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Sourcing stone for a Philadelphia landmark

January 8, 2013
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Born into a working-class family in 1872, Albert Coombs Barnes grew up in Philadelphia, PA. As an entrepreneur and lover of art, he founded the Barnes Foundation in 1922 to “promote the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts and horticulture.” Recently, a new 93,000-square-foot building was constructed in downtown Philadelphia to provide new facilities for the Foundation’s core programs in art education as well as for temporary exhibitions and visitor amenities. Designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects (TWBTA) of New York, NY, the new building includes a 12,000-square-foot gallery to display the legendary Barnes art collection, which replicates the dimensions and shapes of the spaces in the original facility in Merion, PA.

Additionally, the new gallery is based on the founder’s conception of visual interplay between art and nature. In realizing the design of the new structure, a significant amount of time was devoted to selecting the stone, which was employed lavishly for exterior and interior applications. The facade of the new building is dressed in Ramon Gray limestone — supplied by ABC Stone of Brooklyn, NY — and several other stone varieties can be found throughout the interior and exterior design. Recently, Contemporary Stone & Tile Design spoke with Project Manager Philip Ryan of TWBTA about the details involved in the stonework.

CSTD: How did you approach the stone selection process?

Ryan: We began looking for a limestone or a similar material — something relatively light. We based it on the French limestone that was used on the original building in Merion, although that was a little more pinkish. We wanted a reflection of that in the new construction.

Additionally, we looked at the buildings around the Barnes Foundation. Many of the buildings use Tennessee Pink marble or Indiana limestone, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art uses Kasota stone. We reached out to ABC Stone and Walker Zanger and asked for a selection of limestone and Tennessee Pink marble. We quickly dismissed Kasota stone because it already is strong on the Museum of Art.

CSTD: Were there certain considerations that had to be taken?

Ryan: Most importantly, the freeze/thaw properties of some of the stones had to be considered during the selection process. That helped to filter stones out right away.

Looking at stones from Israel, Ramon is a very robust limestone. It has been used in the Northeast U.S. before, and it is very strong — especially with a sandblasted or brushed finish. We also liked the variety within the stone. There is fossilization within the colors of gray and cream. As contemporary architects, our details are very subtle. The fossilization helps to break the scale of what is a relatively block, and long, building.

CSTD:  Did you view many samples before making a final decision on the stone type?

Ryan: We had relatively large sample pieces — measuring 3 feet x 18 inches — in different finishes — sandblasted, brushed, some honed, bushhammered — in our office. We were interested in a brushed finish, but not quite honed. We knew people would be looking at the building from all around. There are sharp angles, so we didn’t want a reflective surface.

Ramon Gray is a stone material with a lot of variety. From that point, we really like it. The Barnes Foundation was very supportive of the notion that the only way to make a decision on the stone was to make it full scale. We had four mock-ups done — each 12 feet long. Initially, we mocked up two versions of Ramon Gray — one in brushed and one in sandblasted. We immediately dismissed the sandblasted. It gave the stone a sterile look. It made it white. We were glad we did the mock-up.

We had another of Tennessee Pink marble. Certainly in terms of going for LEED, that was an interesting investigation that was very seductive. Another mock-up was done with a stone called Seagrass, but when we stepped back, it lost its vibrancy.

That’s how we got to the Ramon Gray. We did take our time [deciding] because it was such an important consideration.

CSTD: Did you visit the quarry?

Ryan: Yes, we made a trip over to Israel and the West Bank. A lot is quarried in the southern desert and then usually cut in shops outside of Jerusalem or in the West Bank such as Bethlehem. The Ramon Gray was quarried in the Negev desert in southern Israel. The stone was cut and finished in the West Bank by an Israeli/Palestinian consortium.

When we were out in the desert, we were told that Ramon Gray has a sister, Ramon Gold, which is just a softer, warmer version of the same geology. It does not do as well in freeze/thaw. We really loved the stone and scratched our heads as to where we could use it. We knew we could not use it on the floor because it is so soft.

We decided to use the Ramon Gold for the walls of the Light Court, which is considered to be the “living room” of the Barnes Foundation. We decided to use it for the Light Court because it is a protected area. We changed from a brushed finish to a random hand-chiseled finish. We did that because the Light Court is a very dramatically lit space. It really causes the stone to catch the light and be luminous.

CSTD: Were any additional stones used in the design of the Barnes Foundation?

Ryan: The floor in the Light Court is comprised of re-claimed ipe — a Brazilian walnut. It is laid in a herringbone pattern and bordered by German Renaissance Grey limestone with both bushhammered and brushed finishes. We wanted something relatively strong — something that would take dirt and staining well. We did a bushhammered finish because it has some tooth to it, and the brush finish toughens up the skin.

In the 150-seat auditorium, the walls are primarily 6- x 3-foot panels of Ramon Gold limestone with a linear chiseled finish and the floor is white oak in the seating area and German Renaissance Grey limestone along the side seating wings and stage.

There were two other stones; San Sebastian granite from within 500 miles, so that was good in meeting LEED. We used it for all exterior pavers. We also used Nordic Black granite for an exterior and interior foundation.

CSTD: What would you say was the most challenging aspect of the project?

Ryan: On the facade, we dealt with a challenge that we deal with on every job — stone is wonderful but unpredictable. We had very heavy pieces of stone, and the Ramon material cracks about every 10 feet in the earth. We had a good process working with the stone cutters. We used five different pieces of stone so the eye doesn’t go to the joints. For a facade as large as this, we had to literally draw every piece of stone. We had to figure out what waste they would have. We couldn’t say we wanted all 5- x 7-foot pieces of stone. The way the stone cracks, we needed to have some 3- x 5-foot pieces, etc. We were trying to find the sweet spot between getting the scale of the stone we wanted, and small and large stones.

CSTD: What has the reaction been since the new building for the Barnes Foundation was completed?

This was a signature stone project. If you are aware of the collection, it is essentially paintings and ornamental metal objects hung on walls. One of the nicest things I heard was when a visitor said that the stone is like the paintings.  

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