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Harvard: New museum site is a better location, costs less

Thomas Lentz, director of the Harvard University Art Museums, says that the new site on Western Avenue in Allston "makes sense for us, and makes sense for the university." (pat greenhouse/THE BOSTON GLOBE/file 2004)

Harvard's new plan for building a permanent art museum in Allston will save the university money, but it could delay a planned renovation of the Fogg and Busch-Reisinger museums.

The recent decision to switch building sites in Allston, from 1380 Soldiers Field Road to 224 Western Ave., means a more central location for the Harvard University Art Museums to open a space that will ultimately be dedicated to contemporary art, said HUAM director Thomas Lentz.

In recent interviews, Lentz and Sean Buffington, Harvard's associate provost for arts and culture, provided more details on the changes announced Dec. 11.

"We know that what we're doing is not going to be inexpensive," said Lentz, who declined to provide any cost projections on the project. "But what I think is in our favor is we have a plan that makes sense for us, and makes sense for the university."

What didn't make sense, he said, was the earlier site, particularly when cost estimates came in.

In February, Harvard announced plans to renovate a former Citizens Bank and construct a second building on a 3-acre site at 1380 Soldiers Field Road to be used as a temporary home when it closes the Fogg and Busch-Reisinger museums for renovation in 2008. HUAM staff and the majority of the 250,000 objects in Harvard's collection would move to the Allston location when the Cambridge museums closed. When they reopened, the art would move back and Harvard would create a permanent Allston museum largely to house its contemporary art collection. But Harvard did not then announce a site for the permanent museum. (The Arthur M. Sackler Museum will remain open throughout to give HUAM an on-campus presence.)

Then the Los Angeles-based Daly Genik Architects began designing the temporary space. (Renzo Piano is set to renovate the Fogg and Busch-Reisinger museums.) It wouldn't be cheap, largely because the building on Soldiers Field Road was designed for a bank and didn't meet specifications for housing art. Floors would have to be strengthened and rooms sealed to allow for climate control. The project, which Harvard had hoped would cost $20 million to $40 million, looked as it if might cost more than $50 million, Buffington said.

"Not only was it going to be wildly expensive, but at the end of it, you'd say, 'Gee, we're going to spend a great deal of money and when we don't need it anymore, then it's not even suitable as an office building,' " he said .

The building at the 1.6-acre site on Western Avenue will be permanent. So while it will cost more than the Soldiers Field Road project, it will be less expensive than building a temporary space and a second, permanent museum, Lentz and Buffington said. In addition, the Western Avenue site is about 1.5 miles from Harvard's Cambridge campus, in the center of the university's plans for Allston. Lentz had taken to calling the Soldiers Field Road site, about 2.5 miles away from campus, "Western Siberia."

In the next few months, Harvard will determine the cost of the plan and the architects will develop a design. But the timing of the project will probably affect the Fogg and Busch-Reisinger renovations. Those museums are closing to the public in 2008, before the new museum will be completed. Harvard will either have to wait for construction to be finished in Allston before moving staff and objects there or come up with an alternative space to house them in the meantime. Harvard cannot start the Fogg and Busch-Reisinger renovations until the museums are empty. It will take about a year to package and move all the works out of them.

"We've been waiting for this renovation for 50 years," said Buffington. "So I think from Tom's point of view, if we can close the Fogg and begin the process while the Fogg is closed, of packing things, protecting things, and preparing to move, a difference of a couple of months would seem acceptable."

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com. For more arts news, go to boston.com/ae/theater_arts/exhibitionist.

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