by Andrew McGregor, Caledonian-Record (9/22/2020)
In a bold vision for its future, the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium has plans to build the first major expansion on the historic structure in 125 years.
But not even the team with the only public planetarium in Vermont knows just yet if the stars will align for them to break ground on the proposed Science Annex next spring as hoped.
The museum has developed a building design, obtained zoning permits, lined up partners, and even received over $600,000 of funding for some aspects of the project, but they await word on a $2 million grant application that would be the last piece of the puzzle, said Adam Kane, Fairbanks Museum executive director.
The plans, created by a Middlebury-based architecture firm, call for a 3-story, 6,000-square-foot addition of glass and wood framing that would stretch about 3/4 the length of the back of the building and provide grade-level access to both the main floor of the museum on the north end of the addition, as well as the museum’s basement on the south end of the addition.
The Science Annex would house space for modern, hands-on exhibits focused on meteorology and astronomy, and an elevator to provide access to the museum’s balcony.
“We have this amazing, unbelievable historic structure that is tremendously problematic when it comes to accessibility,” said Kane. “And the public’s expectation is to have a science experience when you go to a science museum rather than just viewing things.”
There would also be space for one of the museum’s many potential partners in the project — Community College of Vermont — which would have offices, a conference room, classrooms and other support spaces on the lower level of the annex that stretch into the basement of the original museum — if all the plans are realized.
“This would be a good partnership between the two entities; we are really hopeful it comes to be,” said CCV Dean of Administration Andy Pallito. “This would a fabulous opportunity for our students.”
Pallito and Kane both described the synchronicity of missions between the museum and CCV, which currently serves about 150 students in and around St. Johnsbury.
Kane said the museum had originally developed plans for a much larger addition over a decade ago, but they came undone with the Great Recession in 2008. In the ensuing years many of the museum’s needs that were to be addressed in that original expansion were met through the acquisition of two buildings behind the museum and the creation of what the museum now considers its campus.
The new buildings, though, did not address the limited accessibility in the museum or the need for modern exhibits, which led to the creation of the more modest annex that is now under development.
Megan Nedzinski, project architect with Vermont Integrated Architecture, has lead the design of the new space.
“The Fairbanks Museum — a Lambert Packard building — is a gem of a building in the state,” said Nedzinski. “It’s an honor to work on the building.”
Nedzinski said one great aspect of the project has been the focus on mass timber as a building material and design parameter.
This focus on mass timber is important in a number of ways, explained Kane. Mass timber is a forestry product that produces building materials through glue or nail lamination. The goal of the addition is not just to provide needed space, but for the design and construction of the addition itself to be a teaching tool of a building technique that is growing in prominence and could be an economic driver for the forestry industry in Vermont. As such, the addition will highlight the building materials and an exhibit would illustrate the building science.
The mass timber aspect of the project resulted in a $350,000 grant from the Northern Border Regional Commission to help fund the expansion, as a demonstration mass timber building and use the project for workforce training.
“The historic building showcases the height of design in the 19th century … and now we get to showcase the latest in wooden construction in the 21st century,” said Kane. “Although it will be modest in size the object is for it to be absolutely beautiful.”
The museum also has in hand a grant of just under $250,000 to fund development of the Science Alive – the 1,500-square-foot astronomy and meteorology exhibit planned for the space – as well as ongoing programs to support learning and STEM in the community.
One highlight of the design, explained Nedzinski is that not only does the addition allow people outside the building to look in and still see parts of the original exterior, but museum visitors will now have a greater appreciation of and access to the green behind the museum.
The project also calls for development in the green space, including the installation of a sundial and contoured area to allow for an outdoor gathering space. To help with the overall project and development of the exterior space, Passumpsic Bank, through the Peter F. Crosby Fund, has made a financial pledge “for the construction of the new Science Annex addition and creation of the Sundial Outdoor Classroom which will enhance the Museum’s ability to provide an unique educational experience as well as provide a space for artistic performances and other gatherings,” states Jim Kisch, President & CEO, Passumpsic Bank.
Besides the staff and administration at the museum, Kane gives a lot of credit to the museum’s board of directors for helping advance the plans this far and supporting the effort.
“We aren’t at the finish line, but we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, said Ed Vilandrie, Chairman of the Fairbanks Museum Board of Trustees. “The planning is well underway – we are in good shape there.”
Like Kane, Vilandrie is cautiously optimistic that this dream will become a reality. Vilandrie said the board was very interested in preserving the integrity and history of the institution while preparing it for the future.
“I’m extremely excited and optimistic about the future, and cautiously optimistic about the last piece of funding and planning coming together,” said Vilandrie. “But you really never now until it’s final. I’m sure there are lots of qualified candidates that we may be competing against [for the $2 million grant].”
A Historic Change
This addition would be the first fundamental change to the museum structure in over 125 years. The museum opened in 1891. Its original design was an L-shape with the northern wing where the front entrance is and the main hall. Less than 5 years later, though, museum founder and benefactor Franklin Fairbanks funded the construction of the southern wing, which gave the museum its current U shape, according to reports in The Caledonian from June 1894 through April 1895.
The new wing was to give the museum more space to accommodate acquisitions Fairbanks made on a trip to Europe. That trip also introduced the two iconic lions that guard the entrance to the museum, states The Caledonian’s reports from the time. Fairbanks died in April 1895 the week that addition was opened to the public.
“On the last day of his life [Fairbanks] expressed the regret that he should never see the addition to the building, which was opened to the public on Monday, and told the friends present to see that the people continued to take an interest in the Museum and all that it opened up along the line of science,” reported The Caledonian on April 26, 1895 in the story of Fairbanks’ death.
Waiting for News
Now it’s just a question of time, indicated Kane, as he expects word on the $2 million grant in as little as perhaps a few weeks. Kane has been cautious to manage expectations about the project, hoping to not promise more than will actually get delivered. But both he and Vilandrie indicated that should the $2 million grant not come to fruition they are hopeful other funding streams could be identified that would allow the project to advance, albeit on a delayed time frame.
“We are investing in the place for the long term. We’ve been here for 130 year, so we are trying to make sure the next 130 years are just as good,” said Kane, highlighting the tourist draw the enhanced museum would be. “By investing in the building now we are investing in the museum and the community.”