Renowned architect Frank Gehry was in North Adams Friday to visit what supporters hope will become the future site of the Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum, an initiative being championed by Thomas Krens, former director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.
Gehry, who worked with Krens on the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, signed on earlier this year to design the proposed 83,000-square-foot museum. “It has spectacular potential,” said Gehry. “I don’t know of anything quite like what [Krens] has in mind.”
The proposed $65 million museum would boast some 110 continuously operating model trains and would display architectural models by some of the world’s leading architects.
“There is no real architecture museum anywhere in the world,” said Krens, who accompanied Gehry on the trip. “People like miniaturization, and they are drawn to motion.”
The proposed museum is part of a much larger plan Krens and others are championing for Western Gateway Heritage State Park and nearby lands that includes a distillery, a commercial art storage facility, a new park, and multiple structures designed by well-known architects.
In addition to designing the model train and architecture museum, Krens said, Gehry will plan renovations for the Mohawk Theater and design a pedestrian bridge. He added that architect Jean Nouvel has agreed to design a luxury hotel, a museum devoted to American art, and a museum devoted to motorcycles. In addition, he said, architect Richard Gluckman has signed on to design the Massachusetts Museum of Time, which would be devoted to industrial clocks.
“I always thought [North Adams] could become an American Florence,” Gehry said. “Not a wealthy man’s Florence, but a normal man’s Florence.”
The city of North Adams has submitted an application for a $5.4 million grant from MassWorks to support the planned railroad and architecture museum, which would be built on publicly owned land.
But Krens said the bulk of the funding for the proposed $65 million museum would come from private investors.
“This is a for-profit endeavor,” said Krens. “We are expecting 500,000 to 700,000 annual visitors. If I get that kind of visitor-ship, we’re running a fairly simple museum. We expect our investors will be very handsomely rewarded.”
By contrast, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, also in North Adams, logged about 165,000 visitors last year. In nearby Williamstown, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute drew 170,000 visitors in fiscal year 2016.
There appears to be regional support for the project. On Friday Krens and Gehry were joined at a press conference by former governor William F. Weld, Mayor Richard Alcombright of North Adams, and Mass MoCA director Joe Thompson. During the press conference, Weld said the project would “totally transform the North Adams-Williamstown area.” Thompson said it would “inject a tremendous amount of life into North Adams.”
Gehry, who is known for making splashy architectural statements, said he had no “preconception of what it’s going to look like.”
“The architectural mandate is simple, since the landscape around us is so spectacular,” said Gehry. “I don’t think Tom is given to excess in his program needs, so it’ll probably be a modestly budgeted building.”
Krens said $2.5 million had already been raised for the project without formal fund-raising.