Photo credit: National Museum of American Jewish History
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The National Museum of American Jewish History broke ground nearly two years ago and has one and a half to go.
For the first time since ground was broken nearly two years ago on the National Museum of American Jewish History, the building has finally reached a state where its full maturity can be visualized.
With its structural bones intact, the five-story building sits like a jewel box on eight beams fabricated by a bridge builder weighing a staggering 1,500 tons each, or 360 pounds per lineal foot. Its walls are rising and the envelope of the building is taking shape. Though concrete block is exposed on some sides, the walls are being prepped for terra cotta that will soon cover the facade and for a glass wall that will begin to rise this fall on the side facing Independence Mall.
The interior is also taking shape. Steel beams where floating staircases will eventually carry visitors to each floor are in place and ready for frosted-glass risers and treads. A square is marked off on the ceiling where a skylight will funnel sunlight down onto each floor and through the glass on the staircases. Locations where the exhibits will be on display have been defined.
It’s apparent that the design has catered to the visitor’s experience as well as to the gravity of the museum itself. Fit out of the interior will begin this September.
“When I actually walked up to the fifth floor and stood on the balcony, tears really came down,” said Gwen Goodman. “Seeing dreams come true is very powerful.”
Goodman has sat on the museum’s board since 1977 and served as its executive director on and off beginning in 2000. She has been an unwavering champion of the new national museum. Now set to retire once it opens, Goodman serves as the museum’s executive director emerita.
The national museum wasn’t originally set to be constructed overlooking Independence Mall. In 2002, plans called for it to be built at the museum’s current location just off 5th Street in Old City. World-renowned Polshek Partnership Architects of New York had a design ready to go. Then fate stepped in.
In 2006, the building where KYW broadcast its radio and television stations at the corner of 5th and Market streets was quietly put up for sale.
“We moved in pretty quickly,” said Michael Rosenzweig, the museum’s newly installed president and CEO. The site was 90 steps from the Liberty Bell, he said. Its visibility was unparalleled. The museum paid $10 million for the property in June 2006 and razed it.
Goodman sees a tremendous amount of significance to the site, which sits between Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was created, and the Constitution Center.
“We tell the story of what happens when an ethnic group lives in freedom under those two documents,” Goodman said.
With a new site at that particular location came a new design by Polshek. “It was an entirely different design question,” said Bill Becker, principal of Becker & Frondorf, who is the project manager.
The design has an open, glass façade — what has been described as a “glass veil” — allowing passers-by to see into the 100,000-square-foot building that will have 20,000 square feet of exhibition space and another 5,000 square feet of space for temporary exhibits. A subterranean level will include a theater. The ground floor will include a café and bookstore. The total project cost, including exhibits, will run $135 million.
“These projects … projects of this quality and size, with one of the greatest living architects, don’t come along too often in one’s career,” Becker said. “They are jewels.” Will Schwartz, co-owner of Intech Construction Co., which is building the structure, called it a “career project.”
For Becker, Schwartz and Rosenzweig — all of whom are Jewish — the museum is also a very personal project and that has inspired an even more acute level of care and attention.
“The museum is being built to tell my story, and Will’s,” said Becker, whose parents immigrated at different times to the United States from Europe. Schwartz moved as a child to the United States from Peru, and Rosenzweig’s father was a Holocaust survivor who arrived in America in 1948.
Fundraising and construction — two integral components of the building — are in good shape. In three years, $120 million of a $150 million capital campaign has been raised in spite of the recession, Rosenzweig said. Collections of pledges are coming as expected and committed, he said. “We have no problems that we know and that’s very good in this environment,” he said, adding that raising funds for the museum doesn’t end with the $150 million capital campaign.
On the construction front, the project is on time and on budget and few obstacles have cropped up other than those inherent to building on a tight urban site, Becker said.
“It has been a very complex effort and we haven’t always agreed,” he said. In spite of that, the experienced team comprised of Polshek, Becker and Frondorf and Intech has been amicable with a high level of trust among them that has been a key component to getting the project done as planned.
“There’s a collective intelligence and the leaders of the team value that intelligence,” Schwartz said.
The biggest challenge to the project has been keeping it within budget, he said. World-class architecture is more subject to cost overruns, but Polshek has been flexible. Another, but related, challenge was getting subcontractors comfortable with the project.
“They haven’t seen this level of design and use of materials,” Schwartz said, citing glass, terra-cotta and black stainless steel. “There was a fear.”
The subcontractors set prices based on that fear that conflicted with the nonprofit’s budget. Once Schwartz and others educated them on the intent of the design and use of materials, a comfort level was reached and prices adjusted.
Next up is to have the structure fully enclosed before winter sets in. If all continues on schedule, the museum will open in November 2010.