Museum Renovation at Bowdoin Adds Entrance Pavilion, Climate Control

Walker Art Building
Glass, bronze, and black steel define the new entrance to Bowdoin College’s Walker Art Building.

Brunswick, Me. — Construction crews are putting the finishing touches on a striking new entrance pavilion for Bowdoin College’s 1894 Walker Art Building, a landmark museum designed by Charles Follen McKim of McKim, Mead & White. The museum is due to reopen October 14 after a $20-million renovation by the Boston firm Machado and Silvetti Associates. The two architects after whom the firm is named, Rodolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti, are both on the faculty of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.

The pavilion’s glass walls hang from a bronze cantilever that is scarcely noticeable from the middle of the college’s quadrangle or from the leafy neighborhood behind the museum. But the closer visitors come to it, the bolder and more sculptural it appears — until it finally reveals itself, on the side opposite the museum, as a new take on McKim’s original entrance and on the nearby Visual Arts Center, Edward Larrabee Barnes’s famous 1975 response to the McKim building.

The new entrance, which is accessible to handicapped visitors, allows Bowdoin to keep intact McKim’s original exterior stairs, flanked by lions and leading to an arched loggia. Katy Kline, the museum’s director, says the McKim stairs will continue to be used for special occasions, like graduation and homecoming. But museum-goers will ordinarily use the new entrance, in which they can choose two steel stairways or a glass elevator to descend to a new information desk and gift shop, and then enter lower-level galleries that seem far more spacious after additional excavation made them four feet deeper than they used to be.

An addition on the back of the building accommodates a new stairway and elevator to the main floor, as well as a new gallery for five large stone panels from an ancient Assyrian palace. A window stretching the length of the gallery opens the back of the museum to the off-campus community for the first time. A new lower-level classroom is close to the museum’s storage areas to make it easy to bring objects out for use by classes.

The renovation’s other major accomplishments include adding climate controls to the museum for the first time, adding a loading dock and a holding area for borrowed art, and creating light-filled office space on the lower level for the museum’s staff.

Walker Art Building
The new entrance pavilion adjoins the Walker Art Building on one side, while the Visual Arts Center sits some distance away on the other.

Visual Arts Center
The Visual Arts Center matches the Walker Art Building’s size but offers a Modernist reply to McKim’s entrance stairs and to the terrace on which he placed his building.

Walker Art Building
The pavilion’s transparency makes it a low-key addition to the buildings on Bowdoin’s quadrangle, which also include Massachusetts Hall, the college’s first building; the chapel, by Richard Upjohn; and a Collegiate Gothic former library that now houses the college’s Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum. (Chronicle photographs by Lawrence Biemiller)

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