high drama on the high plains
Edward Durell Stone's "gem on the prairie."
Do I like this building? Well, um, maybe I just need more time with it. But everything is a matter of taste, I guess, and though I’ve never been unduly interested in the work of Edward Durell Stone, I do find his idiosyncratic brand of architecture (basically a big middle finger to the Modern establishment), a crucial part of the conversation. Probably not his best-known building (see the Kennedy Center or the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi), the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer has all of the hallmarks of a Stone monument- it’s big, it’s bold, it's even a little brash. But whether you find it frivolous or exuberant, the museum deserves a second look for its populist Modernism- it's high drama on the high plains.
Located in Grand Island, a small city in central Nebraska (almost halfway between Chicago and Denver), the Edward Durell Stone-designed Stuhr Museum is the visual centerpiece of a larger living history experience, a 206-acre property depicting the life of Nebraska’s early (European) pioneers. Named for the collection's founder Leo Stuhr, a farmer and politician, the two-story museum rises from the boundless prairie like a massive white temple. Completed in 1963, the well-proportioned concrete box sits on a low plinth, its pronounced flat roof forming a deep portico that encircles the building like a classical artifact. Constructed of concrete units and poured-in-place concrete plastered with Granulux (a mix of plaster and marble chips), the museum mixes rich materiality with formal geometry to create a monumental allegory to history and place.
Much like Stone's U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, the Stuhr Museum is an isolated object, a fabricated landmark ringed with substantial columns and a formal landscape. With the open prairie acting like a blank canvas, the project's landscape design, developed by Edward Durell Stone, Jr., offers a dramatic backdrop for the concrete museum. Centered in a round manmade island, the striking white structure is encircled by a shallow moat. To gain access, the visitor must move through a carefully choreographed procession, crossing a bridge before continuing on to a large set of glass doors at the museum's entrance. On the interior, Stone repeats the exterior geometry and the formal water features, creating a central gallery with four square pools. A monumental paired staircase ascends to an open second floor (in anticipation of a few oohs and aahs, no doubt), its gentle curving stairs illuminated from above by a pyramidal skylight piercing the flat roof.
Edward Durell Stone's Stuhr Museum is a quintessential piece of New Formalism. It is unabashed monumentalism and an embrace of drama and delight. Frivolous? Maybe. But no one ever doubted Stone's attempts to wow, his attempts to provide an almost theatrical experience within architecture's four walls.
In 2014, the museum underwent a sensitive rehabilitation and renovation project by Nebraska-firm BVH Architecture. With much of its original architectural integrity still intact, the Stuhr Museum was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2015. You can read more about BVH's award-winning project here.
Have a great weekend!
Image at top:
Photograph courtesy of Visit Grand Island, via Flickr (Creative Commons by 2.0).
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