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The Science Museum's final transformation preserves a major American landmark.

Bound for Glory


Science Museum of Virginia officials can relate to JFK's dilemma during his 1961 state visit to France. "I am the man who accompanied Jackie Kennedy to Paris," the president quipped to reporters as his wife dazzled Gallic audiences with femininity, fluent French and fashions by Givenchy. Similarly, the museum has probably felt eclipsed by the aesthetically glorious old train station at 2400 W. Broad St. it inherited in 1976. Much of what the Science Museum has done programmatically to make the place an educational center has taken place under the considerable classical shadow of the John Russell Pope landmark. When walking past the colossal Tuscan columns of the portico and into the rotunda, one can imagine the ancient Baths of Caracalla or some other building from the glory days of Rome. Inside and out, the limestone temple exudes astounding presence and power. Some could argue that it should be no cross to bear to inhabit so glorious a space. But using a former train station to serve the needs of an ambitious and evolving contemporary science museum — while preserving architectural magnificence — is no easy challenge. The happy news is that the completed transformation reveals that both challenges have been met. The integrity of the building has been preserved — in fact, considerably punched up in places. The museum has proved itself an excellent steward, without being slavish or overawed by the building. At the same time, often cavernous spaces have been transformed into intimate spaces that allow visitors to make discoveries and have experiences at their own pace. The transformation to museum has been in progress for over two decades. The original station was designed in 1913 for the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad by Pope, a New York architect. He would later go on to design two other low-domed, American architectural icons: the original building of The National Gallery of Art and the Jefferson Memorial, both in Washington. The last train pulled out of the terminal in 1976, and the building was slated for demolition. The commonwealth of Virginia came to the rescue and placed the museum there, although blueprints had already been drawn for a new museum in Byrd Park with a high-tech sensibility, complete with solar panels on the roof. One of the first major changes to Pope's classical landmark was the 1983 planetarium, designed by Samuel Crothers Associates and Oliver Smith, Cook & Lindner. This was to be placed west of the great station and set slightly back from the rotunda. The planetarium roof, inspired by Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome, was a wonderful companion to Pope's original. (Unfortunately the architects didn't align the planetarium structure on axis with North Robinson Street which dead ends at this point.) In 1987, another modern addition appeared in the form of a huge, industrial-strength stairwell on the building's east side. The stair was encased in a metal and glass cage, the steel painted fire-engine red. Here there was no attempt at architectural context; the contrast between old and new is effectively bold. Another phase of the construction was begun by the Depasquale Gentilhomme Group in 1993 and from 1999 to 2000, the CUH2A, Inc. firm made additional interior changes. Most recently, Dewberry & Davis coordinated a "campus integration project" to better tie the Science Museum to the lively Children's Museum next door. A tour of the completed Science Museum begins at the front door. While the museum could have shifted the public entrance to the building's west side, near the planetarium, the museum wisely made a commitment to making people walk through the portico — to fully experience the architectural grandeur. Brilliant move. With all the "virtual" experiences inside, why not give visitors a full-fledged architectural experience? If only other museums would take the lead. On the Boulevard, The Virginia Historical Society recently shifted its main entrance from the glorious Boulevard front to the eastern side. And it has been almost a decade since the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts brought people in through its original front door. We'll know that Richmond takes itself seriously when it starts using front doors again, not catering totally to where the parking lots are located. Once inside the Science Museum, the circulation system rotates off, and around, the rotunda with its soaring, 100-foot dome. Until the most recent changes, one couldn't really move 360 degrees around this space. The former concourse just beyond the rotunda still houses large exhibits, but new space has been created on the second level that encircles the rotunda. At the north side of the rotunda, behind colossal columns, two glass-clad elevators whisk visitors up to two catwalks. These additions link the museum's east and west wings. Now, visitors can circumnavigate the entire rotunda, including using the second story crossover that runs atop the entry vestibule. The new catwalks erase some of the power of the columns, but what is gained in ease of circulation makes up for what is lost. On the third floor, the museum has added a theater space on the west side and a warren of offices on the east side. From these levels, as well as from the second floor, large glass windows overlook the rotunda. Outside, along the tracks on the east side of the building, a flexible tent structure has been devised to use for special events and parties without interrupting other activities. In the 1950s, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts named the Broad Street Station as one of "the 12 best buildings in Virginia." That was high praise in a state with so long and strong an architectural legacy. The Science Museum accepted this as a challenge and did things right. The museum's leadership, and its various design teams, have put in decades of effort at taming an overpowering building, and it has paid off. A balance has been achieved between the preservation of a major American landmark and creating great spaces for a growing science

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