Whether you’re an adult or child, it’s likely that the “magic of Disney” has played a role in your personal history—from the company’s multitude of classic movies and clips, like “Steamboat Willy,” “Pinocchio,” or “Alice in Wonderland,” to anticipated family vacations to a Disney theme park, to popular Broadway shows like “The Lion King.” It was this established history of family engagement and imagination that the Walt Disney Family Foundation wanted to capture and portray as it told the story of Walt Disney and its history in the new Walt Disney Family Museum by Page & Turnbull and the Rockwell Group.
Located in the historic Presidio of San Francisco, a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area of the National Park Service, the nation’s first urban national park, the museum occupies three historic buildings: a barrack building (completed in 1897), the Post Gymnasium (1904), and a machine gun shed (1940). When tasked with the project, the client was particularly clear that all of the buildings not only needed to be protected but also updated to integrate new uses and technologies, while simultaneously keeping the exterior respectful to the historic venue.
According to Page & Turnbull principal Carolyn Kiernat, AIA, this was the biggest challenge facing the design team. “To preserve the buildings’ historic nature, we needed to figure out how to fit the museum’s requirements for exhibit, event, and administrative, and archive space into the existing floor plates. This was especially challenging when it came to the museum building, which needed to accommodate an engaging experience with a logical flow,” she says.
The original floor plan was maintained throughout the museum’s design, and exhibits were arranged to allow for the sequential and progressive movement of visitors through the structure. Fortunately, says Kiernat, the proportions of the barracks building provided the perfect space for galleries. A glass-enclosed addition was built onto the barrack’s rear courtyard that features a taut, glass curtain wall that adjoins the two masonry wings and “clearly delineates old and new while accommodating a dynamic gallery experience inside,” she says.
Inside, Page & Turnbull collaborated with Rockwell Group and used influences from the existing building’s inherent character to feature the existing brick walls and exposed ceilings as a backdrop to contrast against more modern materials. Modest wood flooring, plaster walls, stamped ceiling panels, and original windows serve to ground the bright exhibits in which color was prominent, due to Disney’s successful focus on animation. To represent this cartoon creativity, the designers opted for a more theatrical approach to the interior lighting, alternating galleries between light and dark, to coincide appropriately with the exhibits’ back stories, and playing with the control of natural light within the space.
To accommodate the lighting and other special exhibit effects, the designers were challenged to design ways to insert highly interactive IT, AV, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and structural systems within the buildings’ rigid masonry. All of these “backstage” inclusions needed to fit into the overall design, yet there was nowhere to conceal cables and wires, as the buildings possess no floor cavities with few vertical shafts or mechanical chases.
It is this creative intersection between the old and the new that Kiernat says is her favorite part of the project. “The most interesting aspect for us was designing a contemporary addition that accommodated the needs of the museum and allowed the building to tell part of the story,” she says. “In the field of preservation, we think that although this project pushed the boundaries of compatibility, it illustrates that a building can be converted into an exciting, new use while retaining its important character-defining features.”