Friday, September 4, 2015

The evolution of a building: Heritage dumped mid-Century for columns

Posted By on Fri, Sep 4, 2015 at 7:33 AM

Earlier this summer, folks contacted the Times to ask why the Department of Arkansas Heritage, which is building a new office on four acres at 1100 North St., chose to remove the 1950s facade of the Muswick building, which is being renovated and incorporated into the design. Their concern was whether a heritage agency should be altering a design that, while fairly ugly, was historic.

The response was that only the footprint of the Muswick building was being used, and that the facade was not considered a part of the building at any rate. The Times was given a drawing of the new look of the building, which now incorporates columns. 

After quite a bit of back and forth with the agency to see how the design for the $9.5 million project had progressed from a mid-Century design in 2014 to the columned-look today, DAH has provided four (five if you count two views of the latest design, which has been submitted to the Arkansas Building Authority) drawings to show change over time. 

click to enlarge Design 1
  • Design 1

Design 1, prepared in September 2014 by Witsell Evans Rasco Architects, was estimated by the architect to cost $9 million. However, the agency was only authorized to spend $7.015 million (it bought the land for $2.5 million under previous director Martha Miller) and rejected the design. So WER came up with Design 2 in October:

click to enlarge Design 2
  • Design 2

Design 2 is a scaled-back version of Concept 1.

click to enlarge Design 3
  • Design 3

Agency spokesperson Melissa Whitfield said Heritage was working with Design 3 in January "to bring it within the authorized cost when this design was stopped, and we moved to the approved design." Which is: 

click to enlarge design_4.jpg

Now, the design features Georgian revival columns at the entrance, much like the Governor's Mansion. Whitfield said the winning bid, by Ideal Construction of Crossett, came in last week at $6,477,000.

Apparently, the idea to add the columns was Heritage Director Stacy Hurst's. 

"When Stacy came on board in January, she asked for a fresh look at the design. The final concept was a result of several meetings that the DAH senior management team had with WER. As DAH director, Stacy signed off on the final design," Whitfield wrote in an email replying to the Times' inquiry on who made the decision.

When we asked Whitfield if we could talk to Hurst about the reason for the dramatically different look — because it is a heritage agency and the columns suggest history? because it added a needed grandeur to the design? — we were turned down. From Whitfield:

"She doesn't feel the need to talk to you about it. She is pleased with the work of the design professionals at WER."

Whoa! Frosty! Though Hurst probably does not believe it — she's no fan of the Times' politics and its reporting on her unsuccessful race for the legislature against Clarke Tucker — I'm genuinely interested in the reasons for any kind of design on a public building and would like to hear her ideas, and I relayed that to Whitfield. Her response:  

"We asked for a design that would stand the test of time and have a more distinctive look. After those discussions, WER presented the final design that was approved." 

When finished, the building will be about 34,000 square feet. DAH currently occupies 27,915 square feet in the Tower Building at Fourth and Louisiana streets. It will be next to DAH's collection management facility (the former site of the Clinton archives pre-construction of the presidential library).

UPDATE: Architect John Greer provided the following comment on the new design of the building:

In my opinion, one of the weaknesses of the previous design was the lack of a defined “front door”. It wasn't obvious to visitors to the building that the entrance was on the west side. Did the building face west, south or somewhere in between? During the discussion about redefining the entry, the design team was asked to reconsider the agency for which this building was designed for. The Department of Arkansas Heritage HQ should reflect the heritage and culture of the state of Arkansas and the rich history that we have. There is no one architectural style that conveys Arkansas history. However, the classical orders of architecture exemplify notable architectural buildings throughout the history of the state in federal and state buildings. The team took this direction and presented numerous options to consider. The final decision was to not make the entire building an historic replication, but rather a blended approach featuring a modest classical entry pavilion surrounded by a contemporary styled new addition encompassing the Muswick warehouse and the new, 2-story office wing. The blending of these styles exemplifies the mixture of agencies and missions within the building: arts, history, natural heritage.

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