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Published: Friday, 1/10/2003

Art museum's `Glass House' gets panel nod

A green light shone on the “Glass House” yesterday evening.

The Toledo Plan Commission voted unanimously to allow the Toledo Museum of Art to start construction on its $25 million Center for Glass museum building, overturning a previous ruling by the Old West End Historic District Commission.

Neighborhood residents who oppose the simple, contemporary building design said they would continue their fight in court.

A full house gathered to argue for and against placing the structure in a park-like setting across Monroe Street from the museum.

The speeches played off an ambiguous passage in the municipal code that gives historic district commissions the power to block construction of buildings they judge “inappropriate” for the neighborhood.

In December, the Old West End Historic District Commission voted 3-2 not to give the museum a “certificate of appropriateness” needed to put the glass-and-aluminum structure within a district of Victorian and Edwardian homes.

The museum appealed to the plan commission, its last chance to save the Japanese-designed plan from local opposition. Museum supporters included an artist, a college professor, Mayor Jack Ford, a museum trustee, and Paul Spencer Byard, a nationally recognized New York City lawyer and architect who helped forge modern historic preservation law.

Supporters of the plan used words like “mood,” “character,” and “courage,” and praised the founders of the Old West End who built homes in what were then new, daring styles.

They decried the opposition's narrow interpretation of the law, saying founder Edward Drummond Libbey could not have built the Toledo Museum of Art if the same regulations had been in place at the turn of the 20th century.

Historic district commission members who voted on the measure explained why they oppose the new center, while their backers used words like “rule of law,” “negative precedent,” and “elitism” to accuse museum officials of presenting the neighborhood with a fait accompli - a “take it or leave it” proposition.

One woman warned plan commission members against “letting the Japanese come in and take over the Toledo Museum of Art.”

More measured voices cited letters from the Ohio Preservation Alliance, Ohio Historical Society, and National Trust for Historic Preservation, all offering support to those who opposed the plan.

But in the end, the plan commission members said the museum meets the somewhat sketchy guidelines set out by the Historic Preservation ordinance.

“We have to demonstrate courage to build buildings that make a statement for our time,” said Sue Wuest, a member of the plan commission. “I am concerned that it's possible to [use preservation laws] to force this kind of building out of the city's core and into the suburbs.”

Rey Boezi, another member of the plan commission, called the plan “quite extraordinary,” and chided opponents for assuming preservation laws will be weakened if the museum is built.

After the vote, Dr. Roger Berkowitz, the director of the museum, said the museum had no backup plans had the appeal failed.

“We felt so strongly about this, we'd followed the proper process from the beginning. We met with the neighbors more than 40 times, and we have such a wonderful building ... we felt confident.”

Phillip deWilton, an Old West End resident, said opponents of the new building were just as confident as Dr. Berkowitz that the museum would win this round.

“We'll have to go to Common Pleas Court next,” he said. “The city needs to enforce its own ordinances. The standards are there, they're clear. It's too bad [the plan commission] had to go with this win-lose solution. A really elegant city finds a win-win compromise. One cultural institution should not be set aside for another.”



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