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FORM FITS FUNCTION

The museum's goals: more space, the right look, and on budget. Mission accomplished, artfully.

We live in a museum culture in which form is often glorified over function, in which a new building is expected to be as much of a defining statement as the art within. Cost, this thinking goes, is no object.

The Museum of Fine Arts Hazel Hough Wing, just completed and scheduled for a public opening in March, is another story entirely. Aligning idealism and pragmatism, the project's leaders have, on schedule and without debt, doubled the size of the museum without overwhelming the original, much-loved Palladian facade.

The new wing is restrained, discreet and, above all, very clear about its purpose.

"That was our one mandate (aesthetically)," says Bill Stover, a retired Merrill Lynch executive who sits on the museum's board of trustees and is chairman of the building committee. "Not to compete with the facade. And that was right down Yann Weymouth's road."

Architect Yann R. Weymouth, a senior vice president of the international firm Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum and based in its Tampa office, is capable of supernova design - he worked with I.M. Pei on the famous Louvre glass pyramid in Paris, among other high-profile museum projects. But he understands and values specific design mandates. Although his next project is an entirely new, waterfront building for the Salvador Dali Museum, his work on the $43-million expansion for the John and Mable Ringling Museum in Sarasota bears some similarities to the Hough wing. The Ringling, too, had an iconic building that was not to be overshadowed, and now has a new wing that mimics while not copying directly the Italianate original.

"The challenge in both instances was to respect the old building at the same time the museum is stepping into the 21st century," he says.

So he bent his ego to the needs of the existing structure in St. Petersburg, completed in 1965, one he describes as "beautiful and perfect as it is." And to the budget.

The museum had a $21.2-million construction budget that included upgrades of current galleries and mechanical systems. That's not a lot for an ambitious expansion. Still, it's about double what museum leaders estimated they needed for a new wing almost three years ago when philanthropists Bill and Hazel Hough gave an undisclosed amount to kick-start the capital campaign. By April 2006 the museum had about $14-million in hand after at least one more major contribution (under museum policy, the amounts of individual donations are not usually made public), enough to commission conceptual plans from Weymouth. By early 2007, the museum had raised about $19-million and Hennessy Construction Services had broken ground.

Shaping an idea

The plans have been dictated by the site, which was the museum's north parking lot. The museum actually owns four acres of land next to North Straub Park but perception for decades has been that all of the grassy swath beyond the museum is public parkland. Museum officials cut a deal with the city to get street parking on Bayshore Boulevard in exchange for the promise not to expand the museum beyond the old parking lot.

What Weymouth had was an angled strip formed by the not-quite parallel lines of Bayshore and Beach Drive, which sandwich the museum. The rhomboid shape reminded him, in a way, of the site of the East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington D.C., which he designed with Pei, on which Pennsylvania Avenue is angled into the Mall.

A big box attached to the museum would have been ugly, overpowering - and boring. So Weymouth added a leavening agent.

"In all the ideas, I thought there should be a crystal," he says, "separating the old from the new."

So from the rhomboid, Weymouth has carved a trapezoidal glass conservatory with new entrances on both east and west sides. It is attached to the museum's old north wall with the windows and architectural details left intact. And, for the first time, it opens the museum up to its waterfront location, with a glass wall spreading across 60 feet and rising to 30 feet.

The one clunky, perhaps inevitable, element is the Beach Drive entry where heavy-duty metal and glass doors seem shoved into the graceful arched porte cochere.

A catwalk spans the conservatory, a grand viewing platform that links the second floor of the new wing with offices in the old part ofthe museum.

Underfoot, polished Italian marble in a warm honey is cut into elongated triangles instead of the predictable squares or rectangles, subtly reinforcing the angled space.

Room for 'other'

With so much light, the conservatory's primary use will not be to display art. A large part of it will be taken up by a cafe, serving light lunches of sandwiches and salads with more substantial entrees planned in the future.

Adjoining the conservatory is a two-story part of the addition housing galleries, some double-height, the new museum store, a classroom, a multipurpose community room and a library.

Sales at the gift shop and cafe, plus rentals from the classrooms, should help the bottom line.

"Museums depend on income from admissions and also on what we call 'other': rental space, social affairs, the cafe and gift shop,'' Stover said. "We needed to develop space for those 'others.' "

Weymouth is known for his creative use of natural light but museum leaders opted out of a filtered system in the double-height gallery ceilings. It could have been beautiful but very expensive and, since the wing is for touring shows with stringent requirements about lighting, probably the right choice.

Most of the addition is made of precast concrete. "We wanted it to match as closely as possible the museum's surface," says Weymouth. "It took one-and-a-half years to get the right mix of sand, limestone and seashells."

The monolithic north face of the wing's exterior is softened by the stonelike texture of the concrete, and by adding windows on the upper level. Landscaping, as it matures, will provide more visual interest. A small forest of oak trees in the park also beautifies the structure.

Adjusting overhead

Weymouth's first drawings show an ethereal vaulted glass roof over the conservatory.

The actual finished roof is industrial looking, with exposed pipes and duct work visible above an undulating screen of aluminum mesh.

"Practicality set in," says Stover. "The glass roof could have been done but it would have been prohibitively expensive."

Weymouth is fine with the revision.

"The restrictions were what they were," he says. "But it doesn't look like a convention center; it has a playfulness to it. And the aluminum has a lovely glitter."

The glass used in the big wall, he says, "was very carefully chosen for its toughness. It won't shatter if something flies into it during a hurricane. It's very expensive but we couldn't compromise on that."

Among the most interesting details are the air vents, round metal blowers protruding slightly from the concrete walls.

"They're called punkahs," Weymouth says, "named after the hand-pulled fans used in India. They were invented for airplanes and I first used them at the Louvre. They're useful to get air all over the room without a bulky duct. We turned them into a decorative element."

Weymouth also had to enlarge the rooftop area that holds most of the mechanical systems. In early plans, they occupied space on the second floor but, Stover says, the museum couldn't spare the square footage.

Moving them to the roof angered some residents of the Cloisters, a luxury condominium tower across Beach Drive. A handful filed a legal complaint in August that Stover says has been dismissed, but could be challenged. "We're hoping to get it resolved soon and we think we will prevail."

More to come

The Hough Wing is part of a master plan by Weymouth that includes renovation of galleries in the main building, which will begin soon, and a south wing that will mirror the north one for balance and symmetry.

"Some people have suggested that we start right away on the south wing," Stover says. "But we need first to prove to ourselves that what we've built operates properly. And we have no money for any more construction. We spent every penny."

He says the museum still has $12-million worth of naming rights to sell to people who can make big donations in exchange for getting their name on a gallery or wing. For much less, a patron can buy a brick, carved with a name of choice, that is set into the terraced landscape on Bayshore.

A lavish gala Saturday will inaugurate the wing, although the galleries won't be filled with art until after the sold-out event. The new wing, full of works from the permanent collection, opens to the public March 22. After the opening exhibition, museum director John Schloder says the Hough Wing will be used for special exhibitions. First up: a large show of the great German engraver Albrecht Durer in January 2009.

The final push for the Museum of Fine Arts came within the past six months when direct mail solicitations and a Kresge Foundation grant put the museum on goal. Hennessy Construction pulled in an army of workers to keep the schedule on track. Stover and Schloder are working through a long punch list to make sure all the details are tended before Saturday's gala.

"We got the wing built," Stover says. "Now we just want to use and enjoy it."

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.

IF YOU GO

In the galleries

The original wings of Museum of Fine Arts, 255 Beach Drive NE, remain open with exhibitions from the permanent collection, "Works by Self-Taught African American Artists" through July 31 and "William Knight Zewadski Collection" through March 1. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $8 adults, $7 seniors and $4 students.

The Hazel Hough Wing will open to the public March 22 with rarely seen works from the permanent collection.

Information: (727) 896-2667 or www.fine-arts.org.

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