Photos: Exclusive peek inside Norton Museum’s $100 million expansion

Updated June 27, 2018
Joe Forzano
Inside one of the dramatic, 43-foot-high spaces being planned in the Norton Museum’s $100 million expansion. (Joseph Forzano / The Palm Beach Post)

Sometimes a game-changing transformation is best seen in the specifics.

Take the Norton Museum of Art’s $100 million expansion project, still seven months from opening.

Inside the massive construction zone at the West Palm Beach museum, gallery walls are going up, a new stairwell is rising, large garden, theater and cafeteria space is being carved out and a bold, modernistic entrance is emerging along South Dixie Highway.

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But to get an idea of scale, let’s focus for a moment on one thing: glass.

A lot of initial hoopla about the Norton’s new design by the London-based architectural firm Foster + Partners has gone to the reconfigured Dixie entrance, with its “knife-edge” roof overhangs and cool white exterior lines.

But another, equally important goal is to bring more South Florida light into the 6.3-acre museum campus, said Norton project director John Backman in an exclusive tour this week for The Palm Beach Post.

John Backman (right), Norton Project Director, on a tour of the new construction at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. (Joseph Forzano / The Palm Beach Post) Photo: Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

That means glass. Lots of it.

Glass is such an integral element of the design that Backman describes it as “heroic.”

He estimated that there will be 38,000-square feet of new glass throughout the museum.

Glass walls separate interior exhibition space and the new sculpture garden, which required ripping out 20,000-square-feet of asphalt parking lot. The restaurant, Backman said, will have “spectacular natural light,” courtesy of a glass wall bordering the al fresco dining area.

A look at the still-sheathed glass wall separating interior space and a new 20,000-square-foot sculpture garden. (Joseph Forzano / The Palm Beach Post) Photo: Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Glass figures heavily in the dramatic Great Hall entranceway, including a 300-square-foot window that provides a glimpse of the museum’s beloved, 80-year-old, 65-foot-tall banyan tree.

A glass window lets light filter into a sloped, 210-seat auditorium and theater.

A glass “oculus” in the entryway ceiling, 12-feet in diameter with a light-defusing fabric under it, will be a conversation piece, Backman predicted. “It’s going to (emit) a kind of mysterious light. You’ll note (a change in light) when a cloud goes by” and at night, as well.

Much of the glass is up throughout the museum, albeit invisible and still sheathed in protective covering. Its journey to the Norton is indicative of the level of detail going into every aspect of the project.

The glass is multilayered — sometimes as much as five layers — and hurricane resistant, Backman said. The glass construction began in Nuremberg, Germany, with coating done outside Munich. Then it was shaped and completed in Spain. And then transported across the Atlantic to South Florida.

Inside the new auditorium and theater planned in the Norton Museum’s $100 million expansion. (Joseph Forzano / The Palm Beach Post) Photo: Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Much of the new, 130,000-square-foot Norton has to be imagined. It is still a warren of cranes, exposed steel girders and plywood-covered walls and floors. Hardhats, safety glasses and reflective jackets are required dress. Here and there, an odd nail or board juts out.

But Backman sees beyond the clutter and points out many changes visitors can expect when the museum, which shuts down in mid-July, reopens in February 2019.

Gone is a winding staircase that was a centerpiece of the multi-story wing in the Norton’s last expansion. The new staircase will be more functional, Backman said. “A lot of people liked that (winding) staircase. The (new) staircase is a little less bombastic…but more utilitarian, in the best sense of the word.”

Workers walk down the central staircase, which replaces the previous winding staircase. (Joseph Forzano / The Palm Beach Post) Photo: Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Some semi-completed galleries — there will be a 35 percent increase in gallery space, to 50,000 square feet — have a clean, spare look found in modern, big-city museums. One gallery, which will hold 19th and 20th-century artworks collected by founder Ralph Norton, has already been painted a deep blue.

The sharp-edged roof overhangs for the new Dixie entrance are nearing completion. They are still awaiting aluminum coverings that will reflect a front water pool, as well as the entrance piece, Claus Oldenburg’s large-scale Pop sculpture “Typewriter Eraser, Scale X.”

And don’t worry about the banyan tree, which has now spread a bit over the former sidewalk along Dixie. Museum officials promise they are mindful of its community importance. “It’s intended to have quite a presence,” Backman said. “It has to be tamed a little.

“But we’re very pleased that the banyan seems entirely oblivious” to the construction, he added.

Backman said most interior work should be completed by November or December, allowing curators to begin installing exhibits, including the first gallery devoted permanently to the museum’s photography collection. Outdoor work should be finished up in January.

“The New Norton,” as the museum is dubbing it, is scheduled to open to the public on Feb. 9.