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New Seattle Asian Art Museum design hopes to offer a new perspective

The historic building opens in February—with a new visual relationship to Volunteer Park

Behind a lawn and between two groupings of evergreen trees, a sandstone building has a large square window bay at the top right, a band of windows horizontal around the middle, and both a window bank and small, vertical windows at ground level.
SAAM’s modern, eastern expansion.
Tim Griffith/Courtesy of SAM

Overlooking the reservoir in Capitol Hill’s Volunteer Park, a majestic, stone Art Deco building is flanked by two camel sculptures. It was built in 1933 as the original home to the Seattle Art Museum (SAM)—but when the museum moved to its new home at Second and University in 1992, it became the Seattle Asian Art Museum, a place to showcase SAM’s massive collection of Asian art, which was SAM’s original focus.

For 25 years, the Asian Art Museum grew inside a place that was gorgeous—and significant, designed by Carl F.Gould of Bebb and Gould and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989—but originally built for a different museum. But this February, a massive renovation and expansion by LMN Architects gives the historic building both a home of its own and a stronger connection to the park around it.

The Asian Art Museum building hadn’t ever been significantly improved or renovated, a pretty dramatic problem for a building more than 80 years old in the middle of a major seismic zone. Technology for preserving art has also improved significantly since that time, and the aging building lacked the necessary temperature and humidity controls.

SAAM’s original 1933 facade, before and after restoration.
Shutterstock and Tim Griffith

So for two years, the Asian Art Museum shut its doors so its building could be renovated into something that’s not just up to modern standards, but built specifically for its programming needs. It was also an opportunity to restore the building’s already significant features to their original glory and better connect a mostly closed-off structure to the wide open space of the surrounding Olmsted park.

Visitors still enter through the iconic western frontage, now with preserved, original sandstone and newly-glazed glass. A walk through the original lobby still leads to the Fuller Garden Court—a minimalist, central hub designed for both gathering and programming—which has been restored to something closer to what it looked like in 1933. But that connects to a new, third lobby, encased in glass overlooking the east side of the park.

A room with stone walls with horizontal blocks, two open entryways on the far wall, and wide doors with iron ornamentation and gates on either side.
The restored Fuller Garden Court.
Tim Griffith/Courtesy of SAM

Along with the new lobby, the remodel expands the Asian Art Museum’s programming space, with a new 2,650-square–foot gallery, education studio, conservation center, and community meeting room, in addition to behind-the-scenes improvements like a new art elevator and HVAC controls. Three fountains—two inside, one outside—were also refurbished in the remodel. Restoration of Olmsted-designed pathways around the museum also enhance the museum’s relationship to the park.

All together, the remodel expanded the Asian Art Museum’s gallery space from 12,276 square feet to 16,173 square feet.

“The project restores the original character of the museum, enhancing the Fuller Garden Court as a central gathering space but also creating a new sense of expectation that is reinforced by the two new portals that open to a lobby suspended above the park,” says Wendy Pautz, a design partner at LMN. “From the elevation of the tree canopy, museum visitors experience a new relationship to the park, while park users are also able to enjoy a corresponding relationship with the art and activity in the museum.”

An aerial photograph of a park at sunset. In the middle of many trees, there’s a top of a building that combines older (forward) and newer (toward the camera) construction. There’s a large reservoir in front of it and tall buildings in the background.
The newly expanded SAAM in the greater context of Volunteer Park.
Tim Griffith/Courtesy of SAM

While the remodel had been planned for years, it wasn’t without controversy. A group called Protect Volunteer Park took issue with the plan to expand the museum’s footprint, claiming it would disrupt the views and original vision of the park. Ultimately the Seattle City Council approved the plan, and the expansion broke ground in the spring of 2018.

The city of Seattle owns the building, but the renovations were funded with both public and private funds, with a total project cost of about $56 million, according to SAM. $21 million came from the city, $1.5 million from the state, and $1.4 million from the county, but the rest of the funding was private.

The museum’s reopening weekend will be February 8 and 9, 2020, with two 12-hour days of programming, with Asian art from across time periods and cultures organized around 12 themes, with material and spiritual life divided within the building’s wings. Admission is free, but ticketed—those will be available in early December.

New programming will also include interactive exhibits, including art-making and reflection stations.

“This is a pivotal moment for SAM and for the city of Seattle,” says Amada Cruz, SAM’s CEO, in a statement. “With the completion of this project, we unveil new spaces to connect the museum’s extraordinary collection of Asian art to our lives and experiences.”

Volunteer Park

1247 15th Avenue East, , WA 98112 (206) 684-4075 Visit Website

Seattle Asian Art Museum

1400 E Prospect St, Seattle, WA 98112 Visit Website