The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian is nearly 80 years old and never had space for a permanent exhibit, according to director Jonathan Batkin. He broke ground in the autumn of 2013 for the Jim and Lauris Phillips Center for the Study of Southwestern Jewelry, a two-floor gallery wing now complete off the southwest (rear) corner of the historic museum.
Besides a permanent jewelry exhibition space, there is a classroom, break room, a pair of small galleries for rotating exhibitions, and a curatorial workroom. During the same construction period, the main building was renovated — including new stucco, new roof, increased insulation, and upgrades to heating, ventilation, air conditioning, wiring, and telephone systems — and the Case Trading Post was expanded by 700 square feet. Outside, the design studio Surroundings led a remodel of the museum entry and the construction of improved parking areas.
First called the Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art, the Wheelwright evolved out of a 15-year collaboration in preserving traditional Navajo ritual between wealthy Bostonian Mary Cabot Wheelwright and Navajo medicine man Hosteen Klah. The museum, which is a slightly stretched octagon, was designed by William Penhallow Henderson.
Jeff Seres of Studio Southwest Architects — who did the new addition as well as a new library and curatorial center 15 years ago — said the museum “is stylistically abstracted Pueblo Revival from a Navajo hogan, but in my opinion it’s an incredibly modern, International Style building for 1937.”
Rugged penitentiary block was used to construct the original museum. The new addition is concrete block and steel; the use of double-T concrete joists in the second-floor roof resulted in a columnless main exhibition space.
On May 15, the project was honored with the Santa Fe Historic Preservation Division’s 2015 Cultural Preservation Award.
— Paul Weideman