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Atheneum Buys Itself Breathing Room

Deal For Times Building Opens Way For Expansion

May 25, 2005
By MIKE SWIFT, Courant Staff Writer

With the ink finally dry on a deal that gives the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art a permanent presence at Adriaen's Landing, the museum's long-dormant expansion plans are moving forward again.

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 Center.

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, Maine.

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 quickly.

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. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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