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 theBarnes Foundationin 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 extensively for exterior and interior applications.

The Barnes Foundation

Philadelphia, PA

Executive Architect: Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, New York, NY

Associate Architect: Ballinger, Philadelphia, PA

Landscape Architect:Olin, Philadelphia, PA

Barnes Foundation Project Executive:William W. McDowell III

Stone Suppliers:ABC Stone, Brooklyn, NY (Jerusalem and German limestone); Walker Zanger, Perth Amboy, NJ (San Sebastian and Absolute Black granite pavers)

Stone Quarrier: Polycor, Quebec City, Quebec, Canada (granite)

Stone Installers: DM Sabia & Co., Conshohocken, PA (exterior facade and interior stonework); Lepore & Sons, Conshohocken, PA

The facade of the new building is dressed in Ramon Gray limestone — quarried in the Negev desert in southern Israel and supplied by ABC Stone of Brooklyn, NY. “We began looking for a limestone or a similar material — something relatively light,” explained Project Manager Philip Ryan of TWBTA. “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,” the architect went on to say. “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.”

Considering the stone options

To determine the best stone and finish for the exterior of the Barnes Foundation, which is a two-story structure with an additional level below grade, the design team at TWBTA had relatively large sample pieces — measuring 3 feet x 18 inches — in different finishes in its office to consider. “We were interested in a brushed finish, but not quite honed,” said Ryan. “We knew people would be looking at the building from all around. There are sharp angles, so we didn’t want a reflective surface.”

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,” explained Ryan. “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.

“Ramon Gray is a stone material with a lot of variety,” the architect continued. “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.”

According to Ryan, four mock-ups — each 12 feet long — were constructed on the jobsite. “Initially, we mocked up two versions of Ramon Gray — one in brushed and one in sandblasted,” he said. “We immediately dismissed the sandblasted. It gave the stone a sterile look. It made it white. We were glad we did the mock-up.”

Moreover, there was another mock-up consisting of Tennessee Pink marble. “Certainly in terms of going for LEED, that was an interesting investigation that was very seductive,” said Ryan. “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,” the architect went on to explain. “We did take our time [deciding] because it was such an important consideration.”

Choosing Ramon Gray

Once the decision was made to use Ramon Gray limestone for the building’s exterior, the design team traveled to the quarry in the Negev desert in southern Israel. The stone was cut and finished in the West Bank by an Israeli/Palestinian consortium.

In total, 110 shipping containers were needed to bring the stone across the Atlantic Ocean. The 12-foot-tall stone super-panels on the facade are comprised of an assemblage of individual pieces that range in size from 3 x 5 to 4 x 8 feet, with a thickness of 3 inches. The average weight of a stone super-panel is approximately 4,800 pounds. In between the stone panels there are deep stainless steel recesses with 1/8-inch joints.

“On the facade, we dealt with a challenge that we deal with on every job — stone is wonderful but unpredictable,” said Ryan. “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.”

The design concept

Conceived by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, the layout of the new Barnes Foundation is a “Gallery in a Garden, Garden in a Gallery.” The inspiration came from an observation made by the two architects when they initially studied the plans of the existing Merion Gallery. They noted that the walls that separated the smaller end galleries from the rest of the larger galleries on the first and second floors were aligned with one another, and they could be significantly wider without compromising the Foundation’s mandate that any new design respect the arrangement of the rooms within the Gallery. This enabled the scheme to widen the previously 10-inch-thick walls to 24-foot-thick walls that would accept the insertion of a Gallery Garden and a pair of Gallery Classrooms on each floor.

“The building has three main masses,” explained Ryan. “There is the Collection Gallery where the art is hung. North of that there is an L-shaped element wrapped around a court. That is called the ‘Pavilion.’ It is where the offices and shop are located. Then there is a court in between — capped by what we call, ‘light boxes,’ which are large and clear. Visitors pass through the court from the Pavilion. It makes you feel like you are outside, but it is covered.”

The Light Court — considered to be the “living room” of the Barnes Foundation — is under cover but has the same exterior as the outside and features Ramon Gold limestone on the walls. “When we were at the quarry in Israel, we were told that Ramon Gray has a sister, Ramon Gold, which is just a softer, warmer version of the same geology,” said the architect. “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 on the floor because it is so soft.”

Ryan explained that it was decided to use Ramon Gold for the Light Court because it was a protected area. “We changed from a brushed finish to a random hand-chiseled finish,” he said. “We did that because the Court is a very dramatically lit space. It really causes the stone to catch the light and be luminous.”

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, which was also supplied by ABC Stone.

“We wanted something relatively strong — something that would take dirt and staining well,” explained Ryan. “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 clad with 6- x 3-foot panels of Ramon Gold limestone — featuring a linear chiseled finish. Complementing the limestone wall panels is floor consisting of white oak in the seating area and German Renaissance Grey limestone along the side seating wings and stage.

Completing the project

The entire exterior facade as well as all of the interior stone applications was installed by DM Sabia & Co. of Conshohocken, PA. “We had worked with them before on another project,” explained Ryan. “We were happy that we could extend an existing relationship. I requested the same individuals. The foreman is terrific.”

In addition to the limestone exterior, San Sebastian and Absolute granite — quarried by Polycor of Quebec, Canada,and supplied through Walker Zanger of Perth Amboy, NJ — were employed as exterior paving. “The San Sebastian granite was from within 500 miles so that was good in meeting LEED,” said the architect. “Almost everything was sand set.” The pavers were installed by Lepore & Sons of Conshohocken, PA.

The Barnes Foundation is the first major art and education facility in the U.S. to earn LEED Platinum certification. It hosted an opening gala at its new campus on Benjamin Franklin Parkway in May of 2012. The funds raised supported the care and preservation of the world-renowned Barnes collection. The black-tie event was hosted by Brian Williams, anchor and Managing Editor of NBC Nightly News and Rock Center, and featured a cocktail reception and tour of the Foundation’s new galleries — followed by a dinner reception with performances by the Avalon Jazz Band, Enon Tabernacle Mass Choir and special guest artist and multiple Grammy award-winning singer/songwriter/musician Norah Jones.

The Barnes holds one of the finest collections of Post-Impressionist and early Modern paintings, with extensive holdings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Henri Rousseau, Amedeo Modigliani, Chaim Soutine and Giorgio de Chirico, as well as American masters Charles Demuth, William Glackens, Horace Pippin and Maurice Prendergast, Old Master paintings, important examples of African sculpture and Native American ceramics, jewelry and textiles, American paintings and decorative arts and antiquities from the Mediterranean region and Asia.

“This was a signature stone project,” said Ryan. “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.”