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Pomona’s museum location causes town-and-gown friction

Initial steps are being taken toward what Pomona College President David Oxtoby said has been a decade in the works. The college recently released concept drawings for the Pomona College Museum of Art. But, in typical Claremont fashion, the proposal has not been met without its share of scrutiny.

As described at a May 2015 community meeting, the new museum—at an estimated 32,000 square feet, about 10,000 of which will be below grade—will provide public space and courtyards, as well as teaching space, galleries and offices. However, it isn’t the scale that’s given residents pause but, as any good realtor will tell you, it’s location, location, location. Some residents simply feel that Pomona College shouldn’t extend its reach to the west side of College Avenue.

“We’ve been west of College Avenue for many, many years,” Mr. Oxtoby said. “This will not be a dramatic change.”

This move to the west side of College has raised some eyebrows, and tempers, in recent weeks. Preservationists argue that the four bungalows, part of the old Claremont Hotel, hold some historic value. The college disagrees and has scheduled demolition of the structures. One thing everyone seems to agree on is that Renwick House, a Victorian home on the site used for staff offices, should remain.

“The city has talked with us about moving it across the street,” Mr. Oxtoby said. “This is a very new concept.”

Renwick House—built by Helen Renwick, a widow from Iowa, who moved here to raise her only son—is home to the college’s annual giving office. The structure will continue to house offices once it’s moved to the east side of College Avenue, south of Second Street. 

For many, moving Renwick House goes against the basic tenets of preservation deeply held by Claremont residents.

“By proposing a large-scale institutional building on the block between Second Street and Bonita on the west side of College Avenue and moving the iconic Renwick House from its historical location, Pomona will in effect destroy the historic residential feeling that is part of its own legacy,” David Shearer, president of Claremont Heritage, wrote in a recent COURIER viewpoint.

For Pomona College, maintaining the traditionally cordial town-and-gown relationship is a primary consideration in not just museum design but execution of the college’s 15-year master plan.

“When you look at the bridges built the last century, a lot of it starts with Pomona,” Mr. Oxtoby said. “Being in this relationship is extremely important to us.”

After several years of planning, teaching at Pomona College began in 1888 in the city of Pomona. At an annual tuition of $45 a year, students could earn one of three degrees—arts, literature or science—from a five-room rented house on the corner of Mission and White avenues. With a desire to replicate universities on the East Coast, Pomona College founders set their sights on Claremont, a burgeoning town that was naming streets after “prominent New England institutions of learning,” according to the college website.

After the Claremont Hotel set to close in 1888, Pomona College was invited to use the space, along with several hundred surrounding parcels, under the agreement that the parcels would be sold at some point, with the land donors receiving a portion of the sales.

Much has changed since the early days. Pomona now hosts roughly 1600 students a year with a teaching staff of about 200 people. And with $2.1 billion in its coffers, Pomona is now the single most endowed liberal arts college in the nation. With all this growth, it should be noted that in its 100-year history, Pomona has added only 40 acres to its original 100-acre campus.

As Scott Smith, campus architect and master planner for Pomona College, explained at the spring community meeting, the master plan aims to build on heritage plans, not rewrite history.

“I want to emphasize the stewardship of the last 100 years,” he said at the meeting. “We not only  want to maintain the campus, but to restore what has been lost.”

In response to residents’ concerns, Mr. Smith assured the 80 or so people at the meeting that no element of the master plan extends the college beyond its current boundaries. And as far as residents’ claims of college creep, Mr. Smith echoed Mr. Oxtoby’s assertion that protecting interaction with the city is of utmost importance.

“We look at the new museum as a transition building,” Mr. Smith said. “The connection between college and civic life was an important contribution [with the master plan].”

As it stands, Pomona College will continue its longterm agreement with the Claremont Public Library for use of the back parking lot, which is owned by the college but is on, what Mr. Oxtoby describes as, a “100-year lease of about a dollar a year.” The college also believes the proposed location will create a synergy that will complement the library.

For Mr. Oxtoby, Claremont’s bustling Village will make a perfect partner for the hybrid museum-community space.

“There is a lot going on downtown,” he observed. “Like Bardot, it’s such a vital place. When we see that level of activity, it’s exciting.”

Pomona Museum of Art Director Kathleen Howe shares the president’s excitement at being part of “people walking.” She emphasized that the new museum will benefit not only students and faculty, but the community as a whole.

“We will be able to bring in exhibitions that we simply can’t now,” Ms. Howe explained. “The American Alliance of Museums has not permitted certain exhibits because of heating and air issues [at Montgomery].”

Current programs offered at Montgomery, including the Claremont Museum of Art’s ArtStart program and public school field trips, will continue at the new site. In fact, Ms. Howe projects that these types of civic activities will only increase.

“It will be a teaching museum,” she said. “We’ve planned for collection portals and study rooms and separate spaces for our Native and non-Native collections, as well as curriculum galleries where Pomona students can gain experience curating their own shows.”

The proposed museum will offer art vaults in the basement, allowing for proper storage of Pomona’s collections. There was even mention of a movie screen to be located in a courtyard for film screenings that will be open to the public.

Ms. Howe explained that the college has considered several locations since discussions first began between her and Mr. Oxtoby in 2003. Sealy-Mudd, the south side of Bridges Auditorium and the corner of First Street and College Avenue were all explored.

“Sealy-Mudd was a landlocked site,” Ms. Howe explained. “It would cost more to locate the museum there than it would to build a new building.”

As far as the backside of Bridges Auditorium, the bowling-alley shape didn’t offer the kind of open flow conducive to art exhibition. Special consideration went into making the College Avenue and First Street site work but, as Mr. Oxtoby explains, moving a sports field isn’t as simple as it seems.

“I was reluctant to just stick the softball field in the wash,” he said. “It just doesn’t work, and we need to have a softball field.”

About a block east of the corner of First and College was also considered but, as mapped out in the master plan, student housing is planned for the space.

The fact remains, Pomona may have a fight on its hands as the college moves forward with construction on the west side of College Avenue.

As Mr. Shearer pointed out, “Locating an institutional building here, with the mass and scale as presented by Pomona, would destroy the historic residential feeling and be in direct opposition to the community values that are outlined in the general plan.”

For now, the future Pomona College Museum of Art is only conceptual, the college reiterated. Breaking ground will necessitate the commission approvals required for any new construction in the city, as well as a zone change. Pomona has resubmitted its updated master plan to the city consultants for review. The update includes further detail on the museum project. The city will coordinate the timeline for public review and comment; the schedule will be published in the?COURIER when it becomes available.

The college will host another community meeting on September 29 for residents to view the model, hear plans and to talk with Pomona College staff.

In the coming weeks, we’ll take a closer look at the Pomona College master plan and provide continued coverage on the museum. For information on the proposed museum, visit www.pomona.edu/new-PCMA.

—Kathryn Dunn

editor@claremont-courier.com

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