Home » FeatureSpring 2010

A Classic Move

by Nelson Bryan, BA’73 No Comment

Cohen Memorial Hall shines with new life after renovation.

Cohen’s grand staircase and tesserae floors.

Cohen’s grand staircase and tesserae floors.

From the Peabody esplanade, Cohen Memorial Hall looks as it has for more than 80 years: a beautiful, classic structure in keeping with the Jeffersonian-inspired mall design. From the 21st Avenue side, the building now exhibits a new design more in keeping with modern museums and contemporary classrooms. It is homage to the old with a nod to the new.

Cohen was recently renovated and now has new life as home to the Department of History of Art, the Department of Classical Studies and the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery. The building renovation was designed to make the facility viable, useful, safe and accessible while preserving one of the more important architectural buildings on the Peabody campus.

Built for Art

The Cohen story began in 1926 with a gift to Peabody College from George Etta Brinkley Cohen, who believed that future art teachers should have first-hand access to art. The graceful three-story building, designed by the New York firm McKim, Mead & White, was completed in 1928. The architects gave the building a decorative Flemish bond brick exterior and limestone trim and ornament. The interior boasted a two-story atrium with grand staircase, tesserae and marble floors, marble columns, balustrade and arched ceiling with skylight—features which remain key to the building today.

The rest of the building included study, lecture, exhibition and reference rooms and studios. Additional art storage racks, still in use, were added in 1937 to accommodate the school’s growing art collection.

Peabody College’s art department and its museum called Cohen home until 1979. After Peabody merged with Vanderbilt, the Arts and Science studio art program occupied the building until moving to the E. Bronson Ingram Studio Arts Center in 2005. For the next four years, the Fine Arts Gallery maintained an art vault and other facilities in Cohen. The Peabody Professional Institute also used the building, as did Dining Services during the construction of The Commons.

The renovation took approximately 12 months, with the departments and Fine Arts Gallery moving in at the start of the 2009 fall semester. Allard Ward Architects, Knestrick Contractor Inc. and Vanderbilt’s campus planning unit handled the renovation, which totaled about $7 million in construction and project-related costs, including architectural fees, furnishings and equipment.

New entrance on 21st Avenue.

New entrance on 21st Avenue.

Art and Classics

The Department of Classical Studies nestled into its new home after spending some 30 years on the third floor of Furman Hall. Barbara Tsakirgis, department chair and associate professor of classics, already knew the Cohen Building through her appointment as associate professor of art history. “For my first 22 years or so here, the studio artists were resident in this building, so I’ve been here before,” she says. The years and studio work had taken its toll on the building, she says.

Now, however, Tsakirgis notes that the restored flooring in the mall-side entry of the building is in keeping with that of McKim, Mead & White’s newly restored wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “So we could call us, I suppose, the little cousin of the wing of the Metropolitan in that respect,” she says, pointing out that the restoration kept the cracks in the flooring. “And yes, the cracks go along with the age of the building—in a way, with the mosaics as well. With its black and white colors, it’s very reminiscent of ancient Greek mosaics.”

Vivien Green Fryd, chair of the history of art department, professor of art history and professor of American studies, says she’s glad to be settled in. “The move consisted not only of moving faculty and their holdings, but also the gallery and the Visual Resource Center,” Fryd says. One major undertaking involved preparing the department’s nearly 190,000-piece slide collection for storage because all of its images are now digitized.

Dean Dever speaks at the building’s reopening celebration.

New Location, New Mission

The relocation of the Fine Arts Gallery from its longtime home in the Old Gym was a challenge that required closing the gallery for several months and storing its collection at other arts organizations.

“Many thanks to the Frist Center for the Visual Arts and the Tennessee State Museum [which stored the pieces],” says Joseph Mella, museum director of the Fine Arts Gallery.

The next big feat was transferring the 6,000-item collection to its new home from that temporary storage. “Using the new gallery as a staging area, we then had to uncrate these objects and integrate collections previously stored in separate locations into one facility.”

Along with the gallery’s relocation and contemporary exhibit space, the College of Arts and Science also refined the mission of the art gallery and its collection. A key goal is to have the gallery serve as an interdisciplinary resource for all school departments. To that end, a newly created faculty committee helps set policy for the gallery’s collection and exhibitions.

Associate Dean Martin Rapisarda has charged the staff with building a database and compiling digital images of the major works in the Vanderbilt collection. “A professor can scan through, call up the database and see if those images would be helpful in his or her course. That’s one way of enhancing the utility of the collection,” Rapisarda says.

The renovated Fine Arts Gallery.

Another extension of the academic mission includes training students as docents. The gallery also will host faculty exhibits and be open nontraditional hours such as late-night Thursdays and weekend hours.

“In addition to sculpture and painting, there will even be some performance art and video art,” Rapisarda says. “Some neat things that are happening in the art department will have a chance to enliven the art gallery in tangible ways.”

photo credit: Steve Green

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