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Penn State Submits Preliminary Plans for New Palmer Museum of Art at the Arboretum

Penn State’s plans to construct a new and larger Palmer Museum of Art adjacent to the Arboretum are moving forward, with construction anticipated to begin this summer, pending approval of final plans by the university Board of Trustees and two municipalities.

The university has submitted preliminary plans for the project to State College and College Township, since the site for the new museum on the existing Arboretum parking lot straddles the line between the two municipalities.

First announced in 2019, the new museum has a budget of at least $71.1 million to be funded by the university’s five-year capital budget and private giving. When completed, the 71,000-square-foot building will replace the nearly 50-year old existing Palmer Museum on Curtin Road. The new museum will continue to bear the Palmer name in honor of the late Barbara and James Palmer, whose gifts to the museum are valued at more than $50 million.

The current Palmer Museum building on Curtin Road and the bronze lion’s paws that flank its front steps will remain as a student-focused space, university officials said in 2019. A task force was being developed to determine how exactly it would be used. A College of Arts and Architecture spokesperson said on Thursday that no final decision has been made yet.

Monica Reed, Penn State facilities project manager, told State College Planning Commission last week that staff are hoping for final plans for the new museum to be approved by the Board of Trustees in July. Construction would begin soon after and would take two years. Museum staff will then need about six months to move in and prepare for opening.

The current Palmer building displays about 4% of its 10,000-piece collection and Reed said that will increase to 6% in the new building.

“It’s a significant increase in the amount of art that will be on display once this building opens,” Reed said.

To be located next to the H.O. Smith Botanic Gardens and across the street from the Lewis Katz Building on Bigler Road, the planned building has two wings. The larger wing on the west side is for the galleries and museum support spaces, while the east wing will have administrative and educational facilities. The wings have open space between them offering a view directly into the Arboretum and are connected on the second level by an enclosed walkway.

At its tallest point, the new building will be 43 feet high, Nathan Hamilton, of project architect Allied Works, said.

It is designed to connect to the landscape and be a gateway to the Arboretum.

“We’ve broken this building into volumes that project in and out to scale down the large volumes and also create courtyards,” Hamilton said, adding that a network of pathways go through and around the building and ultimately connect with the Arboretum paths.

Design development rendering of the planned new Palmer Museum of Art viewed from the northeast on Bigler Road. The administrative wing is in the foreground. Renderings are subject to review by the Penn State Board of Trustees. Image courtesy of Allied Works Architecture.

Landscape architect Adrian Fehrmann has been working with Arboretum leaders on the selection of plantings that for the exterior of the museum. The native and naturalized species will provide “an arboretum-quality landscape that surrounds the building,” university planner Neil Sullivan said.

A portion of the evergreen ring that surrounds the central part of the Arboretum will be removed to open up a viewing corridor and “bolster the connection between the art and the landscape,” Sullivan said.

Inside the building, galleries with art that is sensitive to sunlight will have skylights designed to provide filtered daylight, while lobby spaces and galleries for ceramics and sculptures will have more transparent windows.

In addition to galleries and a museum store with a small grab-and-go cafe, the new building will have an event space that opens onto a courtyard with a view of the Arboretum. The event space includes a catering kitchen.

“I actually think there will be more opportunities to have events both at the art museum and the Arboretum and the intersection of those two,” Reed said. “I think it will enhance what has happened at the Arboretum.”

The administrative wing has classrooms, offices, a lounge, study area, lobby, multipurpose space and support space.

As with all new Penn State buildings, the museum will be designed for LEED certification, the widely used rating system for sustainable building development. Hamilton said the building will exceed code requirements for energy performance by 30% and will have infrastructure in place for future green roofs, among other features.

Design development rendering of the event court at the planned new Palmer Museum of Art, as viewed from the Arboretum. Renderings are subject to review by the Penn State Board of Trustees. Image courtesy of Allied Works Architecture.

No new parking is included in the plans. Sullivan said a parking consultant was hired and determined the 339-space parking lot of the Katz Building would accommodate the law school building and current and future needs of the Arboretum and the museum.

At peak times, 103 spaces would be used for faculty and staff, 86 for Arboretum staff and visitors and 89 for the museum, Sullivan said. Student parking passes, which Sullivan said increases the current usage, will no longer be sold for the Katz Building lot.

“When [classes are] in session, we don’t anticipate the highest need for parking for the museum or the Arboretum. So there is this natural synergy that occurs,” Sullivan said. “Toward the afternoon and the end of the day as faculty and staff and students do go home, that’s when people start coming to these facilities during the weekday. During the weekend, of course, we do expect higher numbers and thats when this parking lot we think will be mostly available for visitors to the Arboretum and museum.”

New walkways will be installed across Bigler from the Katz Building and parking lot to the museum. A bus drop-off area near the front of the east wing is designed for the campus shuttle service and school buses.

A 2016 master plan for a cultural district to be developed at the Arboretum called for other university museums to relocate to new facilities on the site with a “new STEM museum, along with related public amenities such as performance spaces, education center, planetarium and a conservatory,” in a series of “connected or semi-connected” buildings. While that part of the plan has not moved forward, Sullivan said land next to the new Palmer site is reserved for a potential future building for that purpose.

The Palmer Museum plans also are designed for a potential expansion of the building in the future, Hamilton said.

Planning commission member Jon Eich noted that when the idea for the new museum first became public, he heard concerns from some State College business owners about an attraction like the Palmer being moved further from downtown.

“We were cognizant of downtown businesses and that this could be a regional draw,” Sullivan said. “It’s our hope that people coming to this museum will want to go to the borough for additional art, entertainment and restaurants.”

In College Township, plans for the new building are currently under staff review. Penn State will have to submit a final land development plan to the borough for approval.

“From my perspective, and I don’t have expertise in this area, it looks like a well-thought-out project,” Eich said.