Artful restraint in Hartford

The main building of the Wadsworth Atheneum, in Hartford. (drdimes.com)

The main building of the Wadsworth Atheneum, in Hartford. (drdimes.com)

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.

Sol LeWitt’s “Wall Drawing #1131, Whirls and Twirls” (2004) (NYT)

Sol LeWitt’s “Wall Drawing #1131, Whirls and Twirls” (2004) (NYT)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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