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Enough Room to Breathe

Once confined to a historic house, the Long Beach Museum of Art solves its growing pains without losing its character.

September 17, 2000|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

"Just like a real museum," says Hal Nelson, director of the Long Beach Museum of Art, proudly showing off the seaside institution's sparkling new addition. And indeed it is. Scheduled to open next Sunday, the two-story, glass-front, barn-like structure designed by Santa Monica-based architects Frederick Fisher and Partners boasts clean white galleries, a light-filled atrium, a multipurpose room with a view of the ocean, and facilities for art preparation and storage.

Compared with the spectacular mega-museums that pop up with increasing frequency around the world these days, Long Beach's new facility is tiny. The entire 12,800-square-foot building--grand staircase, dramatic lobby, ocean-view deck and all--would fit into the lobby of the Tate Gallery of Modern Art in London or the largest gallery at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, with plenty of room to spare.

Nonetheless, the $6.5-million Long Beach project, which includes the new structure along with an ambitious renovation and reconfiguration of the original buildings and grounds, is a dramatic transformation. Once a quaint old residence struggling to be a proper museum, it's now a stylish cultural center and showcase for fine and decorative arts.

The new building stands on the former site of the carriage house, just west of the historic residence. The carriage house, which formerly contained offices, a shop and a coffee house, has been moved behind the old house and converted into a children's education center. The renovated house now has a cafe and shop on the first floor, and offices and a library upstairs. The renovations were also directed by Fisher.

Outside, a fountain made by sculptor Claire Falkenstein has been moved from the side lawn to a central place of honor, where it can be seen through picture windows overlooking the ocean. Overgrown shrubs that once shrouded the house have been replaced with smaller plants. Among more mundane but essential improvements are a 38-space parking lot a half-block west of the museum, and a traffic light and pedestrian walkway, allowing visitors who park on the north side of Ocean Avenue to get to the museum without risking their lives.

All these changes have been a long time coming, and they have occupied much of Nelson's time since 1989, when he took charge of the museum. A much more ambitious plan, announced in 1991, called for the construction of a $15-million facility downtown on land donated by the Long Beach Redevelopment Agency. When that proved too expensive, the museum developed a $6-million proposal to move into a downtown building formerly occupied by Thrift Village. But many of the museum's supporters wanted to retain the historic building and grounds.

"After we reviewed other options, we decided that this was home, this was the place where we wanted to stay," Nelson says. "It's the heart of the community; some people call it the community's living room. It's a comfortable place to come, to be, to look, to learn, to listen to music, so we very much wanted to stay here."

Despite earlier plans to move, he says he has always considered the Arts and Crafts-style house to be "one of the finest works of art in the museum's collection." And now that the new building has freed the house from accommodating almost all of the museum's programs and operations, the old structure has been conserved "in a way that's worthy of its beauty and its historical importance." What's more, he says, the process of research and renovation not only yielded information about the building itself, but also revealed that the property is an essential component of the city's history.

The wood and brick house was built in 1912 as the summer residence of Elizabeth Milbank Anderson, a New York-based philanthropist and heir to financier Jeremiah Milbank, who was a founder of both the Borden Co. and the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad. The architectural firm she chose was the Milwaukee Building Co., which became known as Meyer & Holler and designed several Southern California landmarks, including the Chinese and Egyptian theaters in Hollywood.

Anderson died in 1921, and the property changed hands several times. In 1926, it became Club California Casa Real, Long Beach's first social, athletic and beach club. Three years later, the club succumbed to the Great Depression and to competition from a new beach club nearby.

Members of several Long Beach women's organizations then petitioned the city to purchase the facility and turn it into an art museum, but money was not available. The house was sold to Thomas A. O'Donnell, the first chief executive of the American Petroleum Institute, who moved in with his family, faced the buildings with red brick and constructed a brick wall around the property. In the early 1940s, when fear of attack during World War II drove some coastal residents further inland, O'Donnell relocated his family and leased the house to the U.S. Navy as its Chief Petty Officers Club.

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