Not All Museums Are Created Equal

During the last seven years, several local museums that are among the key landmarks in the region have been built or renovated. The new museums are the Washington State History Museum (1996), the Museum of Northwest Arts in La Conner (1995) and the Seattle Art Museum (1991). The renovated museums are the Henry Art Gallery (1997), the Frye Art Museum (1997), the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture (1997) and the Asian Art Museum (1994), all in Seattle.

In my opinion, two of the museums are excellent, three are good, and two are embarrassing. The excellent museums are Charles Moore's Washington State History Museum and Carl Gould's Asian Art Museum, formerly the Seattle Art Museum from 1933 to 1991.

Moore designed the Washington State History Museum to support and complement Tacoma's Beaux Arts Union Station. Its four, 56-feet-high red brick arches proudly echo the entrance of the 1911 train depot. The museum simultaneously acknowledges what was, and then it breaks new architectural ground, like Moore wanted it to do.

The other excellent museum is Carl Gould's original Seattle Art Museum. Erected in 1933 in Volunteer Park it was reopened in 1994 after being closed for two years for a $1,700,000 refurbishing. It is without an architectural equal in America.

One of the three good museums is the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner. Designed by Henry Klein Partnership of Mount Vernon, the 12,000-square-feet museum features a grand staircase under an offset round skylight. The museum is quietly bold, uncluttered and welcoming.

The second good museum is the renovated and expanded Frye Art Museum. Originally designed by Paul Thiry in 1952, Olson Sundberg was responsible for redesign and expansion. The museum's foyer is 35 feet high and features an elliptical opening in the high rotunda. Visitors feel they are in a significant space and things are about to happen. They do. Inside the 12-feet-high bronze doors, pierced with rectangular glass openings, the adventure begins. It permeates everything, including the garden, where a large, concrete semicircle features seven different varieties of Northwest moss.

The third good museum is the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. Originally designed by James Chiarelli, the building has undergone a $5 million renovation under the direction of Academy Studios (Nevada, California). The museum is hands-on and provocative. Both children and adults should warmly recall their visits.

One of the two embarrassing museums is the Seattle Art Museum, designed by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, his wife, in 1991. I attended the public opening. As we huddled in the rain, Venturi told us the museum was designed to look good in the rain and to appeal to children. Those were nice objectives in rainy, children-oriented Seattle. It's too bad Venturi and Scott Brown couldn't realize their objectives.

In the early 1930s, Dr. Eugene Fuller retained Seattle architect Carl Gould to design the first Seattle Art Museum on city-owned land in Volunteer Park. Fuller was from Boston and he had moved to Seattle for health reasons. Gould, a graduate of the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, was originally from New York.

Fuller told his architect to visit major art museums across America before he designed a museum for Seattle. He cautioned Gould that he didn't want a Beaux Arts building. He wanted an architectural stretch. The results? One of the finest art deco buildings in the United States. The client was smart and sensitive. The architect was talented. Their success was brilliant.

Almost 60 years later, the new Seattle Art Museum is as dull as dishwater and an utter failure. It's unwelcoming to art and visitors. Its precarious grand staircase leads nowhere. Perhaps it leads to the egos of Venturi and Scott Brown.

The other embarrassing museum is the addition and renovation of the Henry Art Museum on the University of Washington campus. Designed by Carl Gould in 1929, before he designed the original Seattle Art Museum on Capitol Hill in 1933, the much-liked building was rightly considered a jewel of a museum. It was exquisite from its proportions to its wrought iron entry. Visitors felt its subtle and sustaining magnificence. Enter famous architect Charles Gwathmey.

The old Henry was retained, but it wasn't respected. Its glorious wrought iron entrance was hacked into a stubby balcony overlooking a crowded and unattractive sculpture garden. The new Gwathmey addition was utterly sterile and unfelt. It couldn't hold an architectural candle, except in size, to Gould's original design.

"It's a hangar," my friend visiting from New York said. "Well," he added, "it's a Boeing town."

The University of Washington is a standard-bearer of architectural excellence. It has retained some of the best American architects to create a very impressive Seattle campus. What went wrong at the Henry? Was it another case of a famous architect who couldn't deliver the goods? Were they merely good salespeople? Were they crippled by their boards of directors?

When museums fail, culture collapses. It dies before our eyes.

Nick Peters of Tacoma writes frequently on architecture and related topics.