Not far from the Harvard campus in Somerville is a nondescript, multistory structure, outfitted with security and some serious temperature controls.

The building is the temporary home of the staff and the collections of the Harvard Art Museums (HAM) while their building at 32 Quincy St. in Cambridge undergoes a major facelift.

Originally, the Somerville building was built to house floor-to-ceiling computer servers. Its conversion to a storage facility and administrative offices was seamless once it was carefully retrofitted with climate controls for its new, precious, non-breathing tenants.

In 2008 and 2009, HAM staff transitioned to the space over the course of several months, painstakingly preparing, packing, and moving the collection.

The design of the office space is sleek. Lots of windows ensure there is plenty of light in open-area workspaces, giving it a hip, start-up feel. It is a new formation for the HAM staff, who find themselves under one roof instead of scattered across campus in separate buildings, as in the past. Some staff members  remain at the Sackler Museum, which is open with a display of collection highlights during the Quincy Street construction.

For museum officials, the temporary space mirrors in part what they hope to accomplish with the renovation: more collaborations among curators, conservators, and staff, previously complicated by the separate facilities.

Controlled chaos

Despite the seeming chaos of the warlike zone along Cambridge’s Broadway and Prescott streets, the demolition of the sections added to the original 1927 Fogg structure over the past 80 years has proceeded with precision. Museum administrators are quick to emphasize that only the additions have been removed to make way for new construction, and that the original structure will be restored in accordance with guidance and approval from historic commissions.

Because of the relatively small construction site, no heavy demolition equipment could be used to raze the additions. “We were so constrained, and the additions were all attached in some fashion to the historic building. You just couldn’t implode them,” said Peter Atkinson, HAM’s director of facilities planning and management.

Instead, the additions were largely dismantled by hand. Work crews cut through walls with smaller hand tools and burned through steel beams with blowtorches. “It was just like peeling layers off an onion,” said Atkinson of the meticulous work to undo the various additions. Bobcats, backhoes, plows, and bulldozers were pressed into service to move the debris once it had been disassembled.

Project officials are aiming for LEED Gold environmental certification with the renovation, which will include the use of locally sourced building materials, the addition of a storm water retention tank, and state-of-the-art climate controls to protect the art and also to manage energy consumption efficiently.

To prepare for the construction — after the art was safely moved — workers had to remove all other materials from the building. Everything had to go.

It took 18 months to empty 140,000 square feet of space. Almost all of the materials found a new home during an extensive recycling campaign. Exhibition cabinets, lighting, easels, traditional office furniture, and even fume hoods used in the conservation labs were donated to recycling partners.

As part of the preparation process, workers also installed an encasement around the section of the swirling concrete ramp — part of Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts designed by famed architect Le Corbusier — that abuts the HAM building, to protect the ramp during construction. The ramp will eventually be extended to intersect with a new museum entrance on Prescott and will gracefully slope all the way down to Broadway.

Currently, workers are excavating the ground along Prescott to make way for new subterranean space that will house classrooms and a new auditorium. The excavation will continue for about six months. Officials anticipate that construction on the above-ground structure will begin next year.

“The museums had outgrown the building,” said Atkinson. Once the work is complete and the new facility opens in 2013, he added, “We will have a 21st century building that is worthy of the collection.”

Refashioning the old and new

Known for his ability to flawlessly fuse the old and the new, acclaimed Italian architect Renzo Piano developed the design for HAM. The plan, conceived after years of discussions between Harvard officials and museum experts, will bring the Fogg, Busch-Reisinger, and Arthur M. Sackler Museums together in one building, increase accessibility to the collections, enhance curatorial collaboration,  and further develop the role of the museums in Harvard’s undergraduate curriculum.

“Right from the beginning, we wanted to create a state-of-the-art museum facility on Quincy Street to support our teaching and research mission and serve as our big public platform,” said Tom Lentz, HAM’s Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director.  “That’s where we will concentrate all of our intellectual and research muscle to open our collections and put them to work to the greatest extent possible for students, faculty, and the public.”

The project, which includes 104,000 square feet of renovations and 100,000 square feet of new construction, will include the additional gallery space, expanded study centers, classrooms, conservation laboratories, offices, and more public amenities. A glass structure added to the building’s roof will serve as an important source of natural light for the conservation labs and study centers.

The Fogg’s iconic Calderwood Courtyard will remain. The design calls for opening the courtyard’s ground-floor archways, allowing the public seamless circulation through the new facility, from galleries in the original Fogg structure to those in the new addition. There will also be better illumination of the evocative space.

“The courtyard is really the emotional and symbolic center of the museum,” said Lentz, of the part of the structure that is fashioned after a 16th century facade in Montepulciano, Italy. “Not only will it remain as the focal point of the building, but with the new glass addition, what Renzo calls ‘the light machine,’ natural light will funnel down into the courtyard and diffuse through the adjoining spaces.”

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