Not just building ships at Mystic Seaport

I might suggest the new $11.5 million exhibition hall under construction at Mystic Seaport, one of the region's largest current building projects, may eventually benefit Mystic at large as much as the Seaport.

Not that the building isn't likely to be as transformative for Mystic Seaport as museum officials hope.

It will, with its opening planned for the fall of 2016, put the Seaport in a larger orbit of New England museums.

Indeed, the soaring main 5,000-square-foot exhibit space inside the 14,000-square-foot building may be one of the largest in New England, providing the Seaport, until now mostly an outdoor venue, an unusual new opportunity to exhibit more of its considerable collection indoors and host traveling exhibits.

It will have state-of-the-art geothermal air-handling systems, an eco-friendly plant powered by 20 new wells that will permit the museum to create a well-controlled climate and borrow and properly care for fine art.

The new building also now anchors a new quadrangle at the north end of the Seaport grounds that become both an outdoor meeting space and the center of adjacent indoor, more all-season-appropriate exhibits.

The new building also will become a second main entrance, at the northern end of the museum grounds, with a small gift shop and ticket office. It essentially will become the principle entrance for most visitors arriving from Interstate 95, especially in the colder months, when the programming focus is more on indoor events.

The building, according to the lead architect, Chad Floyd, partner of Centerbrook Architects and Planners of Centerbrook, is meant to be iconic, to help tell the larger story of an institution that calls itself "The Museum of America and the Sea."

The building was envisioned as using the "geometry of the sea," according to Floyd, who notes in a video produced by the Seaport that it uses curves and spirals to evoke a marine environment.

Overall, from afar, the building does indeed, as intended, look like a breaking wave about to crash over the adjacent Seaport grounds.

Floyd told me the architects also liked the idea of using only wood to build the structure — it is made from Douglas fir, laminated together by a  Canadian manufacturer — which in some respects resembles the hull of a big ship.

The curved wooden supports inside the building are even referred to as ribs, as if a whole wooden ship were turned upside down and visitors were encouraged to walk inside.

The interior will not hide any wiring, pipes or mechanical systems, which will run exposed along the inside walls. Most of what visitors will see of the roof, if they look up from the inside, is polyurethaned plywood, knots and all.

The design is meant to be forthright and honest, said Charles Mueller, a contributing architect to the project.

The new Thompson Exhibition Building is named for the late Wade Thompson, a longtime seaport trustee whose family contributed generously to the project.

It replaces an assortment of disorganized buildings, most with their backs to the street, that were neither historical nor useful, according to the Seaport.

Both architects told me they plan and design such projects in such "excruciating detail" that nothing comes a surprise as the building goes up: The main structure is now about half up.

Still, Floyd said, it is been a great pleasure watching it come together.

"I can't hide my delight in seeing it take some form," he said. "I have been extremely pleased and delighted with the results."

The new building is meant to relate better to the street than what was there and will welcome visitors with a front lawn and sight lines down to the river.

For the first time, Seaport visitors coming off the highway will have a sense of arrival as they drive south on Route 27 and see the new structure, instead of the medley of odd and not necessarily related Seaport buildings they encounter now on the way to the existing main entrance to the south.

The new Seaport building and entrance, along with a planned acquisition by the town of another riverfront property to the north as a park, and the development of the new Nature & Heritage Center at Coogan Farm, also on Route 27, will together make a powerful impact on the tourism visitor experience for Mystic.

It's like the town is rolling out a big welcome mat to I-95.

That's in part why I think the new Seaport building, which will offer passersby new views toward the river from Route 27, eventually may benefit all of Mystic and its big tourism economy as much as it improves the seaport.

Many thanks to the generous donors. And, if you don't have one already, consider a Seaport membership. It's reasonable, not much more than a couple of movie tickets, goes to a good cause, and will give you access to a place that's about to become a much more year-round destination.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

Twitter: @DavidCollinsct

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