washingtonpost.com  > Columns > Design

Cooper-Hewitt Has Designs on Expansion

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 18, 2005; Page C03

Add to the Nation's Attic a plan for one really hip basement.

The Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum is contemplating a $75 million underground expansion at its historic New York headquarters.

A preliminary document drawn up by staff and trustees envisages a major dig and construction under the garden of the Carnegie Mansion at 91st Street and Fifth Avenue. The plan would add 22,000 square feet of exhibition space, for a total of 30,000 square feet.

Three levels, including flexible modern exhibition space, would address a pressing problem: how to stage serious large-scale shows of industrial design and architecture in living rooms created for a turn-of-the-century steel baron.

"This is an accurate reflection of the aspirations of the institution," museum director Paul Warwick Thompson said yesterday. "We feel design is a big subject which demands more space."

The Cooper-Hewitt has long been known as a repository of fine old candlesticks, lace, porcelain and silver. But design in the modern context includes the latest slick gear from Nike and huge shipping containers retrofitted as refugee housing.

Thompson said no renderings exist of the plan, first reported by the New York Times. The $75 million is a rough figure based on price per square foot of underground construction.

"It's very, very ballpark," Thompson added. "There is no time frame."

The museum announced a comprehensive five-year plan last summer, with "gallery reorganization" among the goals. There was no mention then of a big dig or a master plan, which is being developed by the architecture and planning firm Beyer Blinder Belle. What Thompson calls "an internal working document" now making the rounds mentions a restaurant to supplement the existing carryout cafe, and space for conservation and storage.

Ned Rifkin, the Smithsonian undersecretary who oversees the Cooper-Hewitt, was out of town and did not return phone calls seeking comment. The Cooper-Hewitt describes itself as the only museum in the nation dedicated exclusively to historic and contemporary design. Founded in 1897 by Amy, Eleanor and Sarah Hewitt -- granddaughters of industrialist Peter Cooper -- as part of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, it became part of the Smithsonian system in 1967.

The collection includes 250,000 examples of decorative arts, domestic objects and drawings from 24 centuries. In a sign of the times, the next show, "Extreme Textiles: Designing for High Performance," will include a Formula One racing car as an example of high-tech carbon fibers.

The museum declined to provide a copy of the document, but Thompson acknowledged that it includes some sharp judgments, such as a statement that the number of visitors per year is "stubbornly stuck" at 150,000. Fundraising was labeled "immature," but the director had only compliments for the "extraordinary generosity and enthusiasm" of New Yorkers.

The Cooper-Hewitt has an operating budget of $14 million, of which the Smithsonian contributes $4 million for building maintenance and security. According to the Times report, the internal document states that because of space constraints, galleries must be closed to set up new shows, which resulted in a loss of $300,000 in potential revenue last year.

Thompson came to the Cooper-Hewitt in March 2001 from London's white-walled Design Museum. He has made no secret of his frustration with the dark-paneled mansion. In a 2002 interview, he said it reminded him of "some dismal corner of Transylvania" or an English boarding school.

"Mercifully, fashions and tastes change," he said then.

Improvements have been made, notably the creation of a circular admissions desk under an iconic light fixture by Ingo Maurer. A $2 million gallery is dedicated to the display of the permanent collection, and Thompson has commissioned a series of small exhibitions by high-profile guest curators. Later this year, a gallery for digital and other designs will be opened in the basement, but that will give curators only an additional 800 square feet.

Thompson dismissed moving from the mansion, which has landmark status, or setting up an off-site annex for bigger shows. When a museum has two locations, he said, "one party tends to wither on the vine."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company