The Everson Museum, a 'work of art for other works of art,' opens in 1968 -

"The impossible dream has at last become a reality," wrote the Post-Standard's Gordon Muck after the Gala opening of the Everson Museum on Oct. 25, 1968.

After it opened to rave reviews, the art museum, which was designed by renowned architect I.M. Pei, and which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, finally gave the Syracuse art community a permanent home. Polishing Pad

The Everson Museum, a 'work of art for other works of art,' opens in 1968 -

Famed architect I.M. Pei, designer of the Everson Museum, visits the museum in 2000. He's standing at the foot of the spiral staircase in the museum's main hall.

The Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts had bounced from place to place for almost 40 years after it was chartered in 1897.

It began at the Onondaga County Savings Bank before moving to the Syracuse Public Library in the Carnegie Building on Montgomery Street in 1906, then moving again in 1937 to the Knights of Columbus Building on James Street.

In 1941, local art patron Helen Everson died, leaving in her will $1 million and a pearl necklace to the city for the construction of an art museum.

In 1960, Max Sullivan, recently chosen to be the new director of what was now called the Everson Museum, was asked to find an architect for the new downtown art museum.

He took a risk and approached relatively unknown architect I.M. Pei, whose work had caught Sullivan's eye, even though, at that point, Pei had never designed a museum before.

"Look here, Mr. Pei," Sullivan asked Pei in his New York City office, "can you do something for us in Syracuse?"

The result has been called the "happy marriage between a city and an architect."

Pei considered the site chosen at Harrison and State streets, across from the Onondaga County War Memorial and just down the street from a steam plant, to be the "middle of nowhere."

But Pei took to the challenge, and was given almost total freedom by Sullivan, and created something completely original, creating a museum that has been described as "quirky and powerful, subtle and complex and majestic and understated."

Pei's plans were unique.

The building was made of concrete, blended with local granite, then a bush hammer would be used to give the exterior walls their distinctive grooves. The building's greyish-brown exterior fit with Syracuse's cloudy and often somber weather.

The shape of the structure was a series of square blocks, while inside a series of basic galleries were joined together by what Pei called "bridges."

Pei obsessed over the smallest detail and personally selected the museum's chairs, tables, planters and even the toilets.

An imposing lobby and gravity-defying circular staircase helped to finish off the look Pei was working towards: He wanted "the Everson to resemble sculpture."

In 1968, the journal "Progressive Architecture" wrote of the Everson:

"It is quite conspicuously a piece of abstract sculpture within a civic plaza setting - the sort of sculpture to house sculpture, one might say - a work of art for other works of art."

A visitor walks through the exhibits at Syracuse's Everson Museum in July 1974.

It would take seven years for the Everson to be finished and cost $3.5 million to be built.

There were struggles raising money.

But individual donations in Syracuse, which the Post-Standard said had never "been strong in support of the arts," half of which were less than a couple hundred dollars, made up almost half the total donations.

Opening night on Oct. 25, 1968 was for the donors and trustees of the Everson.

A cocktail party was held in the Sculpture Court and a dinner, catered by the Hotel Syracuse featuring green turtle soup, filet of beef and cherries jubilee, was held in the main gallery.

Donors ate while surrounded by six tapestries from Pablo Picasso and everyone was given a commemorative plate from Syracuse China with the Everson logo on it.

I.M. Pei scrambled to make every detail perfect.

He noticed a concrete planter on a dolly and decided to move it himself. The planter slipped off the dolly and landed on the hand of the architect.

Photos of Pei on opening night show him with a heavily bandaged hand.

The public were given their first chance to see the museum on Sunday, Oct. 27.

The Post-Standard's Walter Carroll wrote that "15,000 persons packed the Everson's three levels so tightly you couldn't see what you went there to look at."

"You either had to stand with your nose pressed against the work or back off and see only the top of it if you were tall enough," Carroll grumbled. "It was a great day of culture in Syracuse, if you could just elbow your way through."

(Carroll also complained about "youngsters" at the opening, who spent more time "trying out the plumbing" of the new museum rather than appreciating the countless works of art.)

With Election Day just 10 days off, the "New Yorkers for Nixon and Agnew" took advantage of the crowds and set their "big festooned bus" in front of the museum, played their recordings loudly and handed out campaign literature.

The museum was a hit especially among art critics.

Harper's magazine called it a "smashing success."

Ada Louise Huxtable, the highly respected architecture critic of the New York Times, gave the Everson its most enthusiastic review:

"The Everson Museum sets a standard that other cities will now be called on to match."

Time wrote that "seldom has an architect done more to enhance the sense of expectation for the visitor than did Pei in his Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse."

Pei went on to be "the emperor of world architecture" according to Vanity Fair.

His work includes the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the glass-and-steel pyramid at the Louvre in Paris and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

Pei, now 101 years old, will always have a soft spot for the Everson.

"I think of the Everson quite frequently," he told the Post-Standard in 1998.

Art, patriotism questioned at Everson Museum in 1972

Syracuse's Everson Museum had to fend off two controversies in November 1972.

This feature is a part of CNY Nostalgia, a section on Send your ideas and curiosities to Johnathan Croyle: Email | 315-427-3958.

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The Everson Museum, a 'work of art for other works of art,' opens in 1968 -

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