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Holcomb's tenure oversaw key architectural inventions

Rochester Business Journal
December 20, 2013

In spring 2014, Grant Holcomb will retire as director of the Memorial Art Gallery after leading the institution for nearly 30 years. During his long and successful career, he has presided over a remarkable period of architectural invention.
Key spaces have been created to transform MAG's arts-inspired environment into one of the area's most treasured places to visit. While the art museum's history now stretches back 100 years, Holcomb's career at MAG has been bookended by two landmark works: the Vanden Brul Pavilion and the Centennial Sculpture Park. Each, in its own time, added a sparkling gem to MAG's amazingly diverse architectural timeline.
The completion of the pavilion in 1987 provided the glue that joined significant architectural works from 1913, 1927, 1933 and 1968 into a cohesive and vibrant composition. It reinvigorated the institution and transformed it by connecting valuable works of differing architectural styles in a way that brought out the best in each.
Earlier this year, the museum's Centennial Sculpture Park added an entirely new dimension, reaching outside the building walls to the surrounding landscape and the community beyond.
These more recent projects, executed during the Holcomb era, were a culmination of sorts. Looking back in time, previous "editions" of the museum incorporated markedly different styles. This cavalcade of architecture was executed by a who's who of national and regional architects.
When University of Rochester president Rush Rhees and philanthropist Emily Sibley Watson dedicated the Memorial Art Gallery in 1913, it was one of the most striking works of architecture in the region. The Italian Renaissance-style building was constructed when the Prince Street site was still UR's original campus. What was then a free-standing, 14,000-square-foot structure was designed by the New York firm of Foster, Gade & Graham. "Favorite son" architect Claude Bragdon had a hand in the design and went on to design many of our local landmarks, including the First Universalist Church and Union Station, which has since been demolished.
Not long after this, the firm of McKim Mead & White was hired to design a major addition. At the time it was the premier design firm in the country, having designed the Boston Public Library and Columbia University's campus, among a host of other projects. The firm also was in the process of designing several buildings that soon would become local landmarks, including the Rochester Savings Bank on Franklin Street. The 1926 expansion of the art museum doubled the floor and wall space and added the Fountain Court as a venue for exhibits of sculpture and large paintings and live musical performances.
In 1927, ground was broken for UR's present campus on the Genesee River. The buildings at the Prince Street site began to take on other uses, and a new Gothic-style collegiate building was built on the southeast quadrant. Cutler Union, originally constructed as UR's Women's Student Union and opened in September 1933, was funded by a bequest from James Gould Cutler, an architect and former Rochester mayor.
The architect for the building was the firm of Gordon & Kaelber, designer of UR's River Campus and downtown's Rundel Memorial Library. The spaces within Cutler Union were beautifully detailed in wood and marble with richly decorated surfaces. The gallery's Creative Workshop began holding classes in its basement, and those classes continue to this day.
In 1968, the addition of an international-style modern structure by Waasdorp, Northrup & Kaelber again doubled the gallery's space while moving the entrance to the rear. The building provided more configurable exhibit space and housed American art, including paintings by John Singleton Copley, John Sloan, Milton Avery, Georgia O'Keeffe, Winslow Homer and Hans Hofmann. It was designed to quietly respect both the existing museum and its Gothic-inspired neighbor.
By 1985 the Memorial Art Gallery was a complex of buildings, each emblematic of its era, that had evolved to accommodate the continued growth of the museum collection. This presented a remarkable opportunity at the outset of Holcomb's tenure.
What potential might reside in the design of a structure that could reach across the space separating Cutler Union from the 1968 wing? The answer to this question emerged in a remarkable design by renowned Rochester architect Frank Grosso. Fresh from his acclaimed renovation and expansion of the former Federal Building into Rochester's new City Hall, he created a design that was at once serene and vibrant.
The Vanden Brul Pavilion-an enclosed, sky-lit, sunken garden that included plants, trees and a fountain-incorporated sculptures by Henry Moore and Albert Paley as anchoring pieces. The 12,000-square-foot in-fill building managed to accomplish many things. It provided a new main entrance on University Avenue, a gathering space for both active and quiet times, and connected the 1965 collections wing to the Cutler Union Building. The design of the pavilion was a modern masterpiece of function, inspiration and impact.
With the addition of the Centennial Sculpture Park's exterior architecture, MAG has remained responsive to the times.
"We enter a new era in the gallery's history, with a full appreciation of past accomplishments," Holcomb says. "Like our predecessors, we realize that we must preserve the creative heritage of mankind while stimulating the sense of curiosity, wonder and delight in each gallery visitor. The opportunities and the challenges are many."
We do not yet know who the museum's next director may be, but one thing is certain: He or she will be taking over a unique and vibrant community treasure. Where else can you experience the grandeur of a Renaissance palazzo, the cool minimalism of a modern art wing, the rich, enveloping detail of a Gothic interior and a beautiful indoor sculpture garden?
Now, with the addition of the outdoor sculpture park, the table has been set for the next generation of leadership at the Memorial Art Gallery.
Jim Durfee is vice president and design principal at Bergmann Associates. An architect and past president of American Institute of Architects-Rochester, he can be reached at (585) 232-5135 or at

12/20/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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