Updating the Allen Memorial Art Museum

The Allen Memorial Art Museum (AMAM) at Oberlin College in Ohio is an Italian Renaissance-style building that was designed by Cass Gilbert in 1917, with an addition by Robert Venturi in 1977. The building has stood in the background of campus life since then, so it was long overdue for a renovation and mechanical-systems overhaul when Samuel Anderson Architects (SAA) came on to the project. The full-service architectural firm was founded in 1991, and it already had extensive museum expertise when principal Sam Anderson began working with Oberlin in 2007 to expand AMAM’s collection storage, renovate its galleries, and replace its 30-year-old systems with the aim of achieving LEED Gold certification. American Builders Quarterly sat down with Anderson to walk through the steps and challenges of upgrading the historic academic art space.

In addition to installing a new HVAC system, SAA replaced the laylighting in the Willard-Newell Gallery and the rest of the museum's display areas.

1. Establish rapport

Anderson, who is originally from northern Ohio, always had a place in his heart for Oberlin. After completing a 9,000-square-foot expansion of the conservation department at MoMA in 2005, Anderson sent a postcard of the work with a personal note to Stephanie Wiles, AMAM’s director. “She kept the card and then gave me a call a year or so later to ask if we would consider working with her at AMAM,” Anderson says. “We jumped at the opportunity.”

2. Implement a feasibility study

Before conceiving a design, the firm conducted a feasibility study to work out the director’s ideas for the project. In addition to expanding the interior museum space by creating a new entry vestibule and incorporating unused basement spaces, AMAM had a goal to maximize energy efficiency by revamping dated lighting and HVAC systems. “Our study assessed the cost of the project, the possibility of excavating these formerly unused spaces, the current efficiency of the systems, the amount of time all of the work would take, and if it was possible to do all of this in a sustainable way,” Anderson says.

3. Compile a wish list

Armed with the analysis, Anderson and his project architect, Mandi Lew, LEED AP, worked with AMAM to compile a project-component checklist that addressed all major goals, including upgrades to the galleries, the security system, the fire-suppression system, fire alarms, and other museum features. “In addition to [determining] the core elements of the project, we used the list during the bidding process to establish precise costs for each item, all of which AMAM was ultimately able to afford,” Lew says.

4. Phase the work

“One of the crucial aspects particular to this project is that AMAM is an active locus of academic life at Oberlin,” Anderson says. “Its resources are constantly in use by many departments.” Because of this, it was important to keep the building open as much as possible during the renovation process. To achieve this, SAA scheduled the project in phases: the Venturi wing was first, and the artwork was stored there before moving on to the Gilbert building phase.

5. Upgrade and deliver

With its LEED Gold target in mind, SAA made it a priority to devise an innovative HVAC system because most museums are much more expensive to operate mechanically than standard buildings. “We worked closely with McClure Engineering Associates to incorporate a design with a low carbon footprint [that] still provides superior systems control for the building,” Anderson says. The sustainable heating and cooling network includes a geothermal-well field, a heat-recovery chiller, and sequestered air pretreatment. And, to complement the system, SAA installed a new glass and bronze main-entrance vestibule that buffers outside conditions. The building reached its LEED goals in 2012.

New sliding screens, installed by SAA in the art museum’s storage spaces, allow curators quick, convenient access to various collections.

6. Expand discreetly

SAA was able to increase the museum’s capacity for collection storage by 60 percent without adding to the structure significantly. “We expanded the unused basement with new, climate-controlled art-storage space,” Lew says. There, SAA installed a compact storage system for objects, and it renovated the other storage rooms with sliding screens for textiles and paintings. “All this growth,” Anderson says, “and yet the historic building appears almost untouched.”

7. Commit to sustainability

In addition to the HVAC system, SAA also replaced laylights in the main galleries, and it used low-emitting and locally sourced materials. “Oberlin College has always had a commitment to sustainability,” Anderson says. “One of the physics professors has an interest in testing LEED buildings, and he is doing an ongoing analysis of our building to verify its efficiency. We’re confident this scrutiny will prove how efficient the AMAM is.” ABQ