Museum to unveil plan for $35 million building

After seven years of stops and starts, the Jewish Museum San Francisco is four days away from unveiling plans for its new $35 million building — but more than 2-1/2 years away from its grand opening.

Museum officials will go before the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency on Tuesday to present the schematic design for the museum, which they hope to build in the city's burgeoning Yerba Buena cultural area.

However, the agency's seven-member governing commission won't vote on the plans until next month at the earliest, said Connie Wolf, the museum's director and new CEO.

The Tuesday meeting at San Francisco's City Hall will make the plans publicly available for "review and discussion," she said. The proposed site for the museum is on Jessie Street, a small lane near the intersection of Third and Mission streets.

Despite the museum staff's excitement about Tuesday's meeting, there is still a long way to go, said Rabbi Brian Lurie, the museum's president and former CEO.

He revealed this week that the new target date for completion of the 70,000 square-foot facility now is either late 2002 or early 2003. The first work on the site is tentatively scheduled for November of this year.

When plans to build a new museum were originally announced in the early '90s, the target date for completion was 1999. As recently as last year, the target date was late 2001 orearly 2002.

The project was thrown off track three years ago when the first set of plans was scrapped and the museum parted company with the original architect, Peter Eisenman.

In early 1997, Eisenman presented a design to the redevelopment agency that outraged the Jewish Museum's future neighbors. Eisenman had designed a shared plaza that critics argued featured the Jewish Museum too prominently and diverted foot traffic away from the others.

Officials of the future Mexican Museum were among the loudest critics of the old plan, but they are apparently pleased with the new plans for the square.

"There isn't any ill-feeling whatsoever," said Emma-Louise Anderson, a publicist for the Mexican Museum, which is slated to be completed in 2002. "Everyone is happy with [the new] Jessie Square."

To be revealed Tuesday is a design by world-renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, whose buildings in Germany and England are noted for their wildly dramatic forms that are at once modern and classical.

"I understand the design is just magnificent," said Helen Sause, the redevelopment agency's project director for the Yerba Buena area.

The design incorporates a historic landmark, the red-brick Jessie Street substation, which was built in 1907. PG&E used the substation for many years; it has stood vacant for the past 20 years. The facade of the 16,000 square-foot building features an arched doorway and Romanesque detailing.

Inside, the new museum will house a 12,000 square-foot main gallery spread over two floors for the "core exhibition series." Right now, the plan is to showcase four to six new core exhibits every year; 18 exhibits have been penciled in so far.

Temporary shows, traveling exhibits and exhibits on loan from other museums will be displayed in another 8,000 square feet of space.

The total of 20,000 square feet of display space is approximately five times as much space as the Jewish Museum has at its current location in the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation building on Steuart Street.

By comparison, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has 50,000 square feet of gallery space.

Plans for the new Jewish Museum include five floors, two below ground. There will be three seminar rooms, two classrooms, offices, a 275-seat theater, and a restaurant and cafe.

The price tag for the entire project is $100 million — of which $33 million will go into an endowment fund.

Approximately $60 million will go toward the building, including $35 million for construction and the balance for "soft" costs such as moving, computers and furniture, wiring, architect and engineer fees, and opening ceremonies.

Another $7 million will go toward "ramping up" the staff, Lurie said, "taking us up from where we are now to where we will have to be."

So far, about $25 million has been raised. The museum hopes to raise four-fifths of the grand total, or $80 million, in a "silent campaign" seeking 60 gifts of between $500,000 and $10 million.

As much as 80 percent of the money will be sought from outside the Bay Area community because "this is not just a local museum," Lurie said. "This is going to have national and international ramifications."

Officials at the 16-year-old museum shied away from disclosing the precise look of the new facility, insisting that the redevelopment agency doesn't want the plans made public until Tuesday.

But Wolf said the plans are "dynamic," and others agreed.

"The building represents what Judaism has always been about," she said, "the old and the new coming together and looking to the future."

Peter Stein, the museum's director of exhibitions, said refurbishing a landmark building with a sweeping modern design "is exactly the kind of combination of tradition and cutting-edge that the Bay Area has always embraced."

He also added that the new museum will be "a wonderful addition to the landscape of the city."

Stein, who worked for San Francisco's KQED-TV Channel 9 for 11 years, joined the museum staff in October after serving on the museum board since 1997.

His collaboration with Libeskind on the interior design stemmed not from his previous museum experience — he had none — but from his vision as an artist. A documentary filmmaker, Stein was the executive director of KQED's "Neighborhood" series, earning a Peabody Award for the episode on the Castro District, which he wrote and directed.

He has sought the insight of rabbis, professors and many others, including Stephen Leavitt, the museum board president, while shaping the museum's ever-changing core exhibition series.

The themes of that series will focus on Jewish ideas about life, or, as Lurie put it, "how to live the good life."

Two core exhibits will be on display at all times and will change every four to six months. They will "address key themes in human life that have a resonance in the Jewish community," Stein said.

Lurie said he doesn't want the new facility to be "just an ethnic museum." Of the more than 275,000 visitors he anticipates every year, he believes two-thirds will not be Jewish.

After softly criticizing museums that keep the same main exhibit year after year, Stein said, "We hope to create a continuing set of engaging encounters for Jews and non-Jews alike."

The museum will allow people to experience Judaism "in a cultural rather than religious setting," he added.

Lurie agreed. "This is not going to be a synagogue," he said.

What it will be is an interactive, technology-laden museum with a hands-on methodology that somewhat echoes San Francisco's Exploratorium.

For example, a possible exhibit on language would convey that even though Jews have been scattered throughout the world for 2,000 years, they have been linked by a common language, Hebrew.

The exhibit might include a video projection of Hebrew letters, a station where kids can write their name in English and the equivalent in Hebrew will pop up, a sound corridor, a place to write poems that future visitors could then read, a virtual Tower of Babel, a contemporary artist's interpretation of a page in the Talmud, or a camcorder to document people speaking in Hebrew.

Discussing the camcorder, Stein said, "We could weave that into a collage for the next visitors. They'd be able to feel the sounds and the accents of the people that came before them. You'll be able to actually feel the presence of the community."

In addition to language, Stein said the other exhibits will explore "debate, memory, land, laughter and ritual," among other topics.

"These are all strands of the Jewish experience that kind of weave together the Jewish identity," he said. "They are also key aspects of human life…and provide excellent connecting points between Jewish life and the larger community we live in."

To help make those points accessible to present and future generations, museum planners want to make sure the facility will be up to speed in terms of technology.

But there's one small problem. "By the time we open the museum, it's going to be a very different world," Wolf said. "Just think about the last three years and how much [technology] has changed."

What planners are doing, Wolf said, is attempting to ensure that the museum will be completely wired. For example, they are studying whether every seat in the auditorium should be wired for electricity, interactive capabilities and/or the Internet.

Stein said he has worked closely with Libeskind to create a space that fits hand and glove with his vision for the programs.

"Our thoughts have influenced the building design," he added. "We didn't say, 'This needs to be square instead of curved' or anything like that, but we were an active client."

Libeskind's previous work has generally been as foreboding as it has been stark, Stein said.

At the Jewish extension of the Berlin Museum, for example, Stein said he was blown away by Libeskind's work. It's "a zig-zag design that seemingly winds itself into infinity…and cut through this jagged form is a single axis, and it's an axis of voids, empty spaces in the middle of the museum. It's a very powerful metaphor about voids, something that is missing."

But the designs for the Jewish Museum San Francisco reveal a more optimistic vision, Stein said.

"The [Libeskind] buildings that people know about are these painful Holocaust experiences, and they've asked, 'Isn't this going to be a very painful and dark design? Isn't that the kind of architecture he does?' The answer is no. He was responding to the stories of those museums."

Stein said the new Jewish Museum will be telling a different kind of story.

"I think Daniel right from the get-go saw this project in San Francisco as the dawn as opposed to his darkness," Stein said. "What he's trying to do in San Francisco is see how the life force of the Jewish experience continues to push forward. In a way, this might be the first institution to address the Jewish future, not only the Jewish past."

The developer for the building is Millennium Partners, a New York firm headed by Phil Aarons. Millennium is one of the largest developers in San Francisco; it built the Metreon entertainment center and is curly building the Four Seasons hotel and condominiums, a 42-story skyscraper that will tower over the Jewish Museum.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.