Letter to the Editor: Respecting “The Sun Vow”

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Hermon Atkins MacNeil (1866-1947), The Sun Vow, 1899 (cast 1902), Bronze, 68 x 45 x 29 in., Gift of William T. Evans, 1913

Regarding the Montclair Art Museum’s landscape redevelopment proposal scheduled to be discussed at the Montclair Planning Board meeting, Monday, August 26 at 7:30 p.m.

The Montclair Art Museum is a cultural landscape masterpiece conceived by the visionary founding planners of our community.

Today, it is an important cultural focal point and should continue to thrive and develop. It would be “bad grammar” however, within its dialogue with the community, for the Museum to erase its cultural/artistic legacy and symbols from our collective memory’s landscape.

The Museum’s redevelopment proposal calls for the removal of the “Sun Vow” statue which is one of the earliest art pieces collected by William T. Evans, the museum’s founder. The statue, placed on its erratic naturalistic rock, occupies a prominent location in the historic landscape as does the Lebanese Cedar tree that was cultivated and planted by the local landscape design visionary Howard Van Vleck. The plan proposes to remove the existing tree and historic sculpture to create a reflecting pond and a new commissioned sculpture.

The founders of the museum intended to preserve our natural beauty and our cultural heritage. The Sun Vow statue is a symbol from our cultural past. Montclair, once the home of the Lenni Lenape has lost most of its Native American symbols, except perhaps for names like Watchung and Yantacaw. Dianne Lewis, a New York-based architect, stated at her Montclair Art Museum presentation “Why Montclair is Montclair” that “Montclair is a mystical visionary landscape that preserves the ghosts of the Native Americans. It has a tragic dimension. Montclair is not an ordinary suburban condition, it is like Fiesole in Tuscany and a beacon of light seen from the distance.”

The intention of Mr. Evans was to place The Sun Vow in front of the building so that it could be enjoyed by passersby from the street as well as the grounds. Why change that?

The Museum’s founders were members of the Municipal Arts Commission who intended to preserve the natural beauty of Montclair with the creation of the first 1906 Master Plan.

A 1902 Montclair Times Article about the Sun Vow statue states:

“Object of the municipal art commission. The objective of this commission shall be to promote in all practical ways the beautifying of Montclair, to preserve the distinctive charm of the country town, and to exert influence to the end that the principle of local fitness shall be served in public and private improvements, to consider the probable future development of Montclair, and to plan for meeting its needs. To influence a just appreciation of the value of art in daily life and to encourage and promote the public and private use and patronage of good art in Montclair.”

The removal of “The Sun Vow” statue, a gift to the community from the museum’s founder as well as the proposed changes to the front yard of the museum subtract from our cultural patrimony. With the current local trends of redevelopment, our collective memory of the township and its original beauty is disappearing. All you have to do is look down Bloomfield Avenue to see these aesthetic changes.

The front yard of the Museum is a very important part of our cultural legacy. It is an icon ingrained in our community’s collective memory. Each element in front of the façade has a significance. The museum founders’ intentions and the valuable historic landscape should be respected and remain as a learning tool of our original cultural legacy to teach to the new generations to come.

Frank Gerard Godlewski is a local historian & NY Armory Arts Week Curator.

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35 COMMENTS

  1. “most of us find questionable…”

    So, Frank, you’ve done extensive polling here? You have tangible metrics?

    Or is this about the voices in your head again??

    Aesthetic arguments are not bolstered by magical thinking…

  2. Excellent letter, Frank! Yes, the great Montclair Art Museum should change with the times — and it has. But it should also keep some important/historic things — like that impressive statue — in the same place.

  3. Frank,

    I appreciate the sentiment for retaining “The Sun Vow”. Both your letter and Ms Renner’s letter in the Mtc Local are well written with a specific, desirable objective. Unfortunately, while important, “The Sun Vow” does not rise to the level of protection. The argument for preserving it is as flawed as the Trustee’s misguided & tacky expansion plan. The Planning Board won’t be of any assistance because, quite frankly, they are a tactical bunch that doesn’t understand historic preservation. You need to embrace the new world as the Lenape embraced the white newcomers.

  4. Thank you Dave and Frank for your kind words of support. The expansion plan is history hating and indeed tacky. Unlike the peaceful Lenape we won’t embrace this change …we’ll fight.

  5. I need to elaborate on my point – a point that minimizes the historic importance, and preservation of both The Sun Vow and what remains of Mr. Van Vleck’s arboretum. What is of critical importance is preserving the site design of the original building and its complementary use of space. The land is an integral part of achieving probably the best example of neoclassical architecture in Montclair. The proposed circular reflecting pool, along with its proportions and its utility, seriously detract from it neoclassical design.

    Whether the two earlier, Easterly additions are sympathetic to the design is a moot point. I would argue these additions – along with the proposed amphitheater – actually serve to heighten the historic significance and preservation of the original front elevation of the museum.

    In hearing this application, the Planning Board has within its power an opportunity to address the mistakes in its past, and specifically, those it repeated with the Lackawanna Train Station site. First, regardless on how it rules on the application, it can finally acknowledge (and set precedent) what both HP practice and what our ordinances do – that the site is part of our historic destinations. Not just the building itself. The PB has historically only considered the structure. As long as they continue to do this, Montclair will only expand its inventory of Munn Tavern-type preservation that demolishes spatial context. Second, both NJ Land Use Law and our ordinances require our HPC recommendations to be given equal care, e.g. in determining its findings of fact, as that which is given to applicant’s expert testimony. The PB did not follow this requirement for Lackawanna. The PB findings of facts excluded the HPC’s expert input.

    I would not be surprised if the PB determined that the proposed redesign would not weaken the neoclassical heritage of the museum’s primary, very publicly viewed elevation. They have a layperson’s schooling in architecture. But, the HPC has the professional credentials the PB lacks and the PB should treat with great care and thoughtfulness in their findings the facts.

    While each application is unique, acknowledging the historic zoning designation of the entire site and the recognizing the equal standing of the HPC would provide a new, more enlightened framework for future applications that develop historic sites.

  6. Thank you Frank. Very well said. I don’t understand why the present powers that be at MAM spurn their founders, their past and Montclair history.

  7. They’ve never acknowledged the works of most of the founding Swenedborhist/Rogerian Arts community individuals … not even 20th century artists like Don Miller or the local Jazz movement. Where do they think they are?

  8. I think I understand them well. For as long as I can remember the museum has been trying to diversify their offering. Partly from constant internal pressures; a lot of it has been the public that speaks with its feet. What started with the Montclair Art Commission’s original charter is now being recast as a mission to evolve as a regional arts venue. A declining emphasis on the “Montclair” part. I appreciate the challenge it faces to stay relevant & fiscally sound. I wouldn’t be surprised if the day comes – and the monetary gift substantial enough – when it will be renamed.

    However, their long-standing argument that they are the best stewards of preserving the property’s historic significance has to go away, too. It is clearly no longer part of their mission and, like all the owners of historic properties, the Township must assume the historic preservation stewardship.

    The fact is 3 of the 4 facades are, or shortly will be altered historically. By the Planning Board’s way of thinking, the new additions are no longer historic and therefore, free to be further altered. Due to inevitable future expansion of exhibit space, I suspect the new amphitheater days are numbered before it is even approved. The only, minimally adulterated facade is the front of the building. Turning that into a video displays, yarn-adorned trees set around a reflecting pool is just a Millenial version of the Rococo period.

    The Planning Board needs to step it up and put constraints and conditions on how the front, side and rear yards are utilized. E.g. this is where and what yard area can be used as exhibit space, what signage and banners are allowed, etc. etc. What is considered a permanent use (their approval of the video displays), yet the 100-year old statue “The Sun Vow” is being argued as temporary?

    Land use standards and allowed uses are what they do best. It probably would help the PB members to think of this as an art gallery use instead of a museum. Would they allow all this packed into the front yard if it was an art gallery? I worry they will.

  9. Actually, Frank, you can ignore my other posts today. I am reverting to my core position that the execution of historic preservation should be a matter of the land owner’s private policy and public policy should be relegated to a solely educational endeavor.

    I just read the Historic Preservation Commission’s report and recommendations. You can’t win for losing!
    The HPC is basically fine with the application as is – just some minor concerns here and there. Therefore, the Planning Board has to approve the application.

  10. I totally disagree with the position that the HPC took in Kathleen Bennett’s absence. Their statements made no sense to me at that meeting.

  11. They didn’t make much sense to me either. Especially since they disregarded their own HP consultant’s report recommendations. You should read and compare the two reports.

    My favorite was the suggestion for a black pool lining, either gunite clad or tiled bottom. Even if Ms Bennett was there and had different positions, they would have been added to the minority “reflections” pool. My choice for runner-up was their recommendation to locally landmark the museum…afterwards. I guess they wanted more control going forward over railing designs, window frame colors and signs.

    The HPC is 0-2 on the most recent major landmark reviews. They fell once more into designing rather than preservation. It certainly is more fun, but not the role of government when private property rights are involved. No worries though – I’m sure both landmarks will receive Preservation Awards down the road.

  12. Frank

    Seriously, you live in Essex Fells, not Montclair. Leave the decision up to those of us that live and pay taxes here…

    Move on,

    Robert

  13. As it turns out, a circular reflecting pool WAS part of the original design from the Museum’s first proposed build and plans for that spot — which Mr. Rubacky would have known if he followed the testimony from the Museum’s architect.

    Yes, that pool was not built back then. Cost might be the most likely factor. Regardless, circular reflecting pools as forms, like this one proposed again, are standard iconic designs for what is originally Greek based classical architecture. So a reflecting pool of the like for today — which are found in many classically inspired public settings — like parks — are used all the time. Bethesda Fountain in NYC being one of the best known examples of this Neo-classical form.

    The other water feature proposed on the Museum site it appears, has a rectangle design — another classical motif. Yet, Mr. Rubacky believes both this and the circular pool presented are not in the design spirit of the Museum.

    It’s s one thing to pontificate frequently on all things design, as Mr. Rubacky does here with authority, although he’s not a practicing architect, designer or contractor — it appears. It’s another thing to actually know what you are talking about and be right.

  14. A good, late August morning…now my coffee was even better with reading of your post. I do enjoy them.

    Practicing? As a slubberdegullion. Is practicing parent still applicable if your children have children? Funny aside – Donald Trump will be called Mr Presdient for the rest of his life. Anyway, yourself?

    Yes, I was curglaffed by the designs. For starters, water features take more effort to maintain (see Church St circle) and the MAM will freely admit their landscape maintenance has been “uneven”. My issue is the utility and proportions are worse than poor – they are terribly unimaginative. A 16’ high cast concrete wall topped by a highway cable wire fence and a retreating line of of green soldiers.

    Concentric circles serving what purpose exactly? Your everyday 40’ diameter, 12” deep circular pool. Surrounded by your everyday, seldom used, grandiose circular driveway. Enclosed on redundant circular sidewalk. What is the purpose of the water? It’s an art museum? Why water? Why so ordinary?

    Bethesda Fountain? Omgggg. You would have been on an intellectually stronger ground if you compared this design to the Taj Mahal. Even better….this is Montclair’s Falling Water!!! (sorry, FLW).

    But, my favorite part of this marketing effort is the rendering of the MAM with a pool. OK, even a non-practicing contractor, designer, or architect will tell you about relying on renderings. The Planning Board has been warned countless times about renderings, e.g. Valley & Bloom (the local gold standard of renderings). I could trot out the original renderings of the MC Hotel. It is beneath the accomplished architect to extrapolate from a rendering.

    As long as everyone is blatantly making stuff up out of whole cloth, I’ll tell you my version of what happened back in 1910-1914:

    My predecessors saw the rendering and criticized the reflecting pool design. Mr Evans stepped in with a compromise. Using a form follows function argument, he argued a prominent piece of art should dominate the foreyard. Any opposition evaporated with his generous donation of The Sun Vow. To save money, they repurposed a native bolder uncovered from site excavation as a pedestal.

    It is just a bad design that will yield many regrets. Imagination R.I.P.

  15. Thank you. Will try Frank.

    Right From Wrong,
    Rendering Exhibit A of the creative process spectrum and what the thinking was at one point in time:

    https://unitedrenderworks.com/portfolio-detail.cfm?id=1839

    I don’t love it, but it is another way to go. Another way to go for the foreyard is a Louvre/IM Pei interpretation. Maybe get crazy imaginative and do a rift on tidal/reflecting pool. Inverted hexagon or an atypical quadrilateral offering actual, multi-purpose exhibition space. Go really off and use glass blocks/embedded lights/etc. instead of water. Imagine the entry drama and streetscape interest.

    I’m not blessed with artistic/creative skills. I assumed the art museum minds would be fountains of creativity. My point being is the design should create excitement! Can you say you are excited by the boring design they have now? Honestly. I’d say it is stodgy.

    As to the side yard design, the utility concept is good. The execution is not.
    Rendering Exhibit B – a terraced amphitheater (that could easily be be ADA accessible):

    https://mnlandscape.com/projects/montclair_art_museum_master_plan

    The 16′ wall and flattened land is just clumsy and fights with the topography and the museum building. It is a really poor transition element from front to back and from original to the new additions. Just bad, bad design.

  16. And, if I think it is stodgy as a senior and a preservationist, imagine what the Millennials and subsequent generations of patrons will think? Boring!

  17. Mr. Rubacky – you should contact the Museum or its architect and present your suggestions and ideas. That seems entirely appropriate here. Just how much community input they actually received to create this new design is hard to tell. And certainly, that Board approving it is NOT really reflected of the “community”.

    Nonetheless, they are a “creative” display institution. So if they create exterior display elements that visitors and residents ultimately find boring, they may now choose not to come. Or they may lose board members and donations.

    People and their institutions, have the right to fail. Here, this proposed redesign, which you may feel is pedantic and not the best, still does appears within the ballpark of connection to their Neo-classical building as it stands. Further, moving a donated statute from the premier front position, to even a secondary location on the same site years later, is not the horrific violation of this Federal Historic site some might feel or believe — when modified.

  18. I know they can read and use the internet. Montclair has very robust and invasive grapevine. They can put in a little effort.

    Everyone and everything is replaceable and forgettable. But, bad design, applied to landmark properties, irks me. I particularly dislike the MAM’s decades-long justifications and “inconsistencies” for getting around historic preservation. The Planning Board will do the minimum their job requires because I think they are enamored with he concept of the museum and a little intimidated by the Trustees. It also doesn’t hurt this is technically a minor site plan application and the HPC methodically butchered their advisory review.

    The PB won’t retrieve the MAM’s 2000 application exhibits & testimony proffered to the Zoning Board. They won’t even read the ZBA’s resolution. They won’t invite the Chair Harrison to testify. No, they will do the absolute least they can do to approve this application. So, sorry if it seems pointless to present my thoughts in that forum. There is a point to presenting in this forum.

    The Planning Board can’t consider alternative plans.
    They rightfully must determine what should NOT go there, or what conditions, variances, waivers should be applied.

    The most important thing that shouldn’t go there is…

    …the visual tall wall of green soldiers that obscures where the building corner where the front, Western facade meets the Southern facade corner of the building. The absolutely the most architecturally revealing and the most dramatic view of the building.

    FYI, a big reason the view of front entrance facade was photographed so much was the side yard was unattractive. There was a “non-contributing” clapboard house within ‘pass the Gray Poupon’ distance in the Southern, side yard into the 1920’s. For the short period before they added the parking lots, you can really appreciate the design. It is then one sees how much more appropriate a tiered landscape is the right solution. The other choices are for degrees of decorating – not designing.

    Looking at all the other, similar, intentionally ‘strong’, utilitarian buildings in Montclair, what makes them impressive is the pedestrian views take in the multiple elevations. E.g. the Police Dept, the former banks at 5-Corners, the Bellevue Library, etc. Why would any architect want to partially obscure the best view for a new patio? The design is to balkanize the property into separate, distinct experiences. Why? It is a very, very structured & controlling layout. Not quite to the level of cemetery, but close.

    Then you have the “huh, whatcha doin’ with the front yard?” The circle driveway is only wide enough for 1-way circulation. The connected access drive (with 5 handicap spaces) is also only wide enough for 1-way circulation. Further, they want to move all the parking spaces 5’ into the front yard. I always get confused between waivers & variances – and when to re-notice. They do have a tacky-tack total parking discrepancy. That’s a waiver, but, once again, the PB doesn’t want to do its job.

    Anyway, the only possible purpose of the circle drive is as an elaborate drop-off feature!!
    So, let’s add a reflecting pool to pretty-up a drop-off feature! Spectacular! Let’ give the MAM some more donations.

    Now back to that access drive that is 30’ wide and 120’ long. It is there solely to serve the 5 handicap spaces. Totally unnecessary! Another spectacular design & land use!

    This is not going to be an horrific affront to preservation. Not even close. This will be a very disturbing example of free choice of the PB and that of the MAM’s leadership.

  19. http://www.digifind-it.com/montclair/pages/p0566.php?zoom_highlight=art+museum
    click on photo thumbnail on left, then click on (+) symbol at lower left of frame to get full resolution image. You can further enlarge/reduce by clicking on photo

    This is the view of the building and the topography c.1920’s and what is essentially there today. Now put a perpendicular wall of green from where the museum’s front facade stops and the right edge of the photo.

  20. Thank you Frank for bring to light this interesting information. I agree with your thoughts. You are a very good architect despite having a professional license or not.

  21. A little detail to The Great Wall concept and relationship to the historic building:

    The building, per the plans is 36′ tall. The plan calls for a single row of what I call the green soldiers – which are planned as Thuja Green Giant evergreen trees. Any one experienced with them will know Green Giants often lose their green needles on their lower limbs, typically due to a water a drainage issue, which defeats their usual purpose of a pedestrian screen. Further, these Green Giants will be set on sloping ground with an impervious driveway on one side, a full-length, impervious retaining wall on the other (and no nearby water drainage inlets), and several adjacent ADA ramps to channel water flow. OK, maybe a problem, maybe not. But, Thuja Green Giants, per testimony and my experience, grow up to 25′ tall! Again, the building at its peak is just 36′ tall. On the patio side, the Green Giants sit on a 12′ high retaining wall – giving an effective height of 37′. The waterfall feature is just 10′ tall.
    Wow! That is one impressive wall effect.

    The plan calls for planting 76 new trees and transplanting about 9 existing trees. Deducting the 21 or so Green Giants, homes are needed for 64 trees. If the front yard tree inventory is to remain unchanged, that is a whole lot of trees around the rest of the building. If the intent is to hide the building as much as possible, this seems like a strong plan.

    If the intent is to complement the building’s historic setting, the PB may want to get some objective landscaping expertise. Just a suggestion.

  22. I am just catching up on following the entire hearing…

    I had to chuckle when the applicant’s planning expert cited the benefits in relation to our Master Plan. One “zone plan” cited benefit were the desirable features the MP called for in creating a vibrant downtown. It sounded good except that the museum is not in the C-1 Zone, but in the single family R-0(a) Zone.
    When the expansion was approved in 2000, the Zoning Board specifically called for the property to be changed to an R-0(a) Zone – not to change it to the C-1. The Council concurred and did so.

    I guess the testimony plan this time was to throw as much at “the wall” and see what sticks.

    The PB needs to focus and not be distracted by the shiny – some imaginary – balls. They need to review the 2000 approval for this latest plan’s consistency.

  23. One more – a follow-up actually. If the cable fence is not set back and requires an additional variance, doesn’t the applicant have to re-notice the hearing? Does moving the front yard parking impact the original variance and also require notice? Does less parking than the 2000 variance require a waiver or variance…and notice?

  24. Sorry, forgot to mention the barrier-free, ADA accessibility shiny ball. The only ADA accessible route in the front yard is a new, single sidewalk from the street to the front door. The rest of the front yard is not ADA accessible. The applicant testified the Harris, South side entrance is the predominant entrance, not the front entrance. Yet, there is no appropriate ADA parking there. In fact, for ADA access to the patio, patrons would need to park in the front yard, enter the front doors, go downstairs, and out to the patio. If The Sun Vow is moved to one of the unaccessible sculpture gardens, there would not be ADA access to this particular piece. So, let’s not play up the barrier-free/ADA features of this plan.

    Right From Wrong – what do you think about my additional points? Fair/Unfair? Worthy/Unworthy?

  25. Frank that’s all very valuable information and great insights… the awareness of all this has given me a splitting headache. I agree with all your thoughts. I chucked about the wall as being there to “see if the spaghetti sticks “ Regarding your info about the ADA access… do you remember that the The Yard School was founded in conjunction with Kessler Institute as a gesture of caregiving and Art Therapy? Seems that mission too has been forgotten in time.

  26. I did not know about the connection between The Yard School & Kessler. I’ll infer it doesn’t exist today. As the Museum Director pointed out, the museum can’t be expected to preserve itself in amber.

  27. OK, I’m a little slow on the comprehending the entire landscape plan, but this design continues to disappoint.

    The side yard renovation has 3 descending levels: an Upper Plaza, a Lower Plaza and a Lower Lawn. One stated objective is too eliminate the view of the parking lot so as not to detract from the outdoor art. To further achieve this, there is another row of 21 more Green Giant evergreens around the Lower Lawn with what appears to be foot walls topped by cable fencing. Basically, the MAM is creating a fully screened, full barrier enclosed yard.

    In exchange, they are making 3 noteworthy trade-offs. First, they are physically chopping up the museum’s 3 acre landscape. In front is over 5,800 sf of useless autos-centric space, then the parking lot, and then the side plaza/yard. Second, whatever visual vibrancy/activity that may be seen from the perimeter to draw in a passerby is being eliminated. They will not see the activity within. Third, the St Luke’s Place streetscape will now be confined to a view of the parking lot, a wall of 25’ evergreens behind it, a glass enclosed staircase of the new addition, and a loading dock. A passerby will not have any visual indication it is an art museum. Or that people are there except by their cars. It will be our little ‘hidden gem’.

    One irony is that the the Zoning Board recommended the Museums 3 lots be consolidated into one – to treat the property as a whole. Technically, from a zoning POV, this was done. Today, the reality is the MAM is reverting to a version of the original 3 lots. That’s the concept. A landscape subdivision. You gotta love development.

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