Since the Atheneum scrapped a $100 million plan in 2003 to transform
itself with a dramatic new building, the museum has been looking
for ways to expand. It tried buying the Hartford Club and Elks
buildings on Prospect Street before striking a preliminary deal
with the state to take over the old Hartford Times building,
also on Prospect Street.
With the Times deal now complete and a new building committee
meeting for the first time last week, the Atheneum plans to immediately
begin a two-year process of renovating the old newspaper building
into administrative and public space that will include retail
and food-service operations.
Once that project is complete, as soon as late 2007, the Atheneum
would have the flexibility to begin renovating its main building.
Museum patrons should see one big change right away: A new parking
lot on Prospect Street that should be open by fall.
"It is the beginning of a new phase in the museum's history," Willard
Holmes, the Atheneum's director, said Tuesday.
The Times building "will enable us to do everything we
do in the Atheneum better," Holmes said. Completing the
deal with the state "is a huge relief for us. The mood ...
when we told the executive committee, was so incredibly positive.
It's like, `Here we go.'"
The deal is intended to satisfy the state's need for a source
of activity and private investment in its troubled effort to
create an entertainment, retail and housing district at Adriaen's
Landing, and the Atheneum's need for more space to exhibit its
art and for more parking.
The deal requires the Atheneum to use the lower floors of the
Times building for retail or food businesses that would connect
the building with the surrounding retail district. But the museum
has not decided whether to move its gift and book shop or its
cafe across the street.
The Atheneum could use the rest of the Times building for administrative
offices, art storage or other internal needs, gaining more than
30,000 square feet that ultimately would free space in the main
complex to exhibit art.
The Atheneum will pay the
state $2.5 million for the 52,500-square-foot Times building.
The deal requires the museum to use about 40 percent of the
building as "active retail space and public
space," and to spend at least $12.5 million on renovations.
In return, the Atheneum will get access to 150 parking spaces
in the retail district, and the state will provide $6.5 million
for expanding the Times building and $50,000 in underwriting
support for an Atheneum art exhibit at the new Connecticut Convention
It's unlikely that the public spaces in the renovated Times
building will be formal art galleries, but Holmes said the Atheneum's
art will be a presence there.
"The Times building is not going to be just a staff annex.
It's going to have a strong public component. When the public
is in it, we want them to understand they are in a Wadsworth
Atheneum building," Holmes said. "There will definitely
be art in those spaces."
By moving functions such as art storage, the woodworking shop
and administrative offices across Prospect Street, the Atheneum
will gain space in the main building to display art. Now, much
of the Atheneum's permanent collection is crated in its basement
because there isn't room to exhibit it. Holmes said the museum
has not decided what kind of retail or food operations it will
put in the Times building.
"We haven't decided to take the restaurant out of [the
main building]. In fact I would say people should not expect
to see the museum restaurant across the street. We may have two
restaurants," he said.
From the state's point of view, the deal also secures the future
of the 1920 Beaux Arts Hartford Times building, whose Ionic granite
columns framed campaign speeches by presidents Truman, Eisenhower,
Kennedy and Johnson. Because of its design, the historic building
is less attractive to profit-driven developers, said Dean Pagani,
a spokesman for the Capital City Economic Development Authority.
"The whole idea of bringing a well-known downtown tenant
into this particular part of the Adriaen's Landing project is
going to be very helpful, both in terms of continuing to generate
interest in the project, and just the idea of having a partner
with the reputation of the Wadsworth," Pagani said.
The retail and housing district
in the block between the convention center and the Atheneum,
formerly known as "Front Street," has
been the most problematic part of Adriaen's Landing, which also
includes the convention center and a proposed science center.
The district is supposed to include at least 200 apartments
or condominiums, and at least 150,000 square feet of retail stores,
restaurants and entertainment attractions, and the state is offering
more than $50 million in subsidies, including the construction
of two parking garages. But two developers so far have failed
to get the project in the ground.
After dumping Capital Properties
as a developer last year, the state is negotiating with the
HB Nitkin Group of Greenwich and Realty Resources of Rockport,
For the Atheneum, the Times deal should begin to ease a parking
crunch for patrons and staff by the fall. The deal requires
the state to build a temporary parking lot across Prospect
Street from the Atheneum by Sept. 30, and make 75 spaces available
to the museum. The museum also will get parking spaces in a
new garage being built for the retail district.
The Atheneum had announced plans with great fanfare in 2002
for a $100 million expansion designed by Dutch architect Ben
van Berkel. That plan, which called for the museum to be closed
for at least two years during construction, triggered an upheaval
of the museum's leadership. The Atheneum dropped van Berkel's
design last year, and put its capital campaign on hold.
The decision to scuttle the van Berkel plan was based on conclusions
that it would be too expensive to build and operate and that
the most precious asset of the nation's oldest public art museum
was its history and its permanent collection.
"The real greatness of the museum is not going to be based
on destination architecture. It's going to be based on destination
art," Holmes said.
The Hartford Times building will allow the Atheneum to remake
itself through a two-step process, without closing down for significant
periods. But that means more pressure to get the Times renovations,
which are expected to cost $15 million to $20 million, completed
While there is no guarantee
that the museum will complete the Times renovations in two
years, "we're under very tight
deadlines with the state and with our own needs to get the project
moving," Holmes said.
Cheryl Chase is heading the new 10-member building committee
for the Times project, and the Atheneum hopes to name an architect
by the end of the summer. As work proceeds across Prospect Street,
the Atheneum also will be planning what to do with its main building.
Holmes said the Atheneum wants to have a firm plan for the main
building by the time the Times building is renovated.
Once plans for the main building become clearer, the Atheneum
will resume its capital campaign. But with so much planning work
already done on charting the museum's future, Holmes said the
Atheneum has a head start toward that goal.
"One thing you can say about the Wadsworth Atheneum is
that it's done a lot of thinking about its future," he said.
A discussion of this story with Courant Staff Writer Mike Swift
is scheduled to be shown on New England Cable News each hour
today between 9 a.m. and noon.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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