Visual Arts Center in Mountain Resort Community Built on 19th Century Barn Frame

Architects challenged to maintain barn's historic character and create contemporary museum space

HIGHLANDS, N.C. - On a plateau in this western North Carolina mountain resort sits the frame of a hand-hewn post-and-beam barn built in 1838 and moved here in 2007 from Pennsylvania. Built on the frame is the new home of The Bascom, a three-story, 27,500-square-foot visual arts center whose exterior recalls the memory of the site as a scenic farm. Inside, however, are contemporary exhibition galleries, classrooms and gathering spaces whose sensitive juxtaposition with the historic barn's old timbers was the architects' major design intent.

Designed by the team of Lord, Aeck & Sargent and DeWolf Architecture, The Bascom's main building is the largest of three major structures on the six-acre site, which also includes an early 19th century covered bridge from New Hampshire that serves as an entrance to the site, and a rebuilt rough-hewn barn - now a 2,500-square-foot pottery and 3D studio - that was designed by DeWolf.

Lord, Aeck & Sargent, the architecture firm that collaborated with Renzo Piano Building Workshop on the 2005 expansion of Atlanta's High Museum of Art, was architect for the exhibition galleries, studios, classrooms, art storage and exhibition preparation spaces, reception area, retail shop and café in The Bascom's main building. DeWolf was architect for the main building exterior, including a 4,600-square-foot partially covered terrace, porte-cochere, elevator tower and the interior administrative spaces. Both firms collaborated on the master plan for the site, which includes a walking trail, brook and many scenic views.

"Displaying art in a coffin"
The Bascom, a non-profit organization previously known as The Bascom-Louise Gallery, had been housed in a public library where it occupied only about 2,500 square feet, including both exhibition and administrative space.

"Our old home served us well, but with gray carpet and poor-quality track lighting it was like displaying art in a coffin," said Kaye Gorecki, artistic director at The Bascom. "Our audience has grown since we opened our doors in 1983, and we wanted to increase the size and quality of our program spaces, expand our children's offerings and add new services.

"Now, with ample museum-quality exhibition and art storage space that has temperature and humidity controls, not to mention a loading dock and an exhibit preparation area, we can bring in larger works and borrow works from museums," Gorecki stated.

Juxtaposing the old with the new
Highlands, located in western North Carolina, is a 4,000-foot-elevation mountaintop community where visitors and part-year residents come to relax.

"It was important that this new fine arts center would look comfortable, relaxing and like it fit here with our beloved green mountains," Gorecki said. "But we also wanted a cosmopolitan, up-to-date, contemporary museum space. This was the challenge we presented to our architects, and the end result is such a great juxtaposition of the old timbers and the new contemporary look."

Adaptive reuse of materials
The core of The Bascom's main building is the 49-foot by 97-foot barn frame, whose heavy oak timbers were disassembled for the move to North Carolina and reassembled on the site. The barn siding, mostly oak and hemlock timbers that are more than 100 years old, is from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky and Virginia.

"The adaptive reuse of the old barn timbers and siding was important from a standpoint of salvaging old materials and maintaining the character of the historic barn," said Jeff Weller, who served as project manager for DeWolf. "We also looked at it from the perspective of ensuring that the building fit in with the site.

"And with that in mind, we wanted the parking area to feel like a yard, so we used reinforced grass paving, which is porous and stable with the aesthetics of a lawn, along with chip seal, which is a pavement surface treatment that looks less like asphalt and more like an old farm road," Weller said.

Making smaller secondary additions as Pennsylvania farmers did
Some elements were added to the barn, among them contemporary storefront systems at the main front entrance, the side entrance to the covered terrace, and the lower-level back entrance. These were floor-to-ceiling, full-glass doors with anodized bronze frames.

Other exterior additions included:

 a 28-foot by 40-foot porte-cochere (drive-through carport) in front, also moved to the site from Pennsylvania and made of heavy oak timbers;
 a shed roofed area for the retail shop and additional exhibition space;
 a passenger elevator tower sensitively integrated onto the back side of the building; and
 a service elevator tower to allow oversized artwork to be easily moved to each floor.

"In making these additions, the concept was to stay true to the form and materials of the old barn, making smaller secondary additions to the frame, just as 19th century Pennsylvania farmers would have done to their structures when they needed more space," Weller said.

Interior spaces showcase barn frame, emphasize modern functions
"While the exterior design was about staying true to the barn's historic character, we wanted interior spaces that crisply contrasted the barn frame and emphasized the modern functions," said John Starr, principal in charge of the design for Lord, Aeck & Sargent. "The exhibition galleries use a white box approach to create very understated, flexible spaces that showcase the historic barn frame and for the art that The Bascom displays."

Starr said that most of the major new interior elements are made of white sheetrock, clear glass and dark metal. In places where the wooden barn frame would not work for the new loading and spans, Lord, Aeck & Sargent inserted structural steel columns and beams. The steel allows visitors to easily distinguish how the original frame has been altered for use in its second life.

"The overall juxtaposition of the warm, natural feeling of the wooden frame, ceiling and floors with the cool, modern insertions creates galleries that comfortably accommodate a range of art from the most contemporary to very traditional," Starr added.

What's inside
Entering The Bascom's main level through a vestibule, visitors find an atrium lobby as well as the main gallery, reception area and retail shop, which features arts and crafts made by regional artists. To the side of the lobby is the covered terrace with panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. A catering kitchen on the main floor serves the café, which has seating on the terrace, in the main lobby and on the upper level. The balcony gallery on the upper level overlooks the atrium lobby below and opens to a large upper level gallery with a loft-like feel. The lower level features space for a greatly expanded art education program. Included are a children's studio, wet studio and gallery. There is also a 2D studio for adults and an artist-in-residence studio. Also on the lower level are administrative spaces, art storage rooms and an exhibition preparation room.

Community resource is community funded
The Bascom's $13 million total project cost is being funded entirely through more than 1,100 donations. The Campaign continues. "It took everyone in the community to make it happen," said Gorecki, who noted that donations ranged from $50 to a $1 million donation made by a family of part-time Highlands residents.

"Our new space is a true community resource and gathering place for lifelong learning. With its park-like trails, it's a great green space for the community, and it offers educational opportunities for all levels and ages from pre-schoolers to retirees."

The project team
The project team for The Bascom's main building included:
 Lord, Aeck & Sargent (Atlanta office), architect
 DeWolf Architecture (Highlands, N.C.), architect, construction administration
 Ross Landscape Architecture of Highlands (Highlands, N.C.), landscape architect and civil engineer
 Ferry, Hayes & Allen Designers (Atlanta), interior design
 Wayne Yonce (Highlands, N.C.), consultant for historic reconstruction
 BAA Mechanical Engineers (Atlanta), MEP/FP engineer
 Palmer Engineering (Atlanta), structural engineer
 Trehel Corp. (Greenville, S.C.), general contractor

About Lord, Aeck & Sargent
Lord, Aeck & Sargent is an award-winning architectural firm serving clients in scientific, academic, historic preservation, arts and cultural, and multi-family housing and mixed-use markets. The firm's core values are responsive design, technological expertise and exceptional service. Lord, Aeck & Sargent has offices in Ann Arbor, Michigan; Atlanta, Georgia; and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. For more information, visit the firm at

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Note to editors: Photo credit is copyright 2009 Jonathan Hillyer / Atlanta