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You're Going to Love This Place

By Jan McCoy Ebbets

Whenever new complications occurred in the last few months of the fine arts center expansion and renovation project, a sense of frustration would waft over members of the Smith art department. But, by the time the new building was emerging from the dust and chaos of construction, they had figured out a way to cope.

“We’d just go take a walk through the building,” says John Davis, Alice Pratt Brown Professor of Art and art department chair. “And we’d always feel much better. In fact, once it is finished and things have settled down, it’s going to be a pretty spectacular place.”

That place is the new Brown Fine Arts Center, named for three alumnae from the Brown family of Houston who donated $10 million for the project. With its dazzling architecture, it is Smith’s newest home for the arts.

Its vast expanses of windows and exterior screens of delicate metal rods serving as sun filters, unusual exterior brick masonry and stair towers sheathed in zinc panels from Germany are fresh exterior patterns. Yet they are designed to keep the building compatible with its location in a historic district, with only a minimal expansion of its original footprint. Once through the entrance, visitors will come into a quiet, tranquil 40-foot-high Great Hall, a sky-lit pass-through space that stands between the dramatic glass walls of Smith’s Department of Art and Hillyer Library, and the Museum of Art.

Several years ago, few would have believed it possible to complete in two years the $35-million renovation and expansion project, which called for the demolition of most parts of the outdated complex of buildings and a transformation of all exterior and interior elements. As the old was coming down, the new was taking shape, ultimately expanding the center by 36,000 gross square feet while enlarging the architectural footprint by only 2.5 percent. It is the most extensive capital construction project Smith has ever undertaken.

This is the fifth building to house the museum and art department since the college’s founding in 1875. The sophisticated new complex, designed by the Polshek Partnership of New York City, is the culmination of a project that has not only modernized the mechanical, climate control, storage and media/ information systems, but has also added new skylit galleries to the museum’s exhibition space and a grand staircase that rises from the atrium. “The studios are absolute showpieces,” says Davis. “Also, the center’s technological equipment is an advance over any other [educational] institution I know. Our imaging center takes advantage of the very latest digital technology and is revolutionizing the ways in which we can teach and students can do their research.”

The 40 faculty and staff members of the art department slowly moved into their new offices in mid-August. Some of the heavy equipment destined for the studios had already been relocated. In fact the four-ton printing press arrived in the new printmaking studio during the winter while the studio walls were still open. Some faculty members, such as Lee Burns, associate professor of art, were poking around their studios as early as July. “We’ll be ready for classes in September,” he promised, as he tried to make sense of a collection of worktables, metal shelves and a heap of metal that had already been delivered to the sculpture studio.

“It is going to be a little hectic,” predicted Davis about meeting that September 5 deadline for the start-up of classes. “We will stress to students that they will need to have a little patience with us, while we get settled in. But I think they will understand. They’re going to love this complex.”

An open house and informal tours of the Brown Fine Arts Center will be held during Family Weekend on October 18, 19 and 20. The museum reopens to the public in April 2003 after the new climate control system has been tested and has had time to stabilize.

As Smith’s newest home for the arts emerged from dust and scaffolding, curiosity grew. Last spring, John Davis, Alice Pratt Brown Professor of Art, gave a tour of the blossoming building to interested students and visitors. Photo by Jim Gipe.

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