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Museum of Fine Arts revives expansion plan

By LENNIE BENNETT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 26, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG - Wanted: Architect. Job description: Design a 36,000-square-foot addition to the Museum of Fine Arts. Caveats: Don't mess with the beloved Palladian facade, and don't block the waterfront view.

That is the essence of a classified ad running in today's St. Petersburg Times and a notice being circulated by the American Institute of Architects on behalf of the board of trustees of the Beach Drive museum.

It restarts a process museum officials began about three years ago, when now-retired director Michael Milkovich unveiled plans for a 50,000-square-foot addition to the museum's north side, then quietly let them die.

"We received invaluable feedback from that," said George Rahdert, chairman of the building committee and an attorney who represents the Times on First Amendment issues. "We had an idea and rejected it based on community reaction."

Specifically, critics said, the addition was too big, took up too much green space and would make the museum look lopsided.

"We asked the committee to take another look at the idea, to see what we really needed," said current museum director John Schloder.

"We want more gallery space for special exhibitions, 7,500 to 10,000 square feet," Schloder said. "An education, public programming wing, something interactive for adults and children. Some kind of auditorium. Possibly a cafe."

More gallery space would be created to showcase more of the permanent collection, about 10 percent of which can now be shown at any time, Schloder said.

Schloder and Rahdert said they want to be open-minded about the design, but they seem to favor two symmetrical additions on the north and south ends of the building, extensions of the two-story wings that spread behind the main entrance and bracket the galleries. They also want the back of the museum, mostly windowless walls, opened up to the waterfront view. The Palladian facade, a serene, gentle curve of columns, will not be altered.

No specific plans mean no specific budget or timetable, though officials and trustees hope to bring in the project for $10-million to $15-million and have a set of working drawings by early next year. Fundraising would begin in earnest to coincide with the museum's 40th anniversary in 2005. Schloder said he has some cash and commitments in hand; he declined to name donors or specific amounts.

- Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com

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