[PHOTOS] Behind the Scenes at the Museum: A Preview of SLAM's New Addition

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The new east wing of the Saint Louis Art Museum won't open until June 29, but the museum just received its occupancy permit from City Hall last Thursday, which seemed like a great opportunity for museum administrators to give a tour to the local press.

No art has been installed yet, which meant the folks at the museum could show off the new galleries to an audience undistracted by painting and sculpture.

The new wing is actually a whole other building, attached to the original structure, designed by Cass Gilbert in 1904, by a grand staircase and a few less-grand corridors. (Fun fact: Gilbert also designed the Central Library, which has also been getting a makeover this year.)

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It looks modest from the front, but the new building is actually a whopping 200,000 square feet, more than twice the size of the existing museum -- though most of that is parking garage, it still represents a 30 percent increase in gallery space -- and it extends a good piece beyond the back of Gilbert's building, as you can see in this model, currently on display in the museum's sculpture hall. (Note: The museum people do not appreciate any references to "the old building." It's "the Cass Gilbert building," and don't you forget it!)

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Planning for the new building started in 2005, but it took a year for museum brass to figure out what kind of building they wanted and where they wanted to put it.

"The Cass Gilbert building is a grand pile," says Brent Benjamin, the museum director. "Whatever's here needs to stand up to it. It needs to be deferential, but with a character of its own."

In the end, they chose a design by the British architect David Chipperfield (though nobody appears to be calling it the Chipperfield building yet), and hired three St. Louis general contractors, Tarlton Corporation, Pepper Construction and KAI Design & Build, to work together to build it, with HOK as the architect of record. It cost $130.5 million, privately financed through a capital campaign. The new building will be used primarily to display twentieth-century art, previously confined to a cramped series of galleries on the third floor of the Gilbert building.

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(The reason for the exile: Gilbert's hallways and doorways were too narrow to accommodate the larger sculptures and installations artists started making in the second half of the the twentieth century. The only way to get them into the museum was to hoist them up to the third floor by crane and then pull them through the only window big enough. The rest of the modern art collection joined the big pieces in the name of artistic continuity.)

No more! "The museum is strong in twentieth-century art," Benjamin explains. "It was a driving force for the expansion."

Most of the museum's twentieth-century collection, from abstract impressionism onward, will be heading over to the new building.

Hence the clean, modern lines of the new galleries.

The entrance hall of the new building.
  • The entrance hall of the new building.

And the expansive corridors, ten feet wide and ten feet tall, some hidden underground so workers can move pieces around without running into -- or over -- museum patrons or other priceless works of art. The new galleries are, probably needless to say, state of the art. (That sort of thing is expected when you spend $130 million on a new building.) They'll be lit primarily by natural light, partially to save energy, partially to show the art the way it was meant to be seen.

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Some of the light will come in through the windows -- which will bring Forest Park into the museum as well. The rest of it will come through 698 specially-designed concrete "coffers" in the ceiling. Each coffer contains a skylight, a light-diffuser and light fixtures to make up for times when natural light is not as strong as it could be. The balance between natural and artificial light will be maintained by sensors. When the museum is closed to the public, shades will go down over the windows and across the skylights to help preserve the art.

"There will be better color conditions when you look at the art," says Jeanette Fausz, the museum registrar. "Electric light adds color. When you see art in natural light, it brings a more honest look." It also means that the art will always look slightly different every time you come to the museum.

The challenge, though, is making sure that natural light doesn't fall directly on the paintings and fade the colors, and to make sure the climate is maintained at a precise 70 degrees with zero humidity.

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The only things hanging on the wall now are thermometers, humidity readers and light meters at regular intervals throughout the galleries. The museum is conducting a thorough study of light and temperature conditions in order to determine where different pieces should go. Fausz estimates that the art will start coming in sometime in early 2013. The size of the new building will allow far more of the museum's holdings to go on display. At the moment, she estimates, 94 percent of the collection is in storage.

One piece is already in place: Andy Goldsworthy's sculpture Stone Sea, which occupies the courtyard between the two buildings. It's comprised of 25 arches carved from Missouri stone. You can get an aerial view of it now, from two of the galleries in the Gilbert building, but you'll be able to get closer once the new building opens in June.

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Along with the fancy new galleries, the museum will get a few other amenities:

A three-level parking garage (not free, alas):

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An expanded gift shop and café:

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And a restaurant that looks out onto Forest Park, more specifically down Art Hill toward the lagoon:

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The restaurant hasn't been named, nor has a chef been appointed, but it will be run by Bon Appétit, the same company that prepares Washington University's award-winning cuisine. "We specialize in farm to fork," says spokeswoman Rosemary Pastore, "with seasonal ingredients and nothing from more than 150 miles away. We expect the new restaurant to be one hundred percent compliant."

The restaurant will serve lunch on weekdays, dinner on Fridays and brunch on the weekends. Brunch at the Art Museum is apparently such a beloved tradition that Kristin Lamprecht, the museum's special events director, gets weekly inquiries about it -- even though it hasn't been served in three years, since construction began.

All in all, the museum staff and builders are very pleased with what they've done. Says Fausz, "We've turned a twentieth-century structure into a twenty-first-century structure."

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