The centerpiece of the Folger’s renovation project is now taking shape: an expansive visitor and exhibition space under the front terrace, entered through gardens to the east and west. The new structure, combined with another exhibition hall under the building, will offer visitors, students, teachers, audience members, and researchers even greater opportunities to engage with the Folger collection.
This summer and fall, construction began on a large structure that will complete a new public wing at the core of the Folger’s renovation project, which will welcome visitors from throughout the Washington, DC, area, the United States, and the world. Extending from the north side of the building, the new structure will be located just below the Folger’s grass-covered front terrace, which will now sit atop the new space’s roof. Its entrances will be below street level, approached through extensive, sloping gardens on either side.
A substantial structure, it will house east and west lobbies and a major exhibition hall on Shakespeare and his works. Beside it, in a large new area under the original building, the Stuart and Mimi Rose Rare Book and Manuscript Exhibition Hall will host exhibitions that link the Folger’s vast collection to explore ideas and conversations that will resonate with visitors. Together, these below-ground spaces will make up a single 12,000 square-foot unit that is a new public wing, or pavilion.
Although there is still much to do, three massive parts of the new structure—the outer north wall, the long roof, and the slab floor—are now in place. When he first walked on the floor, “I felt embraced by the space,” says Folger Director Michael Witmore. “I do think it’s going to be the second wonder of the Folger. The first is the historic Cret building,” referring to the historic spaces of the Folger building, which was designed by architect Paul Cret and dedicated in 1932. “This is a different kind of wonder, but it is still a wonder. ‘How did they conjure all of that space?'”
From Steel to Concrete
To work that magic, the Gilbane Building Company and its specialist trade contractors completed several major earlier steps, from excavating the site and cutting out the north foundation wall to deepening a row of structural steel columns just inside the wall by several feet and installing a double steel girder to add further support. Constructing the new structure outside of the original building introduced another type of work. “That was the start of big, large pours of concrete,” says Opi Leckszas, a senior project manager at Gilbane. It “took us out of the structural steel components of the building and into the new structure, which is all concrete.”
The concrete pours produced, in order, the outer wall, the roof, and the floor. For Ruth Taylor Kidd, the Folger chief financial officer, who is managing the renovation, all three marked an acceleration of the project. “It just happened really fast,” she says. “That was when you realized, ‘Okay, here we go.'”
Each of the three components had its own story. Witmore says that he thought the initial piece, the new outer wall, is “like an abutment, one of the components that hold up a bridge.” It also functions as a retaining wall, holding back the pressure of the outside soil. That requires an extensive amount of rebar (reinforcing bar), which the construction team built up before the concrete pour.
“The wall was the first prominent part of the new pavilion,” says Taylor Kidd. “And the fact that it was a wall without a ceiling or a floor made it really sculptural, as well as providing a sense of where the pavilion was going to start and end. One of my memories of that time was the light and the shadows that were cast on the wall, knowing that was only going to exist for a short time,” before the roof was poured.
Pouring a Concrete Roof in Midair
Next came an extraordinary moment, the creation of the roof. “Pouring concrete in midair is a bit like just conjuring a room—a huge room—out of nowhere,” says Witmore. To prepare for the roof pour, the construction team filled the entire space below it with posts and braces to support the framework overhead.
A second, important step took place about three days after the roof was poured. The roof was designed as a post-tensioned slab, a slab that “has added steel cables in it,” says Jeff Busch, the Gilbane senior general superintendent who managed the work. “After the concrete has set up, those cables are tensioned and locked off.” For the new roof, several hundred cables ran through the concrete. One end of each cable was anchored near the building and the other end was located along the outer wall, where the crew used a hydraulic jack to permanently add a specific amount of tension. This process “allows you to have a much greater span,” says Busch, “going from the double girder at the original foundation wall all the way out to the north foundation wall, without having to have any intermediate columns underneath”—a key benefit that adds open space and greater design flexibility throughout the space below.
The overhead slab, of course, is not just a roof; it will also support the front terrace, or plinth. When she first had the chance to walk on top of it, says Taylor Kidd, “what was so exciting was the realization that the plinth is back.” The slab is “part of the construction, but it’s also the restoration of the original Cret façade with the grassy plinth and seating areas.” Now that it is in place, “you can’t stand at the bottom of the pit looking at the Capitol anymore,” she says. But “you can get back up on the plinth and see it the way it was two and a half years ago.”
“We Were in the Room”
The new structure’s third big component, the slab floor, was poured in mid-October. As with each major piece, it required extensive preparation—including the installation of ductwork that runs under the slab, using blue ducts designed for the purpose, and back-filling more than 1700 tons of gravel around it.
“The floor slab was the big moment,” says Witmore. “Because once it was down, we were in the room. The design team and I have been living in a diagram in our minds, and that’s one thing. But being able to walk, to put one foot in front of another, as the diagram becomes more and more real—it’s experiential, instead of speculative. When I look at the diagram, I see the logic. When I walk on the floor of the pavilion, I feel the new culture.”
A Green and Leafy Greeting
But while the new space is designed to welcome visitors, it will do so by working hand in glove with the surrounding garden landscape. “The design strategy,” says Witmore, “is to pass the landscape through the building in one continuous gesture.” The initial construction of the garden space is already underway. In November, for example, the team framed the footings for one of the two ramps that will lead to the entrances—in this case, on the east or neighborhood side. Taylor Kidd took the opportunity to walk down the route the ramp will take. Even at this early stage, “I could get a sense of the openness and how inviting it’s going to feel,” she says. “There will be so many pathways to enter the garden rooms and immerse yourself in the experience.”
For visitors, the gardens will be “like the curtain rise of a play, as they make a transition into a place of curiosity, inquiry, and drama,” says Witmore. And when they come to the pavilion, “there is also a surprise factor, as they are led by the gardens to discover something unexpected within a classic piece of architecture.”