By Jack Stubbs
With so many new developments coming online throughout downtown Seattle, much of the focus is on the creation of new commercial and residential projects—but the preservation of community assets remains a hot button issue as well.
An in-the-works renovation and expansion of the Asian Art Museum in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood is set to transform a cultural icon in the city as the first substantial renovation to the Art Deco Museum originally built in the early 1930s.
Last month, on March 15th, Seattle Art Museum executives, city officials and project donors gathered at a groundbreaking for the project, which signaled the official beginning of construction for the revamping of the Asian Art Museum, which was designed by Charles Bebb and Carl Gould in 1933. The museum—located at 1400 E. Prospect St. in the middle of Volunteer Park—occupies the original home of the Seattle Art Museum, which moved to its new downtown facility in the late 1980s.
The transformative undertaking, set for completion sometime in 2019, is a collaborative project between the Seattle Art Museum, general contractor BNBuilders and LMN Architects that will entail the addition of a new three-story 13,000 square foot building and the renovation of the existing 53,000 square foot facility. Seattle Parks and Recreation, who owns the Asian Art Museum and maintains Volunteer Park, has also been heavily involved in the planning process.
All told, the renovation and expansion will cost $54 million, with approximately $21 million of that figure coming from the city and $5.5 million provided by federal historic building tax credits. The Seattle Art Museum aims to raise the remaining funds ($27.5 million) through a capital campaign, which is currently underway.
The groundbreaking held last month, and the current structural excavations happening at the project site, mark the latest chapter in the much longer history of the Asian Art Museum. Both the existing museum (originally designed in 1932 by renowned Pacific Northwest architect Charles Gould) and the park in which it sits (which was designed by the Olmsted Brothers landscape architects in 1903) are on the National Register of Historic Places.
That factor, along with the zoning limitations in place, presented certain challenges throughout the design process, according to Richard Beckerman, chief operating officer of the Seattle Art Museum. “The park and museum are both on the National Register of Historic Places, which adds a certain amount of complexity to the work that we are doing today,” he said. “The area is also zoned as single-family housing and this is a city-owned property. We realized that to help the project go forward and comply with today’s building codes, we would need to get an exception to that designation.”
Earlier this year on January 22nd, City Council members unanimously approved a lease renewal with the Seattle Art Museum to continue occupying the museum, which is owned by the city, and also approved a land use code amendment to allow the project to move forward even though it does not confirm with the single-family zoning in the area.
Beckerman thinks that the city’s approval of the project in January reflected its broader support of the undertaking. “The council members were in support of giving this building a badly-needed refresh to make it a building that was more viable as a museum,” he said. “Seattle is very inclined towards open discussion and City Council wanted to hear from their constituents.” Since 2016, the project team has held several community outreach meetings with the Landmarks Preservation Board and the Architectural Review Committee to get feedback on its project proposal.
As part of the original project plans, and with one eye on the potential for a future renovation of the museum, LMN began an initial study of the project in 2006. The undertaking began as a renovation but became an expansion once the project team realized that additional capacity was needed at the museum to accommodate a broader array of artwork to supplement the existing collection of Japanese, Chinese and Korean art, according to Beckerman. “As the [surrounding] community has become more diversified, we realized that south Asian art was not being [fully enough] represented [given] the interest in the community. We wanted to represent Asia more completely,” he said.
Beckerman thinks that the future prospects for the museum mirror evolving demographic and cultural trends in terms of how the facility has been viewed by the wider community. “As the museum has matured, [we have] seen generations of folks visiting the museum…this is a collection [of art] that’s accessible to all. As we’ve seen the community change and grow—mostly with the tech business but not entirely—the population from South Asia in the community has jumped 50 percent in about a 10-year period,” he said.
From a programming and renovation perspective, the revamping has been several years in the works—and the various infrastructural enhancements occurring now have been ever-present issues, according to Beckerman. “The studies on the building go back a couple of decades. The concern at that time was life safety around seismic upgrades,” he said.
More contemporarily, BNBuilders are continuing with the interior demolition in preparation for the structural upgrades planned for the site over the next few weeks, according to Matt Lubbers, senior project manager at the company. “At this point in construction, we’re wrapping up demolition over the next couple of weeks. We’ve begun the site utility work, which includes installing the power lines, and that’s a precursor to us starting the foundations for the new addition. The addition which will start to take shape over summer 2018,” he said.
As part of the renovation process, LMN is planning various internal system enhancements including HVAC, fire safety and seismic upgrades, as well as a proposed new terrace overlooking the east lawn outside of the museum. A glass park lobby addition to the east facade will improve circulation through the galleries and provide a more visual connection to Volunteer Park. Connecting the museum addition with the park, visually and programatically, was one of the broader objectives of the project, and LMN worked closely in conjunction with Seattle Parks and Recreation to realize that ambition, according to Sam Miller, partner at LMN. “An overarching goal with the project was to better connect the museum with the park. When [visitors] went into the museum previously, it was kind of a black-box experience, but [the renovation] will also improve safety on the east side of the building by increasing transparency,” he said. The new three-story addition, which will total 13,000 square feet, will include space for a new gallery, arts education space and relocated administrative offices.
Throughout the design process, one of the larger obstacles posed by the renovation was how to preserve the long-standing historical fabric of the museum while also recognizing that, from a practical perspective, infrastructural alterations within the museum were much-needed to allow the facility to operate to its highest potential, according to Miller. “We wanted to be really sensitive to the existing architecture, but the building hadn’t had any work done on it since it was originally built. So the museum was quite limited in terms of what it could do with visiting exhibits because Seattle Art Museum had to maintain a tight environmental control,” he said. “The main renovation was a modernization of all the systems and the physical structure—but with the goal of restoring it to as close to what the history of the museum always has been,” he said.
As well, throughout the design process, LMN worked on ensuring that the footprint of the proposed addition would not impact the character of the original existing structure. Prior to City Council’s approval of the project plans in early January 2018, the proposed renovation was met with opposition from community groups like Protect Volunteer Park, who feared that the new addition would negatively impact views of the surrounding park. And considering the central location of the museum in the heart of the park, community outreach and collaboration played a significant role throughout, according to Miller. “It was a project where both the museum and the city had to agree to a set of goals for the project and work closely together to make that happen. [With regards to] community members’ concerns with the expansion into the Olmsted park land…we did our best to try and mitigate that by making the addition smaller in response to feedback from community members and the Landmarks Preservation Board.”
Collaboration with community members and city institutions—in particular the Landmarks Preservation Board—on the proposed renovation of the Asian Art Museum played a pivotal role since the project’s inception. And the in-the-works renovation also mirrors wider trends around the importance of adaptive reuse in a consistently evolving city, according to Miller. “One of the things we heard from the Landmarks Preservation Board was [about] continued use as a really important aspect of preservation—because it means that the building continues to be used for the purpose for which it was originally designed,” he said. “But there’s also a recognition that the needs for uses can change, which I think is especially true for a museum. What was needed in the 1930s is very different than what is needed today.”