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Museum District grows Burchfield-Penney gallery will enhance cultural zone, aid college, Elmwood

Buffalo's Museum District will get a major boost with construction this year of a new free-standing, $33 million Burchfield-Penney Art Center across Elmwood Avenue from the Albright-Knox. It's an inspired project in a critical location, and it will aid the arts in Buffalo and a district with a vital collection of buildings that show architecture as art.

Just outside the vibrant urban streetscape of the Elmwood Strip, the new Burchfield-Penney also is a major addition to the Buffalo State College campus. A college building on college-owned land, it will offer needed space for the college's acclaimed art conservation program as well as a gallery showcase for Western New York art. Buff State also gets back the space in its signature Rockwell Hall, across the street from the new museum, that the gallery and the conservation program outgrew.

The new gallery's architects -- Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects of New York City -- also designed the University at Buffalo's Center for the Arts. They offer a design that acknowledges the museum community, and especially the modern Bunschaft addition to the classical Albright-Knox. But it's clearly a design oriented to the campus that owns it and will most heavily use it, with a main entrance facing into the campus interior and the gallery parking lot.

Its Elmwood facade, a 35-foot-high and 150-foot-long curving wall of zinc-coated blocks set back 85 feet from the avenue, will rely heavily on the intervening green space and sculpture court to identify it as a visitor-welcoming gallery. The inside of that facade is the gallery's main exhibition space.

That wall, and the setback, triggered criticism from Forever Elmwood, a merchants group that wants new city regulations protecting the unique urban fabric of the Strip. But the State Historic Preservation Office requires the setback, concerned as it is over the new building's spatial relationship to the historic Albright-Knox and Rockwell Hall. This is clearly a monumental building set within a district of monumental buildings. It has little to do with the retail "Strip" that starts at nearby Forest Avenue.

Another new project, a proposed four-story hotel diagonally across the Elmwood-Forest intersection from the landmark H.H. Richardson Complex and the new gallery, is likely to have more impact on the Strip itself. The Elmwood Village Hotel would displace five small Elmwood-typical residential-style buildings with apartments over ground-floor businesses, a major visual shift for that block. Although its design -- by architect Karl Frizlen, a Forever Elmwood critic of the new gallery -- has the Strip's sidewalk-bordering urban feel, it's a larger and different structure than the current neighborhood fabric. And it was unveiled as a new anchor for the Elmwood Strip's northern gateway, itself an acknowledgment that the museum district is not an integrated part of the Strip.

The bottom line is that $16.5 million state funding, $8.75 million in foundation and other donations and $1.25 million in federal grants give the college and Burchfield-Penney Arts Center the $24 million needed to build this building and about a third of the money to equip and landscape the facility. Its 2008 opening will be worth celebrating.

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