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Published: Thursday, 1/9/2003

Glass center would be appropriate for Toledo

Art goes up against bureaucracy today.

The Toledo Museum of Art hopes to persuade the plan commission to overrule the Old West End Historic District Commission, which rejected last month by a 3-2 vote the museum's pitch for a new Center for Glass.

The technical term for what the historic district commission denied is a “certificate of appropriateness.”

And while bureaucratese of such painful proportions usually serves to obscure, in this case I can't think of other words that hit the bull's eye better.

Would it indeed be appropriate to build a squat, stark glass structure at the edge of a neighborhood well known for its inventory of carefully restored historic houses?

More specifically, would such a structure be appropriate in an area that falls just inside an historic overlay district (which is to say, an area afforded special protection)?

That's what the wise elders of the plan commission get to decide today, and I don't envy them - not just because they face a difficult decision, but also for the very sore arms they'll have after all the twisting ends from the interested parties.

The proposal for a sleek and modern transparent glass building has generated few tepid responses.

People seem to either love it or hate it - so I guess (wink-wink) that we can safely call it “art” - or they love the plan, but hate its siting.

As one insider predicts about today's plan commission gathering:

“If you listen carefully, you're not going to hear much [from proponents] about the design. You're going to hear everything else, including all the reasons why the museum should get special dispensation. But remember, what's technically being appealed is the design.”

Well, no doubt about it: Stringent architectural guidelines prevail in the historic overlay district.

That is, after all, the whole point.

And one year ago, an attorney representing the museum said the well-known Japanese architectural firm hired by the TMA was indeed informed of the special requirements for building in the wooded parkland site across Monroe Street from the museum.

Nevertheless, this month's plan commission staff report was forced to conclude that the center's “contemporary design does not address the standards and guidelines which serve to preserve and respect the earlier buildings that define the neighborhood's historic character, and [does not] protect the neighborhood from inappropriate construction.”

All of which, technically speaking, is true enough.

But this is not some big-box retailer. This is not a proposal for a car wash. This is not another wearisome strip mall.

The Center for Glass will be unlike any other Toledo building, a shimmering homage to Toledo's glass history, built of the very material it honors.

It will be, dare I say it, gorgeous.

And a city that's made a fetish out of repeating that “museum-as-crown-jewel” mantra deserves no less.

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