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Concerns remain about new museum building

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

A local organization that seeks to preserve traditional Santa Fe style is taking issue with design plans for the New Mexico Museum of Arts’ new contemporary branch.

And in the Old Santa Fe Association’s latest newsletter, board president John Pen La Farge maintained that the designs unveiled earlier this year are not a “done deal” just yet.

A state Department of Cultural Affairs spokesperson confirmed that those drawings were “early schematics,” although there’s no indication of a major change toward something smaller or more in line with Santa Fe’s standard adobe-centric traditions.

Renderings for the Vladem Contemporary museum, which will be created by renovating and expanding the old Halpin Building at Guadalupe and Montezuma streets, were revealed in March, along with a $4 million donation toward the project by philanthropists Bob and Ellen Vladem.

The planned two-story, 35,000-square-foot project is set to break ground in 2019, according to Loie Fecteau, executive director of New Mexico Arts and DCA spokesperson.

The project, intended to provide a home for the Museum of Art’s contemporary collections, is being supported through a Museum of New Mexico Foundation capital campaign. According to the foundation’s website, it has raised $9.3 million, including the Vladem’s huge donation, toward a $12.5 million goal.

The state-owned Halpin building is on the edge of the city’s Railyard District, but actually falls within one of the city’s officially designated historic districts. La Farge says that the structure should fit in with its surroundings in what’s called the Historic Transition District.

In an article in the Old Santa Fe Association’s fall 2018 newsletter, La Farge called out the proposed design of the museum in a column and again in his “Message from the President.” La Farge told the Journal the opinions he expressed were the official position of the association.

“The Vladem Contemporary will be a significant addition to Santa Fe,” he wrote in his column. “However, let’s invest in a building that respects the historic context of the area.”

For starters, La Farge said he believes the new museum should be smaller, adding that the majority of the buildings in the area are one-story.

“It’s something of a hodgepodge of architecture, but it’s certainly Santa Fe-oriented,” he said of the neighborhood.

“Whereas the building they are proposing is not Santa Fe-oriented. It’s highly modern. It’s two stories. It’s a definite statement that draws attention to itself, all of which is not necessarily the best idea.”

He referred to the proposed second story, featuring metal scrim – perforated metal – on its exterior as a way to bring in and control natural light, as “showy” and “attention-grabbing”

Frank Katz, vice chair of the city’s Historic Districts Review Board and board member of the Old Santa Fe Association, described the Historic Transition District as having similar design rules as the city’s three other historic districts, but with recognition of the area’s history of warehouse structures.

But for all of the city’s historic districts, he said, “the real standard is that it harmonize with the streetscape so it doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb.”

In his Message from the President, La Farge wrote that “happily” the Vladem Contemporary design “is not yet a done deal, so there is hope.”

Asked about that assertion, La Farge cited meetings he’s had with the building’s architects, New Mexico Museum of Art director Mary Kershaw and DCA Cabinet Secretary Veronica Gonzales. During those meetings, he said, they discussed minor changes to the design, including the type of metal to be used on the new second story. He said there was agreement on not keeping the building lit up all night.

Fecteau said the state has made other changes based on concerns raised in the meetings, including “addressing color, lighting, materials and use of glass.”

“As far as I know, they have not put their stamp on any particular design,” La Farge said. “They’ve put their stamp on a particular look, but the look and the design as far as I know is still at least to some extent fluid.”

When it comes to the final design, Fecteau wrote, there are a few details still being worked out. “The main one is the metal scrim’s material and design,” she wrote.

In his column, La Farge specifically called on the state to adhere to the “purpose and intent” of a state statute that outlines how state agencies should develop capital outlay projects in city or county historic districts.

He cited an amendment made to the Historic District and Landmark Act that says state projects must be developed “in a manner that is harmonious and generally compatible with the municipal or county ordinances.” It also states that these agencies should consult with city agencies.

But La Farge says that the state may not feel a need to do that in this case because of the project’s reliance on private donations.

Fecteau said the Historic District and Landmark Act does not apply to this project. Even so, she wrote that Gonzales, Kershaw and the architects – Albuquerque-based firms DNCA and Studio GP – reached out to the Old Santa Fe Association and David Rasch, until recently the city’s historic preservation officer.

Because the final design is still being solidified, La Farge said, all his organization can do at this point is make its opinion known and tell officials what they hope for.

“Once something is more definite, we can react more definitely,” he said.