Architect: Museum should open Jewish life to masses

By most anyone's standards, the Jessie Street Substation is not and never was a Jewish building.

It was built in 1887 for the express purpose of accepting electrical currents, breaking them up and shooting them off into the city. But New York architect Peter Eisenman will transform the vacant building into "a Jewish edifice, a Jewish space" — the new home of the Jewish Museum San Francisco.

But what such a building should look like is anyone's guess — including Eisenman's.

"This shouldn't just be a building devoted to Jewish artifacts, menorahs and chatchkas. It should open Jewish life, experience and culture to the mass population," Eisenman said during a phone interview on Monday from his New York office. "It should be an expression of what it means to be a Jew — morally, spiritually, culturally."

Two years ago the 12-year-old Jewish Museum, currently housed in the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation building on Steuart Street, secured the site, which is adjacent to Yerba Buena Gardens, between Third and Fourth streets, Market and Mission. A press conference Wednesday, announcing Eisenman and S.F.-based Architectural Resources Group as the design team, thrust the museum's future onto a tangible timeline.

The museum is slated for completion in 1999, resulting in a metamorphosis of the 15,000-square-foot substation into a 50,000-square-foot Jewish institute "which sees itself as a big player," Eisenman said.

The museum's completion plans include up to 15,000 square feet of gallery space, an auditorium, classrooms and workshop space, a library, cafe, bookstore and storage areas.

Following seismic retrofitting, the substation will be expanded 20,000 square feet to the north, and 15,000 square feet inside. In all, the building will occupy 50,000 square feet, which is 10 times larger than the Jewish Museum's current location.

Designed by San Francisco architect Willis Polk in 1905, the substation has been officially designated a historic landmark. Its towering, arched doorway and Romanesque detailing, which must remain intact, provide special challenges in creating a Jewish space.

Museum director Linda Steinberg is looking forward to the venture.

In the current location, she said, "we can't fulfill our mission of being a museum for contemporary American Jewish life , or answer the questions `Why be Jewish?' and `What is Jewish?'

"We were looking for a person to give visual form to that mission, who understood that we weren't interested in a place [that would] just showcase artifacts, but about using art to make traditions live," Steinberg said.

"Peter [Eisenman] articulated our mission back to us beautifully."

Eisenman envisions the historic Greco-Christian facade facing Yerba Buena Gardens and a Hebraic facade facing Market Street. Cultural events would play themselves out between the two facades, he said.

"You walk down Grant [Avenue], cross Market [Street] and walk through this Jewish space into Yerba Buena Gardens. It will be a filter from Chinatown, a gate into a cultural center. A Jewish gate."

The Jewish Museum will keep company with the Museum of Modern Art, the Ansel Adams Center for Photography, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Museum leaders and the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency couldn't be happier.

The museums and galleries surrounding Yerba Buena Gardens will become "a juxtaposition of cultures reflecting the city," said Helen Sause, project director for Yerba Buena Center, San Francisco Redevelopment Agency.

Museum leadership won't estimate the cost of the project, but two years ago, when the building was secured, the project was tagged at $15 million. The Jewish Museum is planning a capital campaign to meet construction costs and to build an endowment. The museum will not disclose any details.

Meanwhile Eisenman, whose projects include the Wexner Center for the Visual Arts and Fine Arts Library at Ohio State University, housing at Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Wall and two Tokyo office buildings, will meet with community leaders to hone the notion of a Jewish building.

"You walk into Temple Emanu-El vs. a Catholic church, you know there's something different," Eisenman said.

"Greco-Christian architecture seeks to give answers. The Jewish building asks questions. The church is the embodiment of answers. The meaning of God and the Catholic community through sculpture, stained glass, chapels."

The architecture that followed the building of grand cathedrals and churches sought to answer the question "What does a building mean?" Eisenman explained.

But Jewish buildings, specifically the Jewish Museum, should rather "stimulate research, education and dialogue," he said.

"At one point in the late 1950s the Jewish Museum in New York was the place to show art. Combine that attitude with the cultural programming of the 92nd Street Y and make a building," Eisenman added. "That's what we're trying to do."