Inside the new Architecture and Design Center at the Palm Springs Art Museum

Desert magazine, October 2014

Photograph by David Blank

The intersecting worlds of contemporary architecture, art, photography and design will be on display in an innovative new home when the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center opens in November in a completely transparent, literally historic building. a glass pavilion. Yet for many years the future of this mid-century masterpiece was far from clear. Everything changed in the summer of 2006.

At the time, the former Santa Fe Federal Savings and Loan home had been vacant for over a year and was owned by developer John Wessman. While the building, designed by famed architect E. Stewart Williams, was loved and admired by many, the moment that catapulted people into action eight years ago was a pre-development plan to build a project in Mixed use of four floors on the property around. As curator of architecture and design for the Palm Springs Art Museum, former chair of the city’s Historic Sites Preservation Board, and Williams’s daughter-in-law, Santa Fe Federal had long been on Sidney Williams’ radar.

“It clicked when we saw that John had this idea to build around it, which would have destroyed the building, because it’s a glass box,” says Williams. “The community kind of took action and we worked on the designation of the building (a Class I historic site), which took two years.” It was around this time that Williams and others began to think about turning the old bank into a museum of architecture and design. “Of course, so much has happened in that eight-year period in terms of recognizing Palm Springs, Modernism Week and its growth, general preservation and real estate revitalization here. “, she adds. “It all goes together. It’s such a great story and we’re part of it, but it’s the energy created by all of these components that made it possible. It’s a team sport: the Museum’s board of directors, the donors, the community. There are so many layers and so many engaged people who care so much. “

Harold Meyerman, who is chairman of the board of the Palm Springs Art Museum, says he was immediately intrigued when Williams shared his vision for the new facility. “I was very interested because I knew that architecture and design was an area that this community was very interested in,” he says. “It got bigger since then. I had met E. Stewart Williams and I was just fascinated with him, just an amazing man. And I thought, ‘My God, he has a heritage in this community, his family is here today, and he has his fingerprints on very important structures all over the valley. And then there is this magnificent building. I had visions early on for what he might look like.

But first there was the issue of fundraising for what ultimately turned out to be a more than $ 7 million project. “It took a while to find our two major donors, Beth Edwards Harris and this wonderful couple of Trina Turk and Jonathan Skow,” says Meyerman. Their combined donations enabled the museum to purchase the building from Wessman in 2011. In recognition of the important role they played in the making of the museum, the installation will be known as the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center. , Edwards Harris Pavilion, while the top floor is the Trina Turk Gallery.

An architectural historian, Harris previously owned the famous Kaufmann House designed by Richard Neutra with her former husband, Brent. “Anyone who loved architecture loved this building,” she says of Santa Fe Federal. “It’s shocking how good a building it is for a small town like this. It was Sidney who got it into her head that maybe she could convince the museum to use it as a center. architecture and design. It was her original idea. and she came to everyone and asked them, “Would you support this?” “

For Harris, it was an opportunity to re-enter the architectural community in a way she found more interesting than just owning a home. “It was really natural to support him. I have always loved the building and I knew it was time to write the legacy of Williams,” she says. “One of my mentors was David Gebhard at UC Santa Barbara and he really instilled in me the idea that regional modernists are the next frontier for understanding the 20th century beyond superstars. If you really want to know what America looks like it does and acts like in the urban setting, you have to look at regional modernists. And Williams is a classic example of that and (Albert) Frey is too. So it seemed like it would be a good one. choice for the community, a good fit for the history and a good fit for the (art) museum.

But his generosity did not end there. Meyerman contacted Harris again in 2013 and asked him to help raise the additional $ 4 million that was still needed for the restoration. “It went really well and we raised funds from a great group of people,” she says. “We have a very strong support base and an entirely new support base for the museum. We only have four donors at the level of our founder who have contributed to the museum before. “

JR Roberts, who is now Managing Director of the Architecture and Design Center, was also instrumental in raising this extra money. In 2000, Roberts purchased the historic Edris House designed by E. Stewart Williams in 1953. After a career as an associate at an architectural firm in the Bay Area and a stint as mayor of Sausalito, he moved to the desert for good in 2005 for what he thought was a quieter life. Then he met Sidney Williams. Soon after, he became involved in the Art Museum’s Architecture and Design Council and served as its chairman. When her term expired, she was asked to help raise funds for the center.

Despite his initial hesitation, he remembers telling the museum, “I’m not a fundraiser,” he thought their offer seemed like an interesting challenge. “Four million dollars later, I thought, ‘I’m done here,’ and then they called back,” he says. As General Manager, Roberts will oversee the facility and ensure it is properly funded and staffed for its future. “I never dreamed that by going the other end of my life, I would take a job like this,” he says. “But they saw the passion in me about it. For years I woke up thinking about this building and I can’t imagine waking up and not thinking about this building and what we’re doing. big glass box doesn’t capture your heart? “

He adds, “One of the coolest things about it is that the Palm Springs Art Museum does something mind blowing. It attracts a younger audience and no museum knows how to do that, yet the A + D Center does. does. And younger support means a future for a museum. “

But not all the money in the world will necessarily buy you a sensible restoration of a historic structure. Fortunately, the A + D Center had Los Angeles architectural firm Marmol Radziner on its side. Over the years, partners Leo Marmol and Ron Radziner have completed a number of local restorations, including the Kaufmann House, the iconic Desert Ship owned by Trina Turk and Jonathan Skow, and Albert Frey’s House Loewy. “Whenever you are dealing with a historic structure, there is an inherent sensitivity that must be used to assess the changes,” says Marmol. “The building was in great condition. But over the years, like all buildings, it had undergone many modifications. So each of these changes had to be thought through and taken into account. “

A number of changes affected the appearance of the building, for example an ATM was added that interrupted the front window wall – now restored to its historic look with original Williams sunscreens (right) . But Marmol says that’s to be expected. “The building had been adapted to current needs over the years, but I would also say that overall the historic fabric was very intact. We therefore had the opportunity to work with a building which still clearly expressed its historical state and its assets. “

Marmol notes that one of the architectural elements that continues to move him is the powerful presence of the interior of the structure from the street. “I have to remember that this building was originally designed as a bank. In the 1960s, banks were generally designed as very monolithic heavy bastions of strength with no visual connection to the street,” he says. “Here is a bank that has completely turned the tide by displaying all activities very clearly in an elegant, floating and modern box. And now, using that same box as a gallery does exactly the same for the museum environment. The gallery literally becomes visible. of public space. So it’s this drama of this modern relationship between inside and outside that was so revolutionary as a bank, and the power of this dynamic relationship now continues with the gallery. “

What would E. Stewart Williams think of the renovation? “There is no way to speak on behalf of another person,” says Marmol. “But I hope Mr. Williams will be delighted to see his building not only restored and returned to its original character, but also with a use that celebrates his lifelong passion for design and architecture.”

“I think he would actually be outdated,” said Sidney Williams. “Most architects, and Don Wexler is a great example because he was 14 years younger than Stew, enjoyed notoriety and recognition. But Don, like Stew, and like many others (you would tell) “We were just doing the job, we were just supporting our families. They were passionate about it, they collaborated every now and then, they were very collegial, and there was a very good sense of community among the architects. But I think they’re all a little surprised by this recognition – skipping a generation before there is this appreciation. “

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