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The $20 million renovation project will create a more inviting approach.
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"The Story of Virginia” exhibition will be easier to navigate.
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A 5,000-square-foot learning center is being created for the use of school groups.
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They found some doors hidden beneath gallery wall paneling at the Virginia Historical Society.
This, so far, is the biggest architectural revelation due to the massive renovation project undergoing at the VHS, on Boulevard, adjacent to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Those doors are both a physical and metaphorical representation of how the institution is realigning itself for greater access.
On Saturday, beginning at 10 a.m., and going every hour until 3 p.m., you can get a “hard hat” tour of the place, and take advantage of a 20 to 70 percent off museum shop clearance sale. And beginning at 11 a.m., there will be “Stories at the Museum,” a staff-led reading of books for kids, and open to the whole family.
A $20 million capital improvement effort is renovating the public spaces on the main level and creating a more inviting approach from the Boulevard side, which, among other matters of landscaping, means getting rid of the little parking lot on that side. And that’s just for starters.
VHS president and CEO Paul A. Levengood acknowledges that no shocking surprises have occurred as the 15-year-old “Story of Virginia” galleries have been stripped. “We have pulled back the old rugs and seen these grand oak parquet floors,” he says. “We’ll refinish those; they’re beautiful.” The uncovered doors connect two separate galleries.
The central neo-classical structure was originally completed in 1913 by the Confederate Memorial Association as the Battle Abbey, designed to serve as a hall of honor for “the glorious dead” and a safekeeping place for artifacts and documents related to the Lost Cause. The peripatetic VHS arrived in 1947, and the center — before and since — has undergone several transformative expansions that accompanied a widening appeal to the greater community. The VHS thus joins other major cultural institutions, like the VFMA and the Valentine, which have recently undertaken great modernization, addition and rehabilitation projects.
The VHS construction effort is six months in. “We anticipate construction finishing up by the end of May 2015,” Levengood says. The VHS hasn’t yet held a public open house to show the work-in-progress. The Saturday event will allow visitors to wander around, see the various layers of masonry and picture what the place will look like come next spring.
“We’re basically completely re-imagining our public gallery spaces. We’re trying to be really smart: We don’t need to add much to the building itself, we’re redesigning present spaces to use them as intelligently as possible. It’ll make getting around the building much easier.”
Until now, offices and galleries were mixed together. When finished, all galleries will be contiguous and offices relocated.
The largest gallery for temporary exhibits was a large hallway with four doors and required going through it to get to other places in the building. “But here now we have a 5,000-square-feet space that we can use to for larger traveling exhibitions that we didn’t have room for before,” Levengood says. “Those doors will be closed, when ready to open, they’ll give people access — it’s a lot like what VMFA did with their lower galleries.”
“The Story of Virginia” that will return will be more flowing, not segmented, and easier to navigate. Conducting construction around the Richmond streetcar proved especially tricky.
“We had to bring in folks specializing in moving large objects to remove it and they had to prepare its new site. While work was going on around it, they hermetically sealed the streetcar in this plastic cocoon and when doing any work overhead, put scaffolding around it. I have to say one of the reasons why this project has a rather long timeline — part of it is renovating the house as opposed to building a house. Our galleries are closed, but we’re still doing lectures and the research and library facilities are still open. Our construction people have been extremely sensitive to these needs.”
The overhaul has also included a three-year restoration of the Charles Hoffbauer Seasons of the Confederacy murals that lay under layers of grime. Some of it came from the days when smoking was allowed indoors, but, the worst offender seems to have been the building’s old coal-fired heating and also the piece’s proximity to the front entrance.
On the Kensington Street side, a 5,000-square-foot learning center is being created for the use of school groups. “This’ll be a place for the kids to engage in hands on activities, they can eat their lunch and then make their visit upstairs to the galleries. In addition, it won’t be just a sterile room like a motel lobby, there’ll be exhibition cases going all the way around, holding objects from the collection. This says you’re in a special place. Here’s actual stuff.”
Levengood is looking forward to having the state visitors center become open in the Robinson House between VMFA and VHS. This may serve as a guiide for a hyphenated experience for visitors — some may go to see the art, while others may choose to see the history. A friendlier, more visible entrance will be made on the south side, which will feature a two-story atrium. The final big piece is connecting the Boulevard front of the VHS to the sidewalk. “We want to encourage people to walk right off the street and inside,” Levengood says. “There’s more pedestrian traffic here all the time, and we’d like for them to know we want them to visit here.”