Campus News

Trustees Approve Renovation of Walker Art Building

Story posted May 17, 2004

The Bowdoin College Board of Trustees has unanimously approved an $18 million renovation of the Walker Art Building, home of the internationally renowned Bowdoin College Museum of Art and a structure widely recognized as among the most important on Bowdoin's historic campus. The trustees approved the project Saturday, clearing the way for work that will preserve and protect the 110-year old landmark building while substantially improving access, updating systems and repairing structural defects, and allowing the museum to expand its exhibition space and enhance its programs.

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"This is a tremendously exciting and satisfying moment for the museum, for the college and local communities, for scholars, and for anyone who appreciates art," said Katy Kline, director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. "With great care and respect for our historic structure, this renovation project will allow Bowdoin to properly exhibit its extraordinary art collection in a reinvigorated teaching facility accessible to all. It will also allow Bowdoin to attract important touring exhibitions of major works of art, and to further establish the Walker Art Building as a vibrant social and cultural center and gathering place for the college and the local community."

Dedicated in 1894, the Walker Art Building was designed by Charles Follen McKim of McKim, Mead, and White, who would go on to design the Boston Public Library, the Morgan Library in New York, and the Brooklyn Museum (which has recently undergone a major renovation of its own), among many other cultural buildings. The building was a gift to the college by Harriet Sarah and Mary Sophia Walker in honor of their uncle, Theophilus Wheeler Walker, a successful Massachusetts merchant, shipper, and entrepreneur, and first cousin of Bowdoin's fourth president, Leonard Woods. The Walker sisters stipulated that the building be used exclusively for art, and its galleries were put to immediate use housing and exhibiting Bowdoin's substantial art collection, originally the gift of college benefactor James Bowdoin III.

Today, the Bowdoin collection of more than 14,000 objects is the oldest collegiate art collection in the United States and, with works from the ancient world to the present, is widely considered the most comprehensive in the State of Maine. The collection is valued at over $100 million and is particularly strong in American painting, Ancient Art of the Mediterranean world, and European Old Master drawings and prints. The museum's holdings are used to enhance teaching in a variety of disciplines, including art and art history, theater, languages, sociology, government, environmental studies, women's studies, classics, archaeology, religion, and history. The museum is a widely used resource for art scholars from around the world, and is also a major attraction in southern Maine for tourists, area schoolchildren, and other local groups.

The Walker Art Building project is among the more ambitious renovation and preservation projects undertaken by the college, which is currently nearing completion of a $6 million repair and restoration of the towers of its Richard Upjohn-designed chapel. The chapel was completed in 1857, and saw a complete restoration of its interior in 1997. Also in recent years, Bowdoin has completed significant and award-winning restorations of such historic structures as Memorial Hall, Searles Hall, Moulton Union, and several former fraternity houses. A future renovation is planned for the McKim, Mead, and White-designed Curtis Pool building (which will be converted into a concert hall) and for six of Bowdoin's brick dormitory buildings located in and around the central campus quadrangle.

The Walker Art Building renovation and preservation project will include the installation of a long-overdue climate-control system vital for the protection and preservation of the Bowdoin collection and touring exhibitions, the construction of additional gallery and exhibition space, and full handicapped accessibility to and throughout the building. It will also repair several defects in the facility, including leaks in the building's terraces, poor storage facilities, a substandard loading and receiving area, inefficient office space, and an inadequate, dedicated teaching gallery and classroom. A significant improvement will be the addition of a new entry court beneath the building's current entrance that will house the museum book and gift shop and other visitor amenities, allowing the building's landmark rotunda to be returned to its original appearance and purpose as a sculpture gallery. On the rear of the building, a modest addition will provide new gallery space and a view into the interior of the building from the street, while respecting the original geometry of the structure.

The architect for the project, Machado & Silvetti Associates of Boston, was chosen by the college after interviewing seven nationally known architectural firms. The entrance design approved by trustees is intended to create a more welcoming invitation to the museum for students and visitors from across America and the world. Machado & Silvetti has earned numerous awards for their work including a recent major award "...for the most beautiful piece of architecture, building, monument, or structure" built in greater Boston in the past decade. The award, from the Boston Society of Architects, recognized the firm's work on the Honan-Allston branch of the Boston Public Library. The firm's design is currently being used to renovate the Getty Villa in Malibu, Calif., into the Getty's new museum for classical antiquities.

"The trustees and I take very seriously our stewardship of one of the oldest and most beautiful college campuses in America," said Bowdoin College President Barry Mills. "As with other recent renovation and preservation projects, a great deal of careful thought and consideration has gone into this particular project by our architects and by a building committee composed of Bowdoin faculty, trustees, staff members, and alumni. I am grateful to everyone involved because they have produced a design that is deeply sensitive to and respectful of the detail and architectural elements of McKim's original design and his intent."

The Walker Art Building has previously undergone several renovations, including the creation of additional storage space under its terrace in the early 1960s, construction of underground gallery space in the mid-1970s, and the installation of limited climate control systems in the mid-1980s. The building's skylights were replaced in 1993 and the copper dome was reconstructed in 1997-98.

The Bowdoin College Museum of Art will close in preparation for the renovation project in December. The collections will be moved out of the building in early 2005. Some items will be placed in storage, while others will be lent to other colleges and to other museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Materials required by Bowdoin faculty for their courses will be maintained elsewhere on campus. Construction is expected to begin in June 2005 and completed during the fall of 2006. The renovated and fully restored facility will reopen in January 2007.

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