The site never considered: Why we should locate the new college art museum at the former President’s house

April 20, 2016 by Michael Lewis

There are two ways that the College can grow and neither is good. It can sprawl, adding new buildings at the periphery, or it can grow denser by infill, making use of the open space between buildings. Sprawl preserves the texture of the campus – its spacious, open character, its sense of interval – but at the cost of its compact unity. Infill building preserves the compactness but at the cost of openness and rural character. And of course we want it both ways: A campus where no walk exceeds eight minutes and yet where every building is framed by views of distant mountains, and not of other buildings.

All this has made the campaign to find a site for a new College museum vexing. A new museum on the Williams Inn site would be highly visible and attractively close to the Clark Art Institute, welcoming visitors and tourists in high style. But it is also at the extreme western edge of the campus and would no longer be central to the life of the College, physically or psychologically. It would also place two of the College’s principal buildings devoted to the arts – the museum and the Spencer Studio Building – at opposite ends of the campus.

Alternatively, a site on Water Street would be closer to Spencer and create a hub of the arts at the eastern end of campus. But it is not a physically attractive site; it sits distressingly low – on a campus where our most important buildings have been placed on the summits of hills. And it would be just as remote from the center of campus life as the Williams Inn site. The one proposed site that is near the center of campus, a lot on Park Street, has other drawbacks, chief of which is its lack of visibility.

By now it should be clear that a major building of the arts at the College deserves to be both central and conspicuous. Our current museum is both of those things, and in building its successor, we should be trading up, not down. As it happens, one site has never been seriously considered. This is the amiable Federal-style house at 936 Main Street, which since its purchase by the College in 1858 has been known as the President’s House and which has recently (and quietly) been redubbed the Sloan House. If one seriously wanted a museum site that is both central and conspicuous, one could not possibly do better.

The original house was built around 1802 by Samuel Sloan, a local merchant, farmer and tavern-keeper. According to longstanding tradition, it was a wedding present for his daughter, which accounts for its most endearing passage of ornament: At the center of its rooftop balustrade is a pediment with a carving of two hearts. The rest of the facade is a spirited essay in the Federal style, with its elegantly slender pilasters, sprightly Palladian window and a festive arrangement of urns against the sky. It represented the most sophisticated taste of the early American Republic, far beyond the ability of local craftsmen at what was then the frontier, which is why its ornamental parts were carved in Salem, Mass. and laboriously transported to Williamstown. The rest of the house is pleasant but inconsequential. The additions that straggle to the north are in the polite Colonial Revival of the early 20th century and were designed by the Pittsfield architect George C. Harding, who copied his details from the original building.

If these later additions were removed and the house restored to its original modest dimensions, an ample site would at once become available. The distance from Park Street to the east side of the house is 242 feet, and the house itself extends back 113 feet – a footprint of over 27,000 square feet. The restored Sloan House would be incorporated as a wing of the new museum, its historic interior splendidly suited for the display of period furniture and decorative arts, while the galleries of the new museum would be gauged for the display of contemporary art. The success of the Stetson-Sawyer Library project shows that a defiantly contemporary design can be wrapped around a historic building to make a rich and resonant hybrid, as apt as a gem and its setting. Something analogous was done at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, which similarly wrapped its attractively modern building around a florid Victorian mansion.

The College does not have a tradition of bold architecture; we build reticently, rarely daringly, and on those rare occasions when we are more audacious, we are generally imitating, after a safe interval, some other institution’s innovation. But the Sloan House offers the opportunity to do something genuinely gutsy – as Sloan did in 1802 when he placed his house directly across the street from West College, and as the College did in 1858 when it acquired that house. And now a third chance to do something bold with that house beckons. It would establish a kind of cultural forum with the nearby theater and proclaim that the arts are absolutely central to the identity and mission of the College.

It will be said that the College should maintain the President’s House intact in the event that some future president might choose to live there. That would be the cautious move. And to be sure, there is a certain poetic symbolism in the president of the College living in the heart of campus. But there is also a glaring and unfortunate symbolism in that same house laying empty, month upon month, year upon year. We cannot afford to keep this superb site and this splendid house idle, as a precaution against a rainy day. The rainy day is here.

Michael Lewis is the Faison-Pierson-Stoddard professor of art history.

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