Philadelphia Museum of Art ramps up big face-lift

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A two-story open space will visually connect the front and back of the museum.

Evidence of construction is starting to appear.

On either side of the west entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, earth-moving machines and chain-link fences have moved into place.

There are temporary construction trailers. Jagged holes have been torn in asphalt road surfaces. Road barriers hinder cars and pedestrians. Earth has been removed at the building base. Workers in hard hats can be seen entering and leaving non-public doorways.

Inside the museum, however, within Lenfest Hall on the west, in the Granite Hill Restaurant, the cafe, and galleries and offices north and south, all is quiet.

It may be quiet now, but major construction is on the way.

The museum's massive $196 million "core project," a product of the institution's master plan first developed by architect Frank Gehry and his firm in 2006, will hit with full force after the new year.

The core project will so transform the museum interior and infrastructure that museumgoers will be hard pressed to avoid it.

While virtually all of the public collection will remain accessible for the duration of the project (expected to wrap in spring 2020), museum officials say, there will be notable obstacles to negotiate during construction.

Timothy Rub, museum director, said museum trustees gave the go-ahead on the project in June.

While all the funding is not in hand, board chair Constance H. Williams said that "we have enough that the board feels confident" the rest can be raised in a timely fashion before completion of the project.

Neither Williams nor Rub would say how much the museum has in hand already or how much it is seeking to raise altogether. No long-term debt is anticipated, although some borrowing might be employed to cover cash flow - as fund-raising pledges are fulfilled.

When the museum has an official core-project groundbreaking next spring, a fund-raising campaign for capital projects, endowment, and other initiatives will be announced, Rub said.

According to Rub and Gail Harrity, president and chief operating officer of the museum, the construction period will entail the temporary closing of at least two galleries. The museum's west entrance will temporarily close, another entrance will permanently open for the first time in decades, the restaurant will close, the cafeteria will move, the museum store will move, and some art will become inaccessible.

The museum's auditorium will be closed in January and then demolished, opening the entire central section of the building from Lenfest Hall down to the floor below.

A two-story open space that officials call "the forum" will then visually connect the front and back of the museum.

Harrity said that "this project has been really the core, the guts" of the museum's long-term reconstruction and expansion.

"As Frank Gehry said, it's unclogging the arteries" of the building, making the interior more rational and understandable to the visitor, she said. It also will add a considerable amount of new gallery space for the museum's growing collection of more than 240,000 artworks.

A temporary auditorium will operate in the large exhibition space within the Perelman Building across Kelly Drive.

The beloved 30-by-50-foot Marc Chagall mural, A Wheatfield on a Summer's Afternoon, now dominating Lenfest Hall - it hangs on the backside of an auditorium wall - will be placed in storage until a suitable location is found for it.

A 640-foot vaulted walkway, running from the Kelly Drive side of the museum (opposite the Perelman Building entrance) all the way to the Schuylkill River side, will be totally renovated and reopened to the public for the first time since the 1960s.

This walkway will serve as a principal museum entrance, providing access to both the redesigned museum interior and 55,000 square feet of new gallery space that will eventually be carved from beneath the east terrace.

Creation of the subsurface terrace gallery is not part of this phase of construction, nor is a new auditorium. They will come later.

When the vaulted walkway entrance is ready to open in late 2018 or so, the museum's west entrance will close until 2020, when all construction is scheduled to be complete.

A key part of the current project will be creation of gallery space from museum wings jutting from either side of Lenfest Hall. These areas currently house offices on the north, and the museum store, restaurant, galleries, and cafeteria on the south.

Sculpting 23,000 square feet of gallery space from these wings will require closure of the museum restaurant. It will be replaced by the cafeteria for most of the construction period.

The former cafeteria space down the hall will be renovated. It will be closed for about a year and then reopen.

The museum store will move to a coat room area off Lenfest Hall during construction.

When the south wing reopens, it will house half the museum's collection of American art and a new museum store. The other half of the American collection will remain in place until the next phase of construction, at an undecided time in the future.

Two galleries currently located across from the museum store - the Berman and Honickman special exhibition galleries - will close and then move to the renovated north wing on the opposite side of Lenfest Hall.

That area will also contain new galleries for modern and contemporary art.

While all this is going on, a complete overhaul of major building systems is taking place. Electrical, HVAC, and storm-water management will all be upgraded. Much of this hardly glamorous work involves replacing systems in use for more than half a century. Much of this work will take place in nonpublic areas and will not hamper movement about the museum.

"You can't really renovate a museum comprehensively if you don't have the systems, new systems, to tie into - whether it's electrical, HVAC, or these other things," said Rub. "So you must do them initially and this project will take care of that."

ssalisbury@phillynews.com

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