Eighteen months ago, the Peabody Essex Museum announced a stunner: The Salem institution would add a 175,000-square-foot expansion as part of the biggest fund-raising campaign ever by an art museum in the state.
Less than a year later, museum leaders were dealt an unexpected blow with the deteriorating health of architect Rick Mather. And now, only weeks after Mather’s death, Peabody Essex’s leaders acknowledge that the expansion, originally scheduled for completion in 2016, will probably not be finished until 2019.
“Wow,” said Laura Roberts, a Cambridge-based museum consultant and former executive director of the New England Museum Association, when she heard about the three-year delay. “It seems like it’s really far away.”
Peabody Essex director Dan Monroe said the museum had no other choice but to hire another architect. He expects to announce a new firm this summer.
“We chose Rick Mather because of Rick and his firm, but Rick is the lead design architect,” Monroe said in a recent interview. “And with his tragic passing, we had to decide if it made sense for us to move forward on his absence or not. We decided that it made sense for us to turn to another firm.”
“We would be happier if things had not progressed in this way,” said Monroe, “but it’s not something we can’t handle.”
In November 2011, Monroe proudly announced the museum’s expansion project and its unprecedented $650 million fund-raising campaign, with a planned completion date of 2016. Subsequently, the museum quietly shifted the opening date to 2017. Then Mather’s death last month led the museum to drop his small London-based firm and postpone the project another two years. Neither delay has been announced publicly.
Monroe said the first delay from 2016 to 2017 was because of the complex nature of the project, which requires renovating, demolishing, and building on a constricted lot in the center of Salem.
But as early as last fall — less than a year after expansion plans were announced — Monroe said, Mather’s health issues from mesothelioma, a disease caused by exposure to asbestos, had slowed him down.
“It was clear that he was becoming less and less able to really work on this or any other projects, and we were in conversation with him about that before he passed away,” said Monroe.
Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that sometimes doesn’t appear until decades after exposure to asbestos. The museum did not know Mather had the disease when it hired him for the project, a Peabody Essex spokesperson acknowledged on Thursday. Mather’s architectural firm declined to provide any information about Mather’s health issues when asked this week.
Despite Mather’s illness, the museum has been hiring new staff for the project and continuing to work on its first phase, Monroe said: a $30 million renovation designed by Rick Mather Architects to be used for mechanical and electrical systems that is well underway and set to be finished this fall. That part of the project is necessary to clear the way for the larger expansion, which will add galleries, a new roof garden, a restaurant, and education spaces. After the expansion, the museum’s total footprint will be 550,000 square feet.
But the larger, second phase of the expansion never progressed to the point that a design was ready. In January, a museum representative stated that architectural plans should be ready to share in the spring. But those never came.
Peabody Essex Museum officials now say that they were still working through the expansion’s “schematic design phase” to articulate the basic parameters of the building design when Mather died. They had intended to share design renderings once that phase was completed, but it was never finished.
Typically, a three-year delay on a construction project would be viewed as a serious setback. But some museum leaders and observers told of the delay this week said two factors will help lessen the impact: the fact that the museum was years away from reaching the original target date and that it has raised $575 million toward its $650 million campaign. The museum plans to use $350 million of the campaign to boost its endowment, with the rest going to the expansion and infrastructure improvements.
“They’re almost to goal, and to be at that point now is a miracle,” said Anne Hawley, director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which completed its own expansion project last year. “It’s a tragedy about Mather because he was a wonderful architect, but I think they’re doing the right thing. You never want to rush into these things.”
But the delay will have some impact, museum observers say. Roberts, whose clients have included the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston Children’s Museum, and New England Aquarium, said it could affect such things as staffing and decisions about what technology to use in its galleries. What’s innovative in 2016 can be obsolete three years later.
“You can’t sit on your hands for 18 months and then expect that what’s shiny and new will have the same impact,” said Roberts. “And then what are they going to do with all the people they’ve hired?”
The museum has been ramping up for its opening, with 28 staffers, or more than 10 percent of its 262 employees, brought on since 2011 to work on the project. In addition, the museum has seven open positions listed on its website that are project-related, including exhibition designer and curator posts.
As of this week, a museum spokesperson said no decision has been made about adjusting hiring timelines and no layoffs are planned.
Rick Mather Architects had done design work for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, the Wallace Collection in London, and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Mather’s close involvement in the Peabody Essex project was essential, Monroe said, particularly because his firm is so small, with just 38 staffers and 15 architects.
By comparison, 140 employees, more than 100 of them architects, are part of the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, the firm that recently completed the Gardner expansion and is working on the expansion and renovation of the Harvard Art Museums. Foster + Partners, which designed the Art of the Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts that opened in 2010, has about 1,000 staffers.
In a statement issued earlier this month, Mather Architects said the firm was “disappointed” by the museum’s decision and that over “the last two years our team has established clear principals which will inform the future expansion.” Representatives from Mather’s firm declined further comment this week.
David Ellis, a museum consultant and former president of Boston’s Museum of Science, said it is telling that Peabody Essex wasn’t past the schematic design stage, in which an architect establishes the basic concept of a design and scale and shows how elements of the project will fit together.
“That would say to me that the vision of the lead architect had not yet sufficiently crystalized,” he said, “and if I were a board member or director, I’d be wondering if the firm would be able to complete that.”
Michael Conforti, director of the Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, said he wasn’t surprised by the museum’s desire to get a new architect after Mather’s death.
“You need to have a very special mind and a very special vision to take the complexity of a [museum] program and then translate it into an articulate architectural space,” said Conforti. “While there are many people within an architectural firm, there are really few and usually only the top person who can marry program with articulate execution.”
This won’t be the first local museum to have a building delay. Back in 2006, the Institute of Contemporary Art was forced to push its opening back from September to December because of minor construction delays. Last May, the Harvard Art Museums announced it would open late in 2014, not 2013, because of what officials described as the complicated nature of the work.
The Peabody Essex’s delay is an uncharacteristic setback for the museum, which, under Monroe, has made remarkable achievements. These have included a 2003 building expansion designed by architect Moshe Safdie, a series of acclaimed exhibitions, and additions of art to its collections, including Yi Yu Tang, a complete ancient Chinese house.
“They obviously have enough time that they can shift their plans,” said Paul Bessire, the former ICA deputy director and current deputy director of the Brooklyn Museum. “The tough part is keeping up momentum.”
“Am I worried?” said Monroe. “No. This requires a number of changes to scheduling and to the project and many different dimensions. . . . Our commitment to getting it right trumps trying to hit a specific kind of deadline, which is important, but secondary.”
Geoff Edgers can be reached at email@example.com.