenges, and this was a classic peeling the layers off of the onion situation,” explained LMN Partner Sam Miller. “It was one of those things where you realize that the building was really in need of some love.”
“The building itself is a really important cultural artifact for the city…and it is also just a really beloved building. Every kid who has been raised in Seattle has a photo sitting on those camels,” Miller added.
The project team quickly realized that the building still had its original boiler, was uninsulated, had no updated electrical or air conditioning. It also had seismic and accessibility issues to boot—all issues which greatly impacted the types of exhibits that the Museum was able to house.
“The Museum was quite limited previously in what types of traveling or temporary exhibits they could bring to the museum, because in order to bring those exhibits, you have to guarantee certain environmental and security conditions,” Miller stated. “They couldn’t do that for a lot of exhibits.”
Plans to renovate the museum initially came about in 2006, but were put on hold in the wake of the Great Recession. In 2014, those plans resumed, but the project team also shifted course. Instead of a pure renovation project, the museum would also add an expansion in an effort to better align with its future endeavors as a museum. Some of those efforts include expanding their programming to include art from all over Asia; previously, the Museum had largely been focused on Chinese, Japanese and Korean art. The Museum also wanted to better and accommodate temporary exhibits as well as modern art and carve out space for designated educational programs.
“Demographically, there was a whole sector of the populace that they wanted to better represent and address,” said Miller. “That involved wanting to add gallery space to be able to provide more opportunity to represent the broader Asian diaspora.”
Project highlights include a new 1,247 square foot glass-enclosed lobby on the east side of the building, which creates a visual connection to Volunteer Park; two new portals in the Fuller Garden Court opening onto the lobby, and a new 2,650 square foot gallery, education studio, conservation and community room. The project also included extensive renovation of the existing building: cleaning of the original sandstone, Art Deco metalwork, reglazing of glass windows and replacement of the Masonite floors. The expansion, in contrast to the original building, is sleek and modern.
“The addition reads as a contemporary piece; it’s detailed in a modern way, and that is a strategy with historic preservation, because you don’t want to create confusion between what is historic and what is not,” said Miller. “But we chose materials very carefully to be sympathetic in color and texture to the historic building so that it was complementary.”
The building’s original skylights were transformed into light boxes. While they look realistic, intensity and color are controlled with LED lights in an effort to preserve the Museum’s art collection.
The museum officially reopened its doors at the beginning of February to an enthusiastic neighborhood, only to close shortly thereafter due to the impacts of COVID-19. The Museum will remain closed until further notice, according to its website; however, its mission remains particularly pertinent at a time when COVID-19’s rise has prompted pushback against Asian Americans in Seattle and throughout the country.
“There are not many Asian art museums within the United States, so it really is an important touchpoint for not just the Asian community in particular, but also in Seattle as a gateway to Asia,” said Miller. “…[The Museum] really gets you thinking about the incredibly rich history of Asia represented by not only ancient art and technology, but also contemporary works. It makes you realize that all of that has continued and there is an incredibly rich and vibrant culture that is there today. It is not just an artifact; it is a living culture, so I do think [the museum] plays an important role. There is a lot of intent to educate and have conversations around important topics of the day. All of these are critical for us to be working on.”