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Harvard opts to renovate museums as Allston waits

Harvard University has decided to delay building an art museum in Allston, focusing instead on a complicated and expensive renovation of the existing Fogg and Busch-Reisinger museums in Cambridge.

The decision is a blow to the Harvard University Art Museums' plan to create a proper home for contemporary art, historically given little attention by the university. But it does mean Harvard's administration has formally given the green light to start a renovation project that could take until 2013 to complete, could cost well over $100 million, and is considered long overdue. Designed by architect Renzo Piano, the renovation will force the Fogg and Busch-Reisinger museums to close their doors for about five years, starting next June.

The Fogg, built in 1927 and located at 32 Quincy St., desperately needs a renovation, according to HUAM director Thomas Lentz. Its roof leaks, its major systems - from plumbing to electrical - are outdated, and there is no climate control in its galleries, where large floor fans circulate air in the summertime. The Busch-Reisinger, which is connected to the Fogg, was built in 1991.

"I won't beat around the bush," said Lentz. "It's not the best possible story for modern and contemporary art, but Quincy Street . . . is now 50 years overdue for renovation, and in Harvard's view this is a matter of extreme urgency. In many ways, this will always be the mother ship of art museums at Harvard."

The shift marks the latest change to Harvard's plans to build an art museum in Allston.

In February 2006, the university disclosed plans to renovate a former bank and add a second building on an Allston site 2.5 miles from the Harvard campus, at 1380 Soldiers Field Road. This site would temporarily house staff, store materials, and serve as a satellite museum while work took place on Quincy Street. Then in December, the university decided to change course because the Soldiers Field Road project was considered too expensive for a temporary home. Deciding to build a permanent new museum, officials chose a spot a mile closer to campus on "Barry's Corner," at 224 Western Ave. in Allston.

Some neighbors subsequently complained about the Allston project, raising questions about its size and the amount of space used for storage and offices. There has also been concern at Harvard about the cost of taking on both the Allston and Cambridge projects simultaneously. Harvard officials won't say how much the university expects to spend on either the renovation or the proposed new building, which is still planned for the "Barry's Corner" site.

With the Cambridge museums closing, HUAM's more than 250,000 works will be represented only in a sampling of pieces to be shown at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, which is across the street from the Fogg at 485 Broadway. The Sackler has 10,000 square feet of galleries, half the display space of the museums that are closing. The remaining art will be put in storage.

Harvard officials stress that the Allston project is merely being delayed, not canceled. The project simply was too complicated to push forward before acting on the Quincy Street renovation, they explain. The timetable for the Allston project, as well as more details about both the renovation and the new museum, could come later this year, they say.

"We just could not make the timing schedule work for both projects, and rather than have the Quincy Street project wait, we decided to give the art museums the go ahead to do the Quincy Street plan," said Kathy Spiegelman, chief planner of Harvard's Allston Development Group.

When asked whether the projects' costs were a factor in the delay, Spiegelman said, "The decision was driven more by the timing and the planning. But obviously the university is cost-conscious of everything we're doing."

The decision to delay the Allston project pleased Harry Mattison, an Allston resident and member of the Harvard Allston Task Force, who did not like what he heard earlier this year about plans for the new museum. Mattison says he felt the building, as discussed, was too large for the site and featured too little space accessible to the public. He considered it more a warehouse or office building than an art museum. He looks forward to hearing more details about the university's plan.

"Allston would love to have an art museum," he said.

Lentz says that's going to happen. He says the Allston project, in many ways, won't be as complicated as the renovation of the existing museums. That means it potentially could be completed before 2013.

Cost, Lentz acknowledges, is an issue with the Allston project. So are proposals for a range of other cultural facilities in Harvard's expanded Allston campus.

"I think a wider, overriding concern is how it is all going to work in Allston? How do the art museums relate to performing arts facilities or theater facilities or music facilities?" Lentz said. "Those are all big, thorny questions to grapple with."

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.

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