Volume 36, Issue 12, December 2001
Glass in the Museum
What Skylights Brought to One California Museum
by Dez Farnady
I recently visited the Palace of the Legion of Honor, a world-famous art museum in San Francisco. I went to see a special exhibit and had a chance to reminisce over an old glass project of mine. The Legion sits on the top of a hill, and has a statue of Rodin’s Thinker in the courtyard. The Thinker looks through the columns of the neo-classic arcade, admiring the view of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay. Some years ago the Legion of Honor underwent a major reconstruction. The job, primarily an earthquake retrofit, took several years and involved an amazing bit of foundation work that was an engineering marvel. The glass portion of the remodel was also a marvel, but of another sort.
Using the right glass can be something to think about.
The Truth of the Matter
Skylights illuminate several of the large galleries of the Legion. As you may well know, I love skylights. In order to diffuse the light and reduce the glare and protect the artwork, several feet below each skylight, there is an extensive gridwork with lay-in glass lites. There is about 10,000 square feet of the stuff—that’s a lot of diffusing panels. How do I know all this? I supplied all this glass and spent a lot of time at the Legion in the process. The diffusion panels went to bid with a sophisticated code number, a secret glass identification, specified for the architect by the representative of a company no longer in business. The glass was used for its special ability to do something magical for the light, and, of course, carried a hefty price.
Fortunately for me, I am a good detective, so I was able to ferret out the truth. The magical glass was just two layers of ¼-inch PPG Starphire with standard diffused .060 white Monsanto PVB. Big secret, high-priced white lami! You might justify the product and the price by saying that the purity of the glass would help to improve the quality of the light. But then how are you to know that the skylights above were glazed with old, obscure, fiberglass panels and some places with wired glass were painted with white house paint? And nobody knew the performance value of that upper skylight. Inexpensive standard white lami panels would have worked as well for a fraction of the price.
The current condition of the lay-in lites only helps to justify my opinion. As it is today, in some rooms the glass is filthy. Dust and dirt have accumulated so thick that it is obvious to anyone who looks up. To protect some of the older artwork from the nonexistent ultraviolet light, some rooms have what appears to be cheap, white plastic sheet spread out over the glass. This eliminates almost all of the skylight’s effect, and the artwork is illuminated with cheap, spot bulbs that look yellow in the dim light. My visit to the Legion started out on a typical foggy day and the galleries were dark. Later on, when the sun came out I was in the sculpture room, under what had been the large, painted, wired glass pyramid skylight. The light was clear and bright. Looking through the tracery of the grillwork you could see that the white paint had been removed from the wired glass. The white lami was working. It was doing its job; it diffused the light but kept it clear and bright. There was no glare or dark shadows. The same kind of light would have made the rest of the galleries look great.
It was several years ago, but as I recall my part of the contract was about $100,000. They probably could have done it for $10,000. I told the glazing contractor that he was wasting money but he wasn’t about to tell. Besides, nobody would have listened. And after all, whose money was it anyway? I also supplied some glass doors with “oil-rubbed bronze” finish. That is not the metal finish you want here, just above the salt spray of San Francisco Bay, where you can almost taste the salt in the fog, as if the fog by itself isn’t enough. It only took about six or eight weeks and about four submittals before we could match the color of the interior hardware and satisfy the architects. I wonder if they are satisfied now. The door hardware was starting to corrode before the job was even finished.
What concerns me now is that San Francisco is about to do it again. The other art museum in San Francisco is the De Young. It is scheduled to go under the knife for major earthquake surgery soon and is being architected currently. The proposals on the Internet indicate the architects desire to include a lot of glass, and here I am not selling glass anymore.
Dez Farnady serves as general manager of Royalite Manufacturing Inc., a skylight manufacturer in San Carlos, Calif. His column appears monthly.
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