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St. Louis Art Museum expansion project reaches milestone
Art Museum

St. Louis Art Museum expansion project reaches milestone

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ST. LOUIS • More than 2 ½ years after breaking ground, the St. Louis Art Museum this week officially marked the end of major construction of its new galleries and parking garage.

The public, however, could have to wait close to a year before getting an inside look at the $130.5 million project.

On Monday, Brent Benjamin, the museum's director, signed a "certificate of substantial completion," a document that transfers ownership of the new building to the museum from the team of construction firms leading the project.

Despite the certificate, much of the detail work is just starting. It's outlined in the project's "punch list" — a thick, spiral-bound volume of to-do items.

"The building is pretty much done, but we can't use it as an art museum," said Jennifer Stoffel, the museum's director of external affairs.

Stoffel said there's plenty of cosmetic work — like installing furniture and signs — but some of the most time-consuming work has to do with safeguarding valuable art from damage caused by things like humidity or unfiltered sunlight.

Stoffel said that, over the next five months, experts will test the temperature, humidity and light levels to make sure the new galleries will be a safe home for the museum's collection.

Technicians will repeatedly crash the new wing's electrical and climate-control systems to make sure emergency measures kick in seamlessly.

While the repeated testing might seem like overkill, Stoffel said it's the prudent thing to do. "We don't want to install a gallery only to (spend more) if we need to de-install it later," she said.

After the tests are complete, curators in January will begin the time-consuming process of installing paintings, sculptures and other works now in storage.

No official opening date has been scheduled, but officials say they hope it will be in mid-2013. The project has stayed on budget, Stoffel said.

Designed by British architect David Chipperfield, the expansion features a 30 percent increase in exhibition space, an underground parking garage with 300 spaces and a new restaurant.

Three construction firms were partners on the project — Tarlton and KAI Design & Build, both of St. Louis, and Chicago-based Pepper Construction.

Tracy Hart, the president of Tarlton, said the project might be one of the most unusual her firm has ever undertaken.

"It's been exciting and fun, but it's been a challenge," Hart said.

A big obstacle, she said, was working alongside an operating art museum. For instance, workers had to keep construction-related vibrations to a minimum to avoid damaging any art in the existing museum.

And then there is Chipperfield's design, which Hart called "itself a work of art."

Building it was much more complicated than the wing's clean lines might suggest, she said.

Crews spent months pouring concrete for the aggregate walls and coffered ceiling, which was difficult in a tight work site surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the museum and nearby St. Louis Zoo.

Hart said more than 1,000 builders and craftsmen were involved in the project, and she expects many of them to be among the first to visit when the building opens.

"These people can come back with the families and show them what they did, show what they were a part of," she said. "It's a real treasure."

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