After Delays, San Francisco Museum Finally Breaks Ground


By Josh Richman

Published August 18, 2006, issue of August 18, 2006.
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God’s delays are not God’s denials.”

So said San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom in his remarks at the ground-breaking of The Contemporary Jewish Museum, and the phrase could not have been more appropriate. The museum has endured long waits and sizable setbacks to get to where it is today — opening with a Daniel Libeskind-designed edifice under construction in the heart of a bustling tourism and cultural district; about $61 million of its $77 million comprehensive campaign completed, and a projected spring 2008 opening date.

“Everybody has worked very hard to get to this point,” the board of trustees’ chairwoman, Roselyne “Cissie” Swig, said in an interview with the Forward. “There were some blips. However, you have to keep your eye on what you believe.”

The museum — which has no permanent collection of its own but instead hosts temporary exhibitions — is now housed in a 4,000-square-foot space near the local Jewish Community Federation’s offices. So it is quite a step up into the new building — a 63,000-square-foot, three-floor facility that will incorporate parts of an existing structure, a circa-1907 power station designed by noted architect Willis Polk. The museum’s CEO and executive director, Connie Wolf, told the Forward that the design embodies the museum’s philosophy, breathing new life into the power station that enlivened San Francisco after its calamitous 1906 earthquake even as it breathes new life into a dialogue on, and celebration of, Jewish art and culture.

Libeskind — who since has helped conceive the Freedom Tower planned for New York City’s Ground Zero — designed the addition: a 60-foot-tall tilted cube of brushed, blue stainless steel inscribed with the Hebrew letters chet and yud, signifying “Chai.”

“The entire building is a penetration of chai/life into the talmudic page structure where the margins and commentaries are as important as what is commented upon,” Libeskind wrote on his Web site. “No place in the finished museum is unconnected to the whole, forming an organic structure of space and function. The entire museum is a matrix calling forth interpretation by the visitor.”

The blue diamond-shaped panels for the museum’s exterior will be fabricated by the same Kansas City, Mo., firm that created special copper paneling for the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, another long-anticipated, recently completed renovation that created a buzz in architectural circles. (Citing that project, the Asian Art Museum’s 2003 opening in the city’s rehabilitated former main library and the ongoing California Academy of Sciences renovation, Wolf said that San Francisco might be second only to New York among American cities in its diversity of daring museum design.)

Founded in 1984, the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco first approached the city about a more permanent home in 1993; two years later, it received the building — essentially a $6 million gift — from the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. But the road ahead proved a bit more complicated.

The museum hired Libeskind in 1998, and his first design was an eye-popping, gold-skinned 100,000-square-foot mass of geometric metal forms bursting from the brick power station. Then, in late 2001, the museum announced a merger with Berkeley’s Judah L. Magnes Museum, but that, too, was not meant to be. After spending considerable time, money and effort, the institutions separated again in early 2003. Meanwhile, the dot-com crash and ensuing economic doldrums dried up the museum’s donor pool as it strove toward a $100 million goal.

What had been a 2002 or 2003 opening date was pushed back; what had been 100,000 square feet was scaled down by more than a third as Libeskind reworked his design; what had been a $100 million goal was trimmed by almost a quarter. The San Francisco Chronicle incurred the museum board’s wrath with a May 2004 article that envisioned “dim hope for the future,” both for the CJM and for The Mexican Museum, for which construction was planned nearby. The Mexican Museum still struggles to raise money, hoping to break ground in 2009.

Wolf now praises the dedicated trustees and donors “who have never lost faith, who have been leaders in moving this institution forward on this very impressive journey” toward the current $77 million goal — $46 million for the building, and the rest for an endowment to operate the museum.

“The journey has been very enriching,’’ she said. “It has been challenging, but you recognize how important it is to overcome obstacles — it only makes you stronger, and it strengthens you as an institution.”

Josh Richman covers politics and legal affairs for the Oakland Tribune and its San Francisco Bay Area sister newspapers.

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