This New York Times headline – “A New Look for the Wadsworth Atheneum” – had my neck hairs leaping to attention when I saw it in Paul Ranogajek’s email to the TradArch list yesterday. (Hats off to him!) A “new look” is usually a bad thing. In fact, however, the headline was more than a trifle overzealous. And it heralded only a slide show, not the main story in the Times, “The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford Puts the Final Touches on a Comeback.” The story, which is linked from the slide show, clearly paints a more admirable picture of changes at the 173-year-old institution, the nation’s longest continuously operating art museum.
To top it off, the museum rejected a $100 million proposal to redo the museum by adding a “public atrium” – meaning no doubt an addition composed of sharp and angular glass and steel by a name architect, designed to scream “We don’t care what the public thinks!”
Eventually, the museum embraced a more modest proposal to renovate, reroof and repair its five buildings next to Hartford’s beautiful city hall at a cost of $33 million. The state chipped in $25 million of that, and deserves applause for doing so at a time of belt tightening in almost every state capital. When complete by the middle of this month, the renovation will see the opening of all five buildings for the first time in half a century.
As Ted Loos put it in his Times story:
In its own way, the Wadsworth project was a prime example of old-fashioned New England thrift — improving what’s on hand instead of following the current model of hiring a famous architect to do an expensive new building, which can consume museums that have trouble keeping up their new digs.
The anxiety raised by the Times’s slide show arises from the colorful but childishly unathaneum-like mural, pictured below, on the walls of the main staircase leading from the lobby of the Wadsworth’s Morgan Memorial Building. It was apparently inflicted upon the Morgan back in 2004. The renovated item described in the photo caption is the skylight above the staircase, which should raise not hairs but hosannahs!
It’s hard to say who was the moving force behind the decision to embrace a modest, practical renovation rather than an attention-getting renovation-cum-addition. Museum director Susan L. Talbott, or the Atheneum’s board, or an unnaturally sensible member of its board? Whoever is to be credited with refusing to plop starchitecture on the Wadsworth has my blessing.