Hundreds attend museum expansion opening

Posted: Monday, September 12, 2005

FAIRBANKS - Hundreds of people showed up for a ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the official opening of the University of Alaska Museum of the North expansion.

Saturday's grand opening was the culmination of more than 10 years of fund-raising and three years of construction. In that time, there have been delays, rising costs and discussion about the museum's grand design.

"This is without a doubt, the best day of my life," said museum director Aldona Jonaitis.

University of Alaska Fairbanks Chancellor Steve Jones characterized the day as one of "great relief."

Richard Wien, vice chair of the Northern Treasures Expansion Campaign, noted there were many skeptics of the project in the beginning. But he said he was one of many who became a convert to the "signature design" and challenges it would present.

"But as you can see today, it was all worth it," Wien said.

The expansion opened for the first time in mid-August, but Saturday was the first time the Alaska Classics Gallery, the Living Room, the Art Bridge and the Museum Cafe were open to the public. The Rose Berry Alaska Art Gallery and Arnold Espe Auditorium are expected to open in the spring.

After the ribbon cutting, the public was able to view the new expansion free of charge for the day. One of the first inside was design architect Joan Soranno. She stood near the windows, looking out across the Tanana Valley, inspecting the smallest details of electrical and molding work. She saw the completed project for the first time Saturday and was not disappointed.

"It's better than I ever imagined." she said. Soranno is the design principal and vice president of Hammel, Green and Abrahamson, Inc. of Minneapolis, a firm that specializes in museum design and cultural projects.

When first chosen to design the expansion, Soranno said she visited Alaska several times to learn more about the land and find inspiration for a signature design for Fairbanks. She found it while on a glacier cruise.

She said she was struck with the dynamics of glaciers and movement of ice across landscapes. Her design reflects that inspiration in the overlapping lines and open spaces of the architecture.

David Witt is a former university employee who attended the grand opening with his wife, Linda. Witt said the concern from some that the building is too abstract for Fairbanks is overshadowed by the airiness and sweeping views the building showcases, something any Alaskan with cabin fever will come to appreciate in the winter months.

"It's always nice to walk into a building in the middle of winter that's not 4-feet-by-8-feet," he said. As a board member of the Friends of the Museum, Linda Witt said she had a chance to view the building during construction several months ago. Even then, she knew the finished product would be stunning.

"It was a breathtaking thing when it was only half-done," she said.

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