Redevelopment Agency OKs Jewish Museum

Architectural plans for the new Jewish Museum San Francisco were approved unanimously by the city's Redevelopment Agency this week.

The reception provided a sharp contrast to the melee that occurred three years ago when other plans were unveiled.

Tuesday, a parade of speakers addressed the seven-member commission. But this time they came to praise the concept, not to bury it.

Representatives for the neighboring Metreon, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Mexican Museum and the San Francisco Architectural Heritage Foundation bestowed blessings for the design by celebrated architect Daniel Libeskind.

Libeskind's design features a virtually unaltered Jessie Street Substation, a landmark red-brick building from 1907, with a kaleidoscopic glass extension that resembles a multifaceted tower laid gently on its side.

Architect Ed Ong, who had reviewed the plans, offered a glowing appraisal to the seven-member commission. The principle in adding to historic buildings, he said, is that the additions should be distinctive and "visually different" from the core structure.

"Here we see a further evolution of that principle," with both elements "interwoven into a single architectural design while maintaining a clear delineation between old and new," he added.

Addressing the smiling commissioners, the museum's board chair, Stephen Leavitt, said, "I hope to see you all at our opening. Drop by."

They need not mark their calendars now: The opening of the $35 million building is at least 2-1/2 years away.

The 70,000 square-foot structure will be a jewel in the crown of the Yerba Buena art district near the intersection of Third and Mission streets, predicted Connie Wolf, museum director and CEO. Its immediate neighbors are St. Patrick's Cathedral, another landmark building, and the future Mexican Museum.

Rabbi Brian Lurie, president of the Jewish Museum, pinned the likely target date for completion in late 2002 or early 2003.

Its original timeline self-destructed three years ago when museum officials presented a proposal by New York architect Peter Eisenman.

It was roundly booed by critics as cold and elitist. Outraged neighbors — including the Mexican Museum and St. Patrick's — revealed they were shown the design for the first time only hours before it was presented to the seven-member commission in a January 1997 meeting.

Eisenman also generated shock waves by redesigning a plaza that the three cultural icons will share.

But Libeskind's concept has stilled the waters.

Community-based groups such as the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association and the Yerba Buena Alliance have "enthusiastically endorsed this design," according to Jim Morales, a commissioner and a former city supervisor.

"I wanted to express how excited we are about this addition to the block," said David Dial, executive director of the nearby Zeum, an art and technology center for young people. "But also, how thankful we are that the Jewish Museum has kept us involved in every step of this process."

Libeskind was so immersed in environmental compatibility that he considered the coloration of exterior buildings such as the Marriott, Millennium Tower and the Mexican Museum, in addition to the hue of the bricks of the Jessie Street Substation.

The architect has designed numerous buildings in Germany and England. He is known for his fanciful blend of classic and contemporary elements — sometimes to bold, stark effect.

His design for the Jewish Museum here will create 20,000 square feet of exhibit space on five floors. The tab: $100 million, $33 million of which will be placed in an endowment fund.

Officials have raised some $25 million so far. Wolf told the commission the museum board is committed to raising the funds for the project.

Its New York-based developer, Millennium Partners, is a powerhouse in San Francisco development. Its projects include the Metreon entertainment center.

Libeskind's much-acclaimed Jewish Museum in Berlin has already drawn more than 150,000 visitors — and it has yet to house any art.

A tall building is placed amid nondescript, post-World War II era houses. Its metallic exterior is broken only by windows whose dissected panes suggest a Star of David. Peter Stein, the Jewish Museum San Francisco exhibitions director, calls the Berlin facade "a zigzag design that seemingly winds itself into infinity."

The $60 million Berlin building has created such a sensation that many stalwarts would prefer it remain empty.

The Berlin museum's director, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Michael Blumenthal, has announced that the museum's collection will not be installed until at least October 2001.

Blumenthal blamed the yearlong postponement on a faulty air conditioning system whose repair might mean closing the building to visitors.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco museum still must go back to the commission for review of three new "amendments" to the approved concept. These are minor details, according to Benny Yee, commission chair.

"It is always very impressive to me when we see a lot of very competent people put in a lot of long hours in a cooperative project," Yee said.

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Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.