Correction to This Article
The Design column in the April 23 Style section contained an incorrect telephone number for Hillwood Museum & Gardens. The correct number is 202-686-8500.

Michael Graves Makes Himself At Home in the Shenandoah

In the new Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, artifacts from the region's past are enhanced by the architecture of the galleries.
In the new Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, artifacts from the region's past are enhanced by the architecture of the galleries. (By Ron Blunt)
By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 23, 2005

WINCHESTER, Va. -- An architectural poem in a springtime field. That's what I was looking for as I headed out to the new Michael Graves-designed Museum of the Shenandoah Valley.

And that is what I found here, more or less. But the poem was a whole lot simpler than the one Graves initially conceived.

His original idea was to separate the museum's various functions -- display, storage, entertainment, administration -- into distinct, although linked, architectural pieces, something like a little village of attached buildings. Each unit would be a different take on a certain aspect of architectural history and the Shenandoah Valley context.

What got built, however, after a series of cost-induced design modifications, is more like an engaging one-liner -- a billboard almost -- than the rich, three-dimensional composition Graves originally visualized.

Yet to the considerable credit of both architect and client, the whittling-down process did not eliminate anything that was absolutely essential to the new museum, which opened earlier this month. Storage and exhibition spaces were folded into one large building and maintained at the intended sizes.

The interior, in a sense, saves the design. Galleries and public spaces were planned and finished with creativity and a high level of craft. The feel of an important civic structure was maintained.

"We were disappointed that the full-size, multipurpose reception hall had to go," says museum Director Jennifer Esler, "because it was something the community really needed."

What the community did get, however -- and that includes both the Shenandoah Valley and the Washington region as a whole -- is more important: a first-rate regional museum.

Unlike many a new museum with an ambitious building program but little in the way of collections, this one started out with a core of fairly high-quality art objects. These were assembled by Julian Wood Glass Jr., the last private owner of the estate on which the building is situated.

Glass, who died in 1992, was a descendant of the family that originally built the nearby Glen Burnie Historic House in the 1790s. He collected mainly European paintings, drawings and furniture of the 18th and 19th centuries. What the new museum would desperately need, Esler realized, was a full complement of valley-made materials. With a lot of luck, given the soaring market for old American furniture and crafts, the museum was able to reach this goal in less than a decade.

The result, in the capable hands of the 1717 Design Group of Richmond and Williamsburg multimedia company Two Rivers, is a fascinating tour of the valley's history.

Although there are plenty of interactive exhibits in a pleasant variety of large and small galleries, they do not dominate the museum-goer's experience here. Rather, as it should be (but often is not), the electronics are thoughtfully integrated into displays focusing on real objects from the valley's past.

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