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Mystic Seaport opens dramatic new exhibit building on Saturday

Mystic — A tour of Mystic Seaport’s new $11.5 million Thompson Exhibition Building this week revealed a soaring interior that resembles the ribs and planking of a whaling ship and a dramatic exterior designed to evoke the image of a breaking wave.

The building, which includes a 5,000-square-foot exhibit hall and a public park along Route 27, will open during a ceremony at 9 a.m. on Saturday.

“Like the sailing of the Morgan, I knew this was going to be good, but this is so much better than I expected,” Seaport President Steve White said while walking through the building and recalling the restoration and 38th voyage of the whaling ship Charles W. Morgan two years ago.

Visitors along Greenmanville Avenue (Route 27) first enter the public park space, known as Cambridge Plaza, which now provides a view of the museum buildings, ships and the Mystic River. That view previously had been blocked by a building that was demolished for the project.

They then enter a large lobby with a ticketing area, gift shop and exhibit and gathering space for groups. A mural overhead depicts a person leaning out of a boat and touching the water.

The lobby leads to the main 5,000-square-foot hall that can house a single large exhibit or be divided into several individual spaces. A screening system protects the artifacts from UV light.

The space also will allow the museum to bring in traveling exhibits as well as display more of its vast collection now in the Collections Research Center across the street.

The building’s first exhibit, entitled “Sea Change,” is slated to open Dec. 10 and will feature 10 key artifacts from the museum’s collection that represent a sea change or broad transformation in maritime history.

White said the title is appropriate, as the Thompson building project is a sea change for the museum, as well.

A door from the exhibit hall leads to a large meeting room with windows that look out onto a deck and the Mystic River.

Along the wall is a 55-foot-long, 26-foot-tall reproduced photo of Greenmanville Avenue in 1874, including some of the current Seaport buildings.

White praised the work of Centerbrook Architects and Planners of Centerbrook, which designed the building, A/Z Corp. of North Stonington, which oversaw the construction, and Kent + Frost Landscape Architecture of Mystic, which designed the landscaping.

“You couldn’t ask for a better team. They brought it in on time and on budget,” he said.

White said that before the museum hired Centerbrook for the project, it had looked at some designs with glass and stone, but those did not feel right.

He said the original conceptual plan by Centerbrook partner Chad Floyd “nailed it the first time.”

A green building, it includes geothermal heating and cooling systems and recycled roof material and carpet tiles. It is constructed with Douglas fir, red cedar and mahogany. Douglas fir is the wood used on the spars on the Charles W. Morgan, the world’s last wooden whaling ship.

The new building, which is named for late museum trustee Wade Thompson, will be on display for museum professionals when the Seaport hosts the 98th annual New England Museum Association Conference Nov. 9-11.

The project, though, was bigger than just the construction of the Thompson building, as it included the transformation of the northern section of the museum into a year-round, all-weather destination, which is one of the museum’s strategic goals.

The project also includes the renovation of seven formal galleries and three other buildings, as well as a new green overlooked by the large covered side deck of the Thompson building. The space will be known as the McGraw Gallery Quadrangle.

“This was an integrated project, not just one building,” White said, looking out over the quadrangle. “The relationship of the wood, the grass, the landscaping. It’s the whole package. It’s fantastic.”

On a bigger scale, White said, the opening of the Thompson building combined with the new Coogan Farm Nature and Heritage Center and Tuesday’s approval of the $2.2 million Mystic River Boathouse Park by Stonington voters will create an exciting new entry into Mystic.

“It’s great how it’s all coming together this way,” he said.


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