The New Greenwich Gateway

In 1853 Francis Lister Hawks, a renowned Episcopalian clergyman and historian, built a forbidding stone mansion overlooking Greenwich Harbor. People called it “the Hawks’ Nest.” Never one to stay anywhere for long (Christ Church cemetery excepted), Hawks soon sold the house to Robert M. Bruce, a New York cotton tycoon who, in old age, showered gifts upon Greenwich as though in place of the beloved family (two wives, three children) who died before him. Among these gifts was the mansion, which Bruce envisioned as a “natural history, historical and art museum.” Bruce died in 1909. For many years thereafter, visitors to the Bruce Museum of Arts and Science could be forgiven any shudders of dread they felt on approaching the old pile. The spooky, mansard-roofed tower and blustery widow’s walk made the place resemble nothing so much as the Addams Family mansion, and it was easy to picture a fat old buzzard up there, waiting to pluck off tender children straggling behind their oblivious parents. The interior rooms were no cheerier. Dark and dank, you strolled through them vividly aware of a taxidermied eagle peering at you through the gloaming as you tiptoed toward the minerals and bird eggs on exhibit. (The museum might have been nicer than that, but such is one’s psychological memory circa 1972.) In 1853 Francis Lister Hawks, a renowned Episcopalian clergyman and historian, built a forbidding stone mansion overlooking Greenwich Harbor. People called it “the Hawks’ Nest.” Never one to stay anywhere for long (Christ Church cemetery excepted), Hawks soon sold the house to Robert M. Bruce, a New York cotton tycoon who, in old age, showered gifts upon Greenwich as though in place of the beloved family (two wives, three children) who died before him. Among these gifts was the mansion, which Bruce envisioned as a “natural history, historical and art museum.” Bruce died in 1909. For many years thereafter, visitors to the Bruce Museum of Arts and Science could be forgiven any shudders of dread they felt on approaching the old pile. The spooky, mansard-roofed tower and blustery widow’s walk made the place resemble nothing so much as the Addams Family mansion, and it was easy to picture a fat old buzzard up there, waiting to pluck off tender children straggling behind their oblivious parents. The interior rooms were no cheerier. Dark and dank, you strolled through them vividly aware of a taxidermied eagle peering at you through the gloaming as you tiptoed toward the minerals and bird eggs on exhibit. (The museum might have been nicer than that, but such is one’s psychological memory circa 1972.)

When the New York Times reviewed “Treasures of the Bruce Museum” in 1987, it noted the chaotic nature of the collection—a giant clamshell, Cos Cob Impressionist paintings, Indian baskets, a portrait of Martha Washington one step away from a small aquarium “where languishes a horseshoe crab”—but ascribed “the muddle” to the limitations of trying to display such varied objects in such cramped quarters. “The museum was still very recognizable as a Victorian house,” recalls Anne von Stuelpnagel, the Bruce’s longtime director of exhibitions. “There was one long, skinny gallery that was originally the servants’ quarters and kitchen, and the converted dining room, and some space upstairs. Nothing was terribly well connected.”

Clearly, an expansion was needed. It got a $4.3 million one in 1992, when the architectural firm Shope Reno Wharton surrounded the vertically oriented granite house with horizontal stucco wings and an Arts and Crafts-style entrance. The new Bruce Museum attracted exhibitions that were unimaginable in the old, such as “Linda McCartney’s ’60s: Portrait of an Era” and “Scenes of American Life” featuring works by Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth and Rockwell Kent. “The quality of shows certainly got upped a notch,” von Stuelpnagel says. “And when Peter Sutton came in 2001, we raised the quality of shows to the international level.”

Peter Sutton is the Bruce’s executive director and resident magician. Tall, courtly and luxuriantly white-haired, he is an expert in the Old Master painters; he can talk about art like the scholar that he is or like a man in the street. (Leading a tour recently at the Bruce, he pointed out an immodest sketch that Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec had made of himself: “If you want to know what a short little man looks like in the nude, there you are.”) Sutton alchemizes his connections, his erudition and his charm into blockbuster exhibits. Since Sutton’s arrival, works by Rubens, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Picasso, Alfred Sisley, Hans Hofmann, Andy Warhol, Alexander Calder and Chuck Close, for starters, have graced the Bruce’s galleries. (Both Sutton and von Stuelpnagel would hasten to add that the Bruce is not all about the big show. Certain non-boldface exhibits prove equally appealing, from “The Great American Nude” to “Charles Addams, Cartoonist.”) The Chuck Close opening in 2013 had all the glamour of a New York event, with Close himself in attendance, his polished, bespectacled visage motoring through the crowd in his electric wheelchair. Last year’s Sisley exhibit “read” like a brilliant resurrection of the under-sung Impressionist, a friend of Monet and Renoir. And now his stock is rising: a Sisley winter landscape recently fetched $9.1 million at auction.

Putting these shows together is not easy: “Sisley took six years, because we don’t have anything to trade—nothing of the importance of these pictures,” Sutton tells a visitor to his office, situated up in the Hawk’s Nest. “So we have to come up with a rationale and a team of authors that persuades the lender that the context of the show will enhance their works of art.” As Sutton likes to say, the Bruce Museum punches above its weight. “We do shows that are at least as good as are done by any museum in the United States. And we export them, we’re entrepreneurial in that regard—but we can’t do the standard-sized show.”

That is, the Bruce Museum is once again too small: Its creative firepower far exceeds its space. The Sisley show accommodated fifty-one works. When it traveled to Aix- en-Provence, France, it grew by fifteen. “We’ve sent shows on to Houston, San Francisco, Seattle, the National Gallery of Ireland, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam—and they always expand them,” Sutton says. “The biggest show we can do is about sixty objects. A standard-sized show is more like 120 objects, 140 objects.”

This brings Sutton to the subject at hand. He presents a lovely, misty rendering of the new Bruce Museum—a luminous rectangle that will more than double the museum’s present size, from 30,000 square feet to 70,000 square feet. The construction timetable is not yet certain, but Sutton hopes that work on the three-story, $58-million expansion will begin this spring and wind up by late 2020. (The museum will remain open for all but a few months of the expansion period.) “This is the big plan—to pivot,” Sutton says. No longer will museumgoers enter through the rear after “trudging like a Sherpa” from the parking lot below. The new hunk of Bruce Museum will be situated in front of the present one, close to Museum Drive, and thus become its new face and entrance.

“There were a few things we thought were very problematic with the planning of the museum when we began the competition,” says architect Steve Dumez of the New Orleans firm Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, which bested thirty other top-notch firms for the job. “One was the north-facing entry and its relationship to I-95.” There’s only a narrow strip of brush and bramble separating the noisy interstate from the Bruce’s present front door. “The other was the fact that most visitors to the museum park at a lower elevation and then have to walk up the hill to the front door. And so creating a front door that was engaging and that connected the museum to the parkland around it was a critical priority for us.”

Built chiefly of cast stone and glass, the new Bruce will change appearance with the weather and time of day: In broad sunlight, it will resemble striated granite with transparent quartz embedded in it; at night it will look more like a block of shimmering aquamarine. Dumez, who earned his graduate degree at Yale, took his design cues from Connecticut’s geology and our ancestors’ handling of it. The Ice Age left our landscape strewn with granite, and old-time Connecticuters piled the boulders into stone “fences” and quarried the large deposits, scraping out stone layer by layer. The striations left in the quarry walls abstractly resemble the facing of the new Bruce, and the glass portions of the facade abstractly resemble the “lace” effect of those mortarless stone walls. “The various patterns are going to cause shadows when the sunlight hits it at different angles,” Dumez says. “So something that is generally a uniform color will begin to look as though it’s a variety of different colors.”

Now let’s go inside. We walk through a broad glass entrance into a bright lobby—made the brighter by a courtyard in the center of the museum, lightly landscaped with stones and trees. To the right of the lobby is the museum store; to the left, a 240-seat lecture hall and a café. “You have only so much attention span—that’s why we’re having a café. You can go there, nosh and then get back on your museum feet,” Sutton remarks. “And there’s a patio on the outside that I’ve sold to a gentleman who imports Yellow Tail wine,” he adds, “sold” meaning solicited a donation to pay for it.

The entry lobby will be dominated by a grand staircase—which Sutton thinks he has just sold. “I’ve spent a lot of time with my begging bowl,” he says with a quiet chuckle. (The funds for the new Bruce are being raised privately.) For a featured artwork in the lobby, Sutton hopes to acquire a painting by Sol LeWitt (1928–2007), a maker of large, often boldly colorful minimalist paintings and sculptures. The choice would be appropriately fun and appropriately regional: LeWitt is one of the two most celebrated Connecticut-born artists, the other being the nineteenth century landscape painter Frederic Church; both were born in Hartford.

The staircase leads up to the mezzanine level, which looks down upon the lecture hall, and has a large conference room and ample art and science storage space. Then we rise to the third floor, with its sweeping views of Long Island Sound. The third floor will house all the art galleries—one very large gallery for changing exhibits and four medium-sized galleries for permanent exhibits.

We need to linger over the latter fact. At present, the Bruce has precisely zero square feet devoted to its permanent art collection; the museum’s 15,000 art objects remain tucked away in the basement—marvelous pieces by William Merritt Chase, Childe Hassam, John Henry Twachtman, Gaston Lachaise, Andy Warhol, and the late Greenwich resident Robert Motherwell, to name but a few artists. (Pieces do ascend as parts of exhibitions, but mostly they stay out of view.) All of its art space is for temporary shows. Without permanent gallery space, Sutton says, “Teachers can’t set a curriculum based on the history of art, even though we have the objects to teach that story. We’re changing exhibits all the time.”

The new permanent art galleries will allow the Bruce to showcase its collection; what’s more, the galleries will vault the Bruce into the front rank of American museums. How so? Great museum space attracts great donors, and that is exactly what’s happening at the Bruce. “This is one of the permanent galleries,” Sutton says, turning to a rendering of a pristine, high-ceilinged gallery with a David Hockney swimming pool painting on the wall. “It has been purchased by a local collector—and they’ve given us the collection.” His voice drops to a hush. “It’s worth more than this building.”

This collection includes works by twentieth-century masters from Picasso to Francis Bacon to Alice Neel to Lucian Freud, and no less than sixteen Hockneys. “You give these to the Whitney or to the MOMA or to the Met, and they disappear into the basement,” Sutton says. “Here, they go on the walls.” Other big collectors have taken note. “We’ve gotten a Chinese collection. We’ve gotten an nineteenth- and twentieth- century American collection that has nine Wyeths in it—and Homer, Hassam, Hopper, you name it. We’re going to be a major destination museum because of the new building.”


THE SCIENCE SIDE

So far, we have dealt only with the art side of the Bruce. The Bruce’s first-ever exhibit, in 1912, featured the great painters of the Cos Cob art colony, but that legendary show did not set the museum’s course. What did set it was the Bruce’s first two directors, Edward Bigelow and Paul Howes, naturalists who (naturally) favored science exhibits and objects—including crowd-pleasing oddities like two-headed calfs. Bigelow and Howes would bring back exotic specimens, dead and alive, from their travels (including a parrot that cursed the children), and build superb dioramas: One depicted Greenwich’s woodlands as they looked 500 years ago. Howes excelled at taxidermy. The Bruce’s present science curator, Daniel Ksepka, delights in recounting Howes’ colorful history: “He would go out and shoot the bear, taxidermy the bear, skin it, rub arsenic in it, and he’d cast leaves and make a model tree. Then he’d get out his tools and build a case around it all.”

The town, which owns the Bruce’s land, building and collection, did little to fund the museum, even denying it coal in winter. “It would get so cold that they would have to drain the fluids out of the specimen jars, so they wouldn’t freeze and explode,” Ksepka says. “Howes would carry a little stove around and use it to keep warm while he worked, and he’d take sips from a flask of whiskey. Bigelow was a teetotaler, so he was plenty warm with his strong peppermints.”

Since the renovation of 1992, art has reaped the lion’s share of attention, and may always do so given the high-powered collectors who lend and donate to the Bruce. “Greenwich has the highest concentration of private collectors of any burg in this country,” Sutton notes. “You can go from one gated community to the next, and there are just unbelievable collections here.”

But in the new Bruce, he’s happy to say, science will prosper. All of the museum’s present gallery space will be devoted to science and natural history—a large changing gallery and three permanent galleries, plus a diorama room. (Because the new half of the Bruce will spill down the hill, the third-floor art galleries will join seamlessly with the existing galleries on the present ground floor.) Ksepka can hardly wait. “Right now, we’ve got a 500-square-foot temporary-sized gallery, and we’re going up to 3,000 square feet. To me, it’s like getting the entire museum for a show.” The permanent gallery space will be enlarged as well, and completely redesigned, for a total of 6,800 square feet for science. “We’ll be able to let shows breathe more, to have bigger objects—a model of a great white shark, or a dinosaur skeleton,” Ksepka says. “We could actually fit that in the new building.”

Ksepka has infused the Bruce Museum with a fresh science energy. Though only thirty-five years old, he is perhaps the world’s reigning penguin expert. In 2011 he was in on the discovery of an extinct giant penguin of the genus Kairuku, which means “diver who returns with food” in Maori. “He was about four and a half feet tall, probably weighing a little more than I do.” The fossilized bones were collected in New Zealand in 1977, but it took Ksepka to construct a full model of Kairuku, and thus to discover what had been discovered.

Ksepka was also called in to solve the mystery of some large bird bones found in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1983. “They were bulldozing at an airport, and thank goodness whoever was operating the bulldozer noticed these bones coming out of the ground, and they stopped work.” The disconnected bones then spent decades filed away in the basement of the Charleston Museum. When Daniel assembled them, in 2014, he could hardly believe what he had: an ancient, toothy bird with a wingspan approaching twenty-four feet; it wandered the oceans like an albatross does, back when the Carolina coast was under water, some 25 million years ago. The discovery of Pelagornis sandersi took the bird world by storm. “As far as we know,” Ksepka says, “it’s the largest bird that ever flew.” He pauses, smiles. “Anything from a hummingbird to that, I’m interested in. I really like birds a lot.”

In the expanded museum, he foresees a penguin exhibit first, eventually followed by a shark exhibit and a dinosaur exhibit “with a full-scale dinosaur skeleton going right down the middle.” He also sees a greater role for collecting—fossils, bones and cultural artifacts like pottery. As with the art side, there are already gems sequestered in the basement. “We have things that are quite literally irreplaceable, and there’s no price you can put on them, like passenger pigeon or a Carolina parakeet—birds that are extinct now. There’s no chance to get another one.”

The new storage space will allow the science and natural history collections to grow (and so become a serious destination for researchers). “It would be a real shame if someone said, ‘Hey, I have an anaconda skin, do you want it?’ ‘No room!’ For me as a curator, getting the collection space expanded is so very important, because we’ve outgrown that little space we have. Hopefully, by the time I retire, I’ll leave a little space for the next person.”

The Bruce’s education space will expand along with its exhibition and storage space. The museum draws a remarkable 25,000 students a year, chiefly to learn from the science and natural history exhibits. Sutton points to a floor plan of the new Bruce: “That will be the new educational wing—a whole separate section that’s devoted to education. Our classes are just booming now, because we got a grant from the Cohens—Steven and Alexandra Cohen,” he says, referring to the Greenwich hedge funder and his wife.

“At this point we’re pretty maxed out—we can’t take anymore,” von Stuelpnagel adds. “But with more space, we can accommodate the demand and develop all sorts of art history courses.”


ON HAVING IT BOTH WAYS

One imagines the Bruce’s dual mission—art and science—to be a curatorial burden, each side placing limitations on the other. Most museums get to concentrate all their energies in one field; they do not risk a split personality or a hodgepodge ambience. The Bruce Museum has tried hard, most would say successfully, to balance its two sides, and in recent years to circuit them together when a good idea presents itself. One recent exhibit, “Electric Paris,” nineteenth- century paintings featuring newfangled electric lighting, was paired with an exhibit called “Electricity,” about the science and history of electricity. But mostly the Bruce must be content to do two different things well. “We are old-fashioned in that regard,” Sutton says. “We’re kind of a Kunst- und Wunderkammer”—a cabinet of art and (scientific) wonders.

Is this a bad thing? Not at all. It’s what Charles Willson Peale had in mind when he founded the Philadelphia Museum in 1786. The portrait painter and naturalist sought to “bring forth into public view, the beauties of Art and Nature,” an enlightenment ideal that stressed a holistic view of creation—art being an expression of the divine, and nature being a revelation of it: God’s own art. That basic viewpoint, the interrelatedness of art and science, slowly fell by the wayside. In 1959 C. P. Snow spoke despairingly of the cultural split—the “gulf of mutual incomprehension” between artist-writer types and scientists. “But now everybody’s coming back to it,” Sutton observes. “Museums are coming back to bringing science and art together.”

At long last, with a building to match its capabilities, the good old Bruce Museum will be the hippest thing around.

 

 

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