Gibbes Museum renovation creating a new work of art

Gibbes Museum renovation creating a new work of art

From the Post and Courier

Article & photos by Robert Behre

The Gibbes Museum of Art now sits devoid of all its paintings and sculptures, but an ongoing renovation is revealing a different, long-hidden work of art.

The structure at 135 Meeting St. should be one of Charleston’s most celebrated buildings: It’s the South’s first structure built specifically for use as a museum and is the city’s premier example of the Beaux Arts architectural style.
But the recent decades have not been kind.

As heating and air conditioning were added, its once grand ceilings were dropped, window openings boarded up and other additions redirected the flow to dampen visitors’ sense of arrival into the grandest rooms. While the building had a nice garden off King Street, there’s was no direct link between it and the building.

Angela Mack, the Gibbes’ director who has worked with the Gibbes since the 1980s, is intimately familiar with the building’s aesthetic and practical drawbacks, and with the institution’s long-standing desire to tackle them.

“The place had been morphed so much over the years that no one could see it anymore,” she says.

Then, about six years ago, not long after the Gibbes named Mack as its new director, there was a stroke of good fortune.

Gibbes Museum renovation

All four window openings along Meeting Street, including those on either side of the Gibbes’ main entrance, are being reopened as part of its ongoing renovation and restoration. Robert Behre/Staff

The building’s blueprints were found rolled up in a corner of the city of Charleston’s archives (the city co-owns the building because it actually received the bequest from James Gibbes that led to the building’s construction in 1905). And the long process of demorphing could start.

Those blueprints — once carefully unrolled, flattened and studied — would be crucial in one of the main goals of the renovation: recapturing a sense of the building’s original grandeur.

The other goals were creating new spaces for art instruction, which was one of the museum’s original purposes, as well as making a higher quality, better functioning space that would generate more income.

The currently $13.4 million project, now about halfway through, is working toward all those goals.

A recent tour of the construction site shows the success here might stem more from rearranging the building’s flow than restoring its higher ceilings, original tile flooring and Meeting Street window openings.

The first floor will house a cafe and gift shop near Meeting, and while visitors will buy admission there, the rest of the first floor will be studio space for adults and children.

And an even more dramatic move will be opening up new glass connections between the building’s modern 1978 addition and its spacious garden. The public not only will be able to see through to the garden while standing on Meeting, they’ll be able to walk through it at no charge.

The Gibbes Museum of Art originally had a porcellain tile floor that was covered over by carpet years ago. The tiles, which are in good condition, are being restored as part of the ongoing work. Robert Behre/Staff

The Gibbes Museum of Art originally had a porcellain tile floor that was covered over by carpet years ago. The tiles, which are in good condition, are being restored as part of the ongoing work. Robert Behre/Staff

“People will walk through us instead of around us,” Mack says.

In fact, the completed interior will be considered the preferred path for those doing the Charleston Garden Walk, a public pathway that begins at the church cemeteries on Archdale Street and winds eastward through the Gibbes’ property and across Meeting to the Circular Congregational and St. Philip’s churchyards.

That’s largely because the Gibbes has relocated its offices from 135 Meeting directly across the street, where they will remain. What was office will be exhibit space, and there’s also a 5,000-square-foot addition closer to Queen Street that will handle new public restrooms, storage and other support functions.

Those entering the museum will go up either the old grand stair on the southern side, or its mirror image freshly replaced on the northside (thanks to the blueprint), or a nearby elevator. Mack says that will let visitors enter into the Gibbes’ greatest galleries first.

The good news is that adding all the artistic instructional space on the first floor won’t curtail the museum’s exhibit space, which will actually grow by about 33 percent.

The collection, now stored at the Charleston Museum, the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, will begin moving back next year, with a projected reopening in the spring.

“There are going to be works of art that people haven’t seen in 50 years,” Mack says.

Perhaps the most important of them all will be the building itself.

Image above: The view of the garden behind the Gibbes Museum of Art. One major change to the building is reworking its 1978 addition to create a much stronger link between the building and the garden.