By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Planning board approval for upgrades to the grounds of the Montclair Art Museum has been postponed due to questions over fencing details and safety concerns.
The museum’s director, architect and planner met with planning board members Aug. 26 to review final plans to renovate 3.7 acres of museum outdoor space to allow for more educational activities and more accessibility, and to bring it up to date.
“Over time [the museum] evolved to keep with the times and keep relevant. We are now looking to move outside to create an art park, to bring a similar energy of the inside to the outside,” said director Lora Urbanelli.
Plans call for a plaza on the south side of the building to serve as an outdoor gathering and museum events space. The highlight of the space would be a 48-foot wide, 10-foot high waterfall wall.
A new reflecting pond is planned for the grassy area in front of the museum on South Mountain Avenue. Plans also include removing the Hermon Atkins MacNeil bronze sculpture “The Sun Vow” — which has stood outside the museum’s entrance since 1914 — and placing a new, yet-to-be-commissioned piece of art in the pond. The tree located in the front, reportedly planted by Howard Van Vleck in 1957, 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.
The museum is seeking only one variance, for the height of the retaining walls and water wall. The wall would be 10 feet where seven is allowed, plus about three feet in fencing on top.
The overall plans to overhaul the arboretum, mainly planted by Howard Van Vleck beginning in the 1940s, has been met with criticism from the community and the township’s historic preservation consultant. Concerns include alterations to the “cultural landscape,” tree removal and the relocation of “The Sun Vow” statue.
The property is listed on the state and National Register of Historic Places.
A CHANGING LANDSCAPE
The museum and its grounds have been altered “many times” in the last 100-plus years, said architect Paul Sionas. The parking lot was added after 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; and a garage and carriage house on the property were both razed. All of these altered the landscape, he said.
Van Vleck planted a mix of plants and trees or “his favorites” from all over the world, and now those non-natives aren’t doing so well, said Sionas.
A 2013 tree survey by Urban Arborist, commissioned by the board, recommended the removal of eight trees. Sionas said it was at that point the grounds were no longer an active arboretum.
Plans now call for the relocation of nine trees and the removal of eight, including the cedar in the front that reached its peak in 1981 and is now losing limbs, according to Sionas.
“Trees don’t live forever,” he said. Seventy-six new native trees and 67 shrubs will be planted throughout the grounds. The trees along Bloomfield Avenue and South Mountain will remain, he said.
The museum grounds were developed in the 1940s as an arboretum by Van Vleck, horticulturist and honorary trustee. The property contains about 50 varieties of trees and 20 shrubs, some of which are labeled. The museum, designed by architect Albert Ross, 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 Urbanelli, and two other Sun Vows are located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Chicago Institute of Art. But the other two are at eye level, which is what the museum hopes to do with the relocation of its Sun Vow.
Local historian Lisanne Renner said the placement of “The Sun Vow” however, has never prevented the museum from displaying cutting-edge art, indoors or out.
“Old and new have coexisted just fine. Prior museum leaders have overseen four structural modifications to the museum, and none of them saw fit to separate ‘The Sun Vow’ from the building’s historic entrance,” she wrote in an Aug. 22 opinion piece for Montclair Local.
Urbanelli said she appreciates the public’s passion for keeping “The Sun Vow” in its present location, but contrary to Renner’s assertion that Evans may have left restrictions on the statue’s placement, they have found no letters or paperwork with any of his future desires. Plans now call for a more modern piece to be placed at the entrance, and “The Sun Vow” to be placed in a yet-to-be-decided spot on the grounds.
Urbanelli said similar to how curators rotate the museum’s 1,200 pieces inside, the museum board believes that moving art on the grounds is necessary to keep it relevant.
Historic Preservation Commission chair Kathleen Bennett said that the message of “The Sun Vow” of “the old age giving a lesson to the new age,” is timeless.
Frank Godlewski said he is concerned with the residents’ collective memory of the grounds.
“Can’t you move forward with for the side of the building without touching the front?” he asked.
Sionas said the original plans for the museum called for a reflecting pool and referred to a rendering dating back to 1915 of the museum front with the statue in the middle of a reflecting pool. Why it was never built, he said, no one knows.
“It’s not going away. The Sun Vow will be relocated on the grounds” into more of a sculpture garden, Urbanelli said.
SAFETY ISSUES ARISE
The creation of a plaza would create a level space for outdoor programming, music events and an eating and gathering place, said Urbanelli. Sculptures will be included on the perimeter, and the plaza would feature tables and chairs. Sionas said the area would be grassy with permeable gravel pathways.
The plaza’s placement is planned for the south side of the building, dug into the sloping area, and would require significant grading to create a level space with the water feature at the end.
During the winter months, the 10-foot water wall could be used to display artwork reflected onto it. Sionas said the museum is working with Delta Fountains in Florida, who designed the 9/11 memorial in New York City, in designing MAM’s water feature.
The retaining wall along the plaza and water wall will be terraced, fenced with cabled railings and landscaped with evergreens.
Since the top of 10-foot water wall and parts of the retaining walls are at ground level on the other side, board members raised safety issues concerns over the height of the walls, as well as over the fencing and placement of fencing that is proposed for the top of the walls.
When planner and engineer Paul Anderson was unable to directly answer where the fence would placed and its total height including the retaining walls, chairman John Wynn said the museum should come back with more specific plans and renderings.
“It’s a safety issue. I am confused. Is it on top [of the wall] or in the back [the trees]?” he said.
The hearing is set for Sept. 23.