An Early Face Lift

On the north side of the Skirball Cultural Center, two dozen construction workers shout to each other over the roar of the 405 Freeway. They handle jackhammers and operate bulldozers amid huge piles of building materials. A crane several stories tall towers above the construction site, where steel pilings rise from concrete foundations.

Mammoth changes are afoot at the Skirball, where the current space will be more than doubled, to 325,000 square feet — rendering “the largest Jewish cultural center in North America,” center founder and president Dr. Uri D. Herscher said.

By November 2000, a three-level, subterranean parking structure, designed to add 600 parking spaces to the facility’s existing 200, will occupy the construction site.

Above the parking structure, an airy, domed Great Hall, reminiscent of Lincoln Center and also to be completed by November 2000, will seat some 600 people for plays, lectures and concerts; it will also double as a banquet hall. A wall of floor-to-ceiling windows will open out onto a courtyard of pale-gray stone and an informal outdoor stage.

To the south, the tentatively named Winnick Family Heritage Museum, largely funded by a $5 million grant from Gary and Karen Winnick, is slated to be completed within the next three years. The museum will feature two 3,500-square-foot children’s galleries and an 8,000-square-foot changing gallery, which, Herscher said, is larger than the Getty’s. Behind the Winnick Museum will be two children’s archaeological digs and a large outdoor amphitheater that will seat 500 people.

The price tag on the additions, which will be drawn up by renowned Skirball architect Moshe Safdie, is $50 million.

More immediate changes are set to begin Sept. 7 with the extensive redesign and renovation of the Skirball’s museum galleries, which will close to the public for three months. Herscher said the goal is to make the museum more accessible and to further emphasize “how we as Jews intersect with the American democratic tradition.” Funding for these renovations was drawn from a California Arts Council $2 million grant.

During construction, visitors can still attend special events, conferences and programs, such as the Oct. 3 Neil Simon film retrospective and lecture. Audrey’s Museum Store, Zeidler’s Cafe, the Resource Center and the Ruby Changing Gallery (now showing the “Latinos in Hollywood” photograph exhibit through Oct. 18) will remain open.

The galleries will reopen Sunday, Dec. 5, to coincide with the center’s annual Chanukah Festival.

So why is the Skirball redesigning its core galleries just three years after the $65 million center opened in April 1996? It’s part of the Skirball’s strategic plan, Herscher said.

“Prophesy is for fools,” he said. “We started out with specific priorities, and we knew we would have to refine them when we saw who actually showed up to the center.”

While only 60,000 visitors were expected the first year, the center drew 300,000 visitors, one-sixth of them children and up to one-third of them seniors. Thus the redesign includes an improved traffic flow through the galleries as well as more interactive displays for students and oversized print for the elderly.

The first major change will be evident upon entering the holiday gallery, where displays of each festival will emphasize the Jewish values immigrants brought to America. In the center of the space will be a comprehensive work of Jewish ritual art, encased within the form of a shtender — the humble study desk once found in many traditional synagogues. The shtender has been transformed by artist David Moss and woodcarver Noah Greenberg into a compartmentalized treasure chest for Jewish ritual objects, commissioned by the Skirball.

The more than 25,000 students who annually visit the Skirball (the majority of them non-Jewish) will learn about Jewish and American values in two new “gallery classrooms.” One will depict a cheder, a Jewish classroom from Eastern Europe, with wood-clad walls, benches and tables. The other will suggest a turn-of-the-century American public school classroom, complete with period artifacts, presidential portraits and a vintage American flag.

There will be an interactive exhibit of trunks that immigrants brought with them to America; displays on baseball star Hank Greenberg and actress Molly Picon; and a detailed replication of the ark of the 19th-century New Synagogue of Berlin, to be added to the existing replica of the synagogue’s ark pavilion. For the first time, viewers will be able to approach the ark, open its doors and examine the vintage Torahs inside.

The biggest changes will take place in the American galleries, where a large case resembling a turn-of-the-century storefront will house some 200 artifacts that depict the material culture of American Jews. On display will be objects such as canned goods with labels in English and Yiddish, an egg basket once used by Jewish farmers from Petaluma and tools once wielded by immigrant tailors on New York’s Lower East Side.

The exhibits on Presidents Washington and Lincoln, who helped ensure constitutional liberties for Jews, will include impressive artifacts on loan from private collectors: an early copy of the Declaration of Independence, signed by George Washington, and Lincoln’s quill pen and black stovepipe hat (one of only two in existence).

“It’s all part of the story we’re here to tell: The story of the Jews from antiquity, with a special emphasis on Jews in America,” said Dr. Robert Kirschner, the Skirball’s program and core exhibition director.

Ask Herscher about why a Jewish museum should house non-Jewish Americana, and the rabbi’s response is swift. “We wouldn’t have any opportunities to live as Jews in America if it wasn’t for the Declaration of Independence,” he said. “I am devoted to Jewish continuity, but I get concerned when people try to push the Jewish part without the context … What I hope this redesign and renovation will provide is an even better understanding of how important the Jewish moral conscience is to the American community in which we live.”