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As the only structure left standing from the 1939 World’s Fair, the Queens Museum should not...

By Alexander Dworkowitz

A contingent of Queens historians and preservationists gathered in front of the Queens Museum of Art Friday to protest radical changes planned for the building.

As the only structure left standing from the 1939 World’s Fair, the Queens Museum should not be redesigned, the preservationists contended.

“It looks like the building was bombed in the London blitz,” said Barry Lewis, an architectural historian, about renderings for the proposed structure. “The arrogance of modern architecture has come back before the genius of it.”

The controversy centers on the modern art museum renowned for its giant model Panorama of the City of New York.

The plan by California architect Eric Owen Moss completely changes the look of the museum. The lobby would be replaced by a glass facade, stretching from the front to the back of the building. Seating would be provided in the lobby, providing a view of the Unisphere, which sits directly across from the museum.

About 75 percent of the current building would remain intact, according to the plans.

The city has appropriated $22.5 million for the project, but the museum is raising private funds, with the estimated cost of renovation at $37 million.

The interior of the building, which was home to the United Nations from 1946 to 1950, has been renovated many times since 1939. The outside structure of the building has also been changed but for the most part closely resembles its original design, historians said.

Tom Finkerpearl, who became executive director of the Queens Museum in May, said the signing of the contract with Moss was “imminent.”

But the design is not expected to be finalized for about a year, and the renovations are slated for completion in about four years, he said.

Finkerpearl said he hoped the new plans would completely change the dynamic of the museum.

“The basic ideas is that we have to open it up and let people in,” Finkerpearl said. “The best way to do that is have a big lobby that looks bright and open. We don’t have that.”

Finkerpearl said he was always trying to attract more visitors to the museum. During a recent Colombian celebration in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, he directed attendees who were looking for a bathroom up the ramp of the giant New York City panorama and to the restrooms on the second floor.

“Right now we have to use these mechanisms to get people to the door,” Finkerpearl said.

Nevertheless, Finkerpearl said the objective behind the redesign was larger than to simply increase the number of 60,000 visitors a year.

“I think the quality of the experience is more important than the numbers,” he said.

The protest itself was somewhat cordial. Finkerpearl came out to meet the preservationists outside the museum, and the two sides calmly discussed their feelings about the building.

Nevertheless, Finkerpearl and the protesters remained fundamentally divided in their opinions of the architecture.

“I recognize the need to attract visitors to the museum,” said Mitchell Grubler, executive director of the Queens Historical Society. “But there are other ways.”

Grubler suggested improving the lighting around the building as a means of increasing attendance.

Paul Graziano, an urban planning consultant, said the city Landmarks Commission had a prejudice against designating structures in Queens.

“It’s one of the most important buildings in Queens, no question about it,” he said. “The building has never been designated because of politics.”

Jeffrey Kroessler, president of the Queensboro Preservation League, said he wanted the protest to lead to discussion of the future of the museum.

“We hope this a beginning of a dialogue,” Kroessler said. “We want the Queens Museum of Art to be the world class museum that the borough of Queens deserves.”

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300 Ext. 141.

Updated 7:15 pm, October 10, 2011
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