BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Plans to upgrade the grounds of the Montclair Art Museum have been met with criticism from the community and the township’s historic preservation consultant over alterations to the “cultural landscape,” tree removals and the relocation of the bronze statue by Hermon Atkins MacNeil located at the entrance since the museum opened in 1914.
The museum grounds were developed in the 1940s as an arboretum by Howard Van Vleck, horticulturist and honorary trustee. The property contains about 50 varieties of trees and 20 shrubs, some of which are labeled. The museum itself opened in 1914 as the brainchild of William T. Evans and Florence Lang, who merged their collections for installation into the museum. Those works included art by George Inness, Frederick Ballard, Charles Warren Eaton and Charles Parson, all of whom were part of Montclair’s artist colony in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Evans also donated the Sun Vow bronze statue, which sits on a rock outside the museum entrance. Bronze statues are typically duplicated, said MAM director Lora Urbanelli, and two other Sun Vows are located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Chicago Institute of Art.
The property is listed on the state and National Register of Historic Places.
The museum board of directors has presented plans to renovate its 3.7 acres of outdoor space for more educational activities and to bring it up to date. On June 27, Historical Preservation Commission members were positive overall about the plans, which will now head to the planning board on July 8.
Plans call for a plaza on the south side of the building to serve as an outdoor gathering and museum events space. The project will require significant grading to create a level space. Artwork will be included on the perimeter, and the plaza will feature tables and chairs. Architect Paul Sionas said the area would be grassy with permeable gravel pathways. The highlight of the space will be a 48-foot wide, 10-foot high, waterfall wall. When the water is turned off, the wall can be used as a movie screen for outdoor summer film screenings, or to display artwork reflected on it during the winter. The retaining wall along the northern end of the plaza will be terraced and landscaped.
A new reflecting pond is planned for the grassy area in front of the museum on S. Mountain Avenue. Plans also include removing the Sun Vow sculpture and place a new, yet-to-be-commissioned piece of art in the pond. The cypress tree located in the front, reportedly planted by Van Vleck, will also be removed.
The circular driveway connecting the parking lot to the turn-around area will be repaved with granite blocks. Handicapped parking spaces along the driveway will also be reconfigured.
Sionas told the Historic Preservation Commission that original plans for the museum called for a reflecting pool and referred to a rendering dating back to 1915 of the museum front with people in top hats and with the statue in the middle of a reflecting pool.
“Why it [the pond] was not done, we don’t know,” he said.
Thomas Connolly, the HPC’s architectural consultant, warned against “false historicism” in regards to plans for individual features such as the “unrealized historic design” for the reflecting pool, as well as the entire landscape. He suggested that the designers look to the standards set by the National Parks Service for conservation.
As for altering the grade to create a plaza, Connelly said,“the question the design team needs to ask is what was the nature of the landscape prior to 1913 and how will the design alter it?”
Sionas retorted that the museum and its grounds have been altered “many times” in the last 100-plus years. The parking lot was added with the advent of the automobile; a large addition was constructed on the southeast side of building in 1930, and another was built on the northeast corner in 2000; a loading dock was built; a 200-year-old elm tree was taken down in 1957 — all of these altered the landscape, he said.
“The property has evolved, the landscape has evolved, parking has evolved, and the building has evolved with the times,” Sionas said.
The plaza would create a level space for outdoor programming, music events and a place for people to eat and gather.
Van Vleck planted a mix of native plants and trees, and some from all over the world as being quoted “as his favorites.” And now the non-natives aren’t doing so well, said Sionas, pointing to a 2013 tree survey by Urban Arborist commissioned by the board.
Original plans listed in the application that included removal of 22 mature trees have been changed to affect 19 trees and include the removal of 12 trees — three of which are overgrown Japanese yew shrubs and the beloved cypress in the front of the building — and the relocation of seven trees.
Connolly conceded that vegetation has a lifespan, but that conservation requires maintenance, and removal and relocation is not keeping with parks service standards.
Deb Ellis, co-leader of the Essex County chapter of the Native Plant Society, told Montclair Local that although her chapter promotes the planting of native trees and plants species, she does not promote the taking down of any healthy tree. She recommends at least a one-to-one replacement of trees with natives. Whatever is planted will need maintaining, however, she said.
Frank Godlewski, the only person to speak during public comment, suggested that the landscape remain consistent with the other sweeping lawns on South Mountain Avenue and that the cypress tree be replaced by another.
“I understand that an art museum will not survive unless it adapts to time place,” said commission member Stephen Rooney, adding moving the sculpture “was the museum’s business.”
Board member Caroline Kane Levy said the plans offered “an elegant design” that, when completed, would be a gift to the people of Montclair. However, she did suggest that Sun Vow be incorporated in the reflecting pool, as did commissioner David Greenbaum.
Sionas said the building itself however has retained the original architect’s plan of creating a “temple on the hill.”