Bowdoin College Museum of Art
by James McCown
Museums today aspire to be open, transparent, and welcoming. However admirable these qualities appear from our 21st-century viewpoint, it is instructive to remember that at the height of the Gilded Age, when the American museum was ascendant, the opposite was true.
The lavish Beaux-Arts buildings of that era were unapologetically aristocratic and aloof. Art buildings — both public and private — were funded, designed, and run by bluebloods. The middle-class visitors allowed into their walls were presumed to be elevated, spiritually if not socially, by the museum-visiting experience itself.
No small building in New England so exquisitely epitomizes the Beaux-Arts style as Charles Follen McKim's Walker Art Building at Bowdoin College, whose exterior has remained unchanged since its opening in 1894.
Several prominent architects have attempted over the past decade to enlarge the Walker for the college's Museum of Art and were met with multiple contradictions.
Everyone agrees that the building's haughty elegance should be maintained, but the rigid symmetry and grand entrance stairway so essential to the Beaux-Arts style were problematic for handicapped access, and lent a sense that the elite college was turning its back on Brunswick, Maine, its host community.
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