The last time Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum was open, George W. Bush occupied the White House and Manny Ramirez played left field for the Red Sox.
Forgive Tom Lentz, the museum's director, for feeling relief earlier this month as he walked through the Fogg's entrance on Quincy Street to provide a sneak peek at the new complex, scheduled to open in late 2014.
"I think it's becoming more real now," says Lentz, wearing a hard hat and yellow vest, a requirement on what is still a construction site. "You spend a lot of time working and thinking and making something happen. For it to actually take physical shape, at the end of that long road, is a little bit startling."
The Harvard Art Museums project is both a renovation and an expansion, with the Fogg's 86-year-old facade and courtyard intact and restored, but much of the space inside scrubbed, reconstructed, or rebuilt. The Busch-Reisinger Museum, a later addition on back of the Fogg, was knocked down for a building that combines it with the Arthur M. Sackler Museum. The Sackler's old home, across the street on Broadway, has been repurposed by Harvard. The Fogg and the new building are connected by an 8-foot-wide vertical glass seam.
The project is costing Harvard an estimated $350 million and will, by the end of 2014, have meant closing the Fogg and Busch-Reisinger for six years. Lentz's tour revealed the dramatic nature of the changes. One thing: There will be no box fans cooling the Fogg galleries during steamy summer days.
"The internal joke," said Lentz, "is that we would never lend [artworks] to ourselves."
The project is meant to please both conservators and conservationists. Virtually every system, from climate control to plumbing, has either been upgraded or installed for the first time. Visitors approaching the Prescott Street side of the new complex will be met by a contemporary space designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, a rectangular building with a skin made up of wood twisted like fan blades and a dramatic, rising glass-and-steel roof.
Visitors approaching from Quincy Street will encounter the familiar Fogg brick. The only real detectable change outside that entrance should be the wider sidewalk and newly planted trees. By design, you can't see the glass roof from that side of the museum complex. The Cambridge and Massachusetts historical commissions worked closely with Piano to make sure the steel-and-glass structure, which is 28 feet taller than the old Fogg peak, is set back from the street enough to make it invisible from most of Quincy Street.
"It's quite a trick and I'm very pleased by it," said Charles M. Sullivan, the executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission.
But that roof is key to the rebirth of the Fogg. It fills the famed courtyard with natural light, reinventing the space. What's more, the courtyard can be approached from either side. There is no front door. Visitors can enter the museum complex from Quincy or Prescott.
Piano's roof features an intricate system of shades — referred to by staff as "The Light Box" — that will allow the museum's staff to control the kind and amount of light brightening the galleries and conservation labs. Lentz is also proud of another innovation, a series of study centers that will allow the museum to offer what Lentz refers to as "art on demand" to students, faculty, and the general public. These centers aren't in dark rooms surrounded by stacks. They're on the fourth level with brilliant views of Cambridge.
Lentz stops in the courtyard. He points out the restored travertine arches. He talks of how by raising the floor, people can now enter from every direction. In the past, for safety, most of the area was roped off. The courtyard will feature a cafe and a gift shop twice the size of the former store. It will also be open to the public. In the old museum, visitors had to pay an admission fee to go into the courtyard.
"Renzo was extremely, even surprisingly sensitive to the old building," said Lentz. "I can remember before we shut the building walking through with Renzo and his team, and Renzo, somewhat to my surprise, said, 'We should keep this, this is good, this is solid, this is part of the bones of the museums.' Renzo Piano builds a lot of art museums. And at times, I feel like there's a kind of backlash against Renzo. But he was absolutely the right person for this project. Keeping the integrity and character but at the same time transform."
The challenges on the museum site have been considerable, said Lentz.
Beyond the restrictions on the Fogg's historic facade, the complex also borders the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, the only building in North America designed by Swiss architect Le Corbusier. The Carpenter Center's distinctive outside ramp, which ran between the concrete building and Fogg, has been expanded under the art museum's new cantilever to the corner of Prescott and Broadway.
In May 2012, citing the complications of construction, Harvard announced the opening date of the museums would be pushed from 2013 to 2014.
During the tour, Lentz showed off the Fogg galleries — clean and well lit, with new walls and wood floors. The innovation here is something other museums take for granted, hidden vents to circulate air for proper climate control. Galleries in the new building include space for special exhibitions and also for students and faculty who are going to have a chance to serve as curators for their own shows.
The university's Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies is on the building's fifth floor, bathed in light. Museum visitors will be able to watch conservators at work through glass walls. The museum's study centers are on the fourth floor, along with seminar rooms.
On the ground floor, glass walls face Prescott and allow passersby to look in and see art.
"Before, where it looked like any other building on campus, now, all of a sudden, it's screaming, 'This is an art museum,' " said Lentz.
But it isn't screaming too loudly, said Sullivan, of the Cambridge Historical Commission. He praised Harvard and Piano for the work done to create a new building without changing the Fogg's appearance. Not that he's pleased with every aspect of the building. He regrets one impact of the roof and wishes the commission had not approved without modifying a section.
"One of the unintended impacts is that when you're traveling west on Broadway, the skylight interrupts the view of Memorial Church, which many local people are very bitter about," said Sullivan. "That's very unfortunate."
One of the new building's most distinctive features is the Alaskan yellow cedar on walls facing Prescott and Broadway. Each board was milled to twist as it runs down the length of the building. Each board has also been labeled so if it is damaged, it can accurately be replaced.
"The wood system is not something you can buy at Home Depot," said Charlie Klee, an architect at Payette, the Boston firm that worked with Harvard and Piano. "But it's a reasonable kind of façade system when you look at the idea it needs to speak intelligently to the Carpenter Center and the Fogg and sit in a residential neighborhood."
Klee and Lentz are just as enthused about "The Light Box."
"I can remember when I arrived here," said Lentz, hired in 2003, "people treated the courtyard as if it was the center of the museum, both symbolic and emotionally. In fact, all of our circulation took you away from the courtyard. Now what Renzo has done is make the courtyard the heart. Now when people walk in you'll be able to see all the way through the building; the courtyard also is in many ways the kind of engine in terms of light dispersal. Now we have a very natural and crystal-clear orienting framework for the museum."
Geoff Edgers can be reached at email@example.com.