Rather, it was what the loading dock means for the future: Its construction is the linchpin for the museum's massive $500 million expansion project, first laid out more than four years ago.
Timothy Rub, museum director, made the broad point: "The construction of the new Art Handling Facility is vitally important, not simply because we need to maintain the highest standards in the care and handling of works of art, but also because this is a critical step - underline critical step - in our efforts to make the museum's collections more accessible and to serve the needs of the community more effectively than we can do today."
Currently, the museum's loading dock is on the northeast side of the building, off Kelly Drive. But before 1975, that great arched doorway served as a main public entrance to the museum. It leads to a massive vaulted corridor that runs the entire width of the building to an arched entry on the southwest facade facing the Schuylkill.
Moving the loading dock from the Kelly Drive side to the river side will allow the museum to open up the vaulted corridor, one of the most astonishing spaces in any public building in the city - deep under the museum, yet flooded with natural light from open window wells along the museum's front terrace facing the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Pritzker Prize-winning Gehry, designer of the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, was hired in 2006 to study the building and come up with an expansion plan. He has chosen to open up the vaulted corridor, which will provide access to new gallery spaces carved out of the earth beneath the museum's terrace.
For those walking the corridor Tuesday morning, the logic of the plan became crystal clear. But the first major step requires relocation from one side of the museum to the other of loading and art handling, plus waste handling, complex electrical and mechanical systems, and art packing and storage areas.
The $81 million project (about $70 million has been raised - roughly $40 million from foundations and private donors, and $30 million from the city and state) will take about two years to complete.
At that point, museum officials say, they hope to be able to expand the project.
"The next step would be to go under the terrace and actually add some gallery space," said Rub. Eventually, about 80,000 feet of public space will be carved from the ground. But the museum's trustees have been moving slowly and cautiously and have not yet approved moving forward with that stage of the plan, Rub said.
So Tuesday was Art Handling Facility Day, which was fine with Gehry.
"It unclogs the arteries of a great building and makes it possible to achieve what this museum has to achieve in the future," he said. He praised architect Horace Trumbauer, whose firm designed the 1928 building, for creating a "porous" structure that can open out into new areas.
"It really is all set up to be taken advantage of, which is very efficient and cost effective," said Gehry. "If you're trying to build what we're going to build any other place, it would be twice, three times as much."
Gehry also praised Trumbauer for hiring African American architect Julian Abele, first black graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's architecture school, who did much of the design work on the museum building.
"I think this community ought to be really proud of that fact," said Gehry. "That DNA is in this building. It's in it, and it makes it very special."
Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury
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