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Volunteer Park’s Seattle Asian Art Museum shows designs for ‘park lobby’ expansion and overhaul

(Image: SAAM/LMN)

(Image: SAAM/LMN)

screen-shot-2016-09-11-at-7-01-43-amThe Seattle Art Museum presented its design for the upgrades and expansion of Volunteer Park’s Asian Art Museum in a community meeting held in the International District on Saturday morning. The design makes major changes to the east-facing “back” of the landmark 1933 building in Volunteer Park, featuring some floor-to-ceiling windows in levels one and two and a striking glass “park lobby” on level three of the extension.

The park lobby would allow people inside the museum a park view that includes an impressive beech tree, and allow people outside to look up at art displays inside the museum. Architect Sam Miller of LMN architects, the firm designing the upgrade and extension, explained the design goal of integrating the park on both sides with the museum space itself.

The rather sophisticated design is a complete change from the grey, utilitarian back of the museum as it is now, which looks unfinished and harsh in contrast to the pink stone and Beaux Arts Art Deco style of the front of the building. The upgrade could, as Miller suggested, achieve an added bonus of making the space behind the museum safer in that would be overlooked and less cutoff from the rest of the park.

As he talked through a slide show of the design (the full presentation is below), Miller stressed that it had been modified in keeping with feedback from the public — there were community meetings in July and August and future meetings are scheduled for October, November and December. The external stairway in an earlier draft is now inside of the building, and an extruding elevator is now tucked in and hiding behind a tree.

And what the Seattle Asian Art Museum expansion could look like, too…

Community response reveals that some want to keep the museum and park space the way it is now. Jonathan Mark lives in Capitol Hill and has circulated a petition against the museum expansion that has so far gathered about 150 signatures. The only thing he found reassuring in the presentation at Saturday’s meeting, he said, was that the latest plan shows landscaping and plants at the back of the building.

“I still feel that this structure will greatly change the character of east Volunteer Park for the worse,” wrote Mark in an email.

“I don’t know if the petition will make any difference or not,” Mark said. “Either way, the point I wanted to make is that no one has yet asked the community for permission to build this big thing in Volunteer Park, and I wanted to publicize that it was happening and give a voice to people who think they should be asked, and would like to answer ‘no.’” is a blog set up by Mark and others concerned about the expansion of the museum.

Among the obvious benefits of the renovations would be an enhanced ability for the museum to do the business of conserving and showing art — the plan includes a new conservation room in Level 1, and a covered loading dock and the elevator for bringing artworks in and out of the building. The mechanics of the building — the control of heating, cooling, and humidity — would be brought up to modern museum standards, and the building would be insulated, making it more sustainable and less expensive to run. Miller included photos in his presentation of elements in need of updating — one was the mechanical control board for the building, more a funky collection of antique gauges than the controls for a modern museum. Then there are seismic updates for the museum’s 4” hollow-tile walls, a hazard to both art and humans in the event of a serious earthquake.

There are further arguments for the renovations. The art museum was not part of the original Olmstead design of Volunteer Park and was added in 1933, with a landscaping plan for the east side that was never completed. Additions to the building were added five times between 1947 and 2007, a history that puts the expansion and renovation in the light of something like a creative correction rather than another unnecessary change to old Seattle.

Adding a footprint of about 4,000 square feet and 12,000-13,000 square feet in total to the building at a cost of about $49 million, the extension and upgrade is a major project that will give the Asian Art Museum the potential to show its important collection, continue its educational and cultural activities in linking Seattle to Asia through art, and to be more of a contender in the art world. CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, we flubbed this paragraph re: total square footage of the project. It has been updated with correct totals.

Nevertheless, the large-scale plans to upgrade the building haven’t escaped community criticism. SAM has not started from scratch with its public consultation over the past few months, but not everyone at the meeting was aware that the museum’s upgrade was agreed on with the city and the parks department back in 2008, but was put on hold during the recession.

The process of shutting and building and reopening will close the museum for two years, beginning spring 2017. The project will be part of a busy time for this corner of the park. Construction on a new amphitheater and bandshell is planned to also begin in 2017. UPDATE: We heard a representative at the meeting that that construction of the amphitheater may be delayed, and will be taking place after the renovations to the museum. We’ll check in on this with the organizations involved. Here is the current timeline for the amphitheater.


Future meetings about how the building will impact the community will be held at the Seattle Asian Art Museum on October 15, November 19, and December 10, from 1:00 to 2.30 PM. See for more information.

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8 thoughts on “Volunteer Park’s Seattle Asian Art Museum shows designs for ‘park lobby’ expansion and overhaul

  1. Correction: We were told the footprint of the addition to the building is 4,000 sq. feet, or as Miller put it, “1/4 of 1 percent” of the total area of the park. Three levels makes that an addition of 12,000-13,000 square feet in total.
    We were also told that the museum will actually be closed for two years—for six months on either side of the year-long building process—rather than the 18 months previously cited. –VS

    • “We were told the footprint of the addition to the building is 4,000 sq. feet, or as Miller put it, “1/4 of 1 percent” of the total area of the park.”
      Thanks for citing this statistic. Several commenters in a previous article were moaning and gnashing their teeth about the loss of lawn to this rapacious museum expansion. In a word: false.
      SAM has a lot of issues, subsuming Volunteer Park from sunbathers is NOT one of them.

  2. The back lawn seems seldom used and its doubtful this will displace park guests. Even on the most crowded days, there is more than enough ample space to make yourself comfortable.

    Agree with Bob, the facade is so classic. I’m glad its remaining intact.

  3. Really thoughtful addition, I like how it activates the dead backside of the museum (without interfering with the integrity of the front). If anything, this will make the back lawn more pleasant.

  4. Full disclosure, former SAM employee here – just with a few finer points on the expansion.

    – The facilities upgrades and the conservation room are extremely important for a number of reasons. The HVAC system is so old school that many museums and collections cannot loan art to the Museum due to conservation concerns, so if you love the art at all, you should appreciate this (see also the small but welcome addition to gallery space). Sending out works to be conserved is incredibly expensive, particularly when we have a stellar conservation team at SAM (we really do).
    – If you have ever worked at SAM or spent time in the libraries in the summer, the need for air conditioning in that space is real, and the facilities are extremely old. SAM employees and extensive volunteers’ work is truly a labor of love, not cachet and money – they deserve comfortable working conditions.
    – A good part of that additional footprint is meeting and education space. School workshops currently share the only meeting room in the building, and materials storage and workspace for educators lives out of an old galley kitchen. Seattle students deserve functioning educational spaces, and honestly a separate meeting room and workshop space should be a given. This will also allow SAM to provide better public programming.
    – The need for a better loading dock is real. SAM has two relatively new Asian art curators – Xiaojin Wu and Foong Ping – who are, frankly, amazing. They are limited in what they can do, however, when it is so difficult to bring larger pieces into the Museum and install them.
    – Seriously the back of that building is horrendous and nobody ever hangs out there (I also live down the street). I really believe the remodel will make the east edge of the park *more* welcoming.

    I totally understand that people are nervous about change in Seattle right now, especially when such a gorgeous and beloved building is involved. SAM is far from perfect but this renovation from what I have seen truly does appear incredibly responsible and thoughtful. The building, park, and even that beech tree are all discussed internally with a great deal of love and respect. I honestly think SAM is underselling it. Thank you CHS for such thoughtful coverage.

  5. Woops! Where is the transparency?
    Seattle voters agreed to tax themselves for an $11 million park levy about 10 years ago. It was for RENOVATIONS to SAAM, not expansions of the SAAM building into the park.. THe new price tag has already doubled to $21 million. Totally secret, the plans are obscure and constantly changing. In the past 6 months, Parks just paid for $2+ million of constantly re-invented wacko “designs” as expensive and rehashed as any stockbroker ever churned. Read the chronology of this boondoggle at if you want the full history. You can sign a petition there against the 13,000-15,000 sq. foot expansions and the taking of park land, the deconstruction of the Garden Court into a mere passageway into a glassed in deck.