Much summertime controversy followed the trustees' May decision, since reconsidered, to renovate the Walker Art Museum. The main issue lurking behind this debacle is not whether the building's original design?especially the unshakably symbolic stairs and terrace?has enough merit to warrant preservation; for various reasons, this is beyond question. Rather the issue is one of planning and prudence, and the lesson hopefully learned from the process extends beyond the Museum and its similarly notable companions on the Quad.
Some of our most important treasured college ceremonies have taken place on the steps of the Walker Art Museum, including that most important of rituals, Commencement. Surprisingly, it appears that this legacy was either ignored altogether or sufficiently stifled to produce a plan that drew the ire of many. Architecture experts from the University of Virginia and M.I.T. protested the plan, as have several prominent preservation groups from Maine and beyond. The outcry was covered by the media throughout a state sensitive to its history and protective of its treasures.
In May, President Mills called the original plan "deeply sensitive to and respectful of the details and architectural elements" of the Museum. But when contrasted with Vice President for Planning Scott Meiklejohn's candid response to the criticism ("It's a beautiful building. Those feelings are understandable"), the question becomes, why were these strong feelings not anticipated in the first place?
We don't know. But with a number of significant physical changes under development, we hope the College will be more cautious and prudent in its planning. This becomes especially critical as it begins to implement its new master plan, which calls for a number of new buildings as well as further renovations in the coming decades.
The College ought to move forward with its plans, but should aim for a balance between a respect for tradition and its ambition for a progressive future. And it should never again neglect to anticipate the potential consequences of its planning. As we saw this summer, failure to do so results in unnecessary delays and unflattering indecision.