It used to be the grand entrance, 22 Ionic columns beckoning visitors into the Museum of Fine Arts. But by the 1970s, with the nearby Back Bay Fens grown muddy and overrun by reeds, the MFA decided to lock the doors on the north side of its building. Hardly anyone noticed.
Now the abandoned entrance is set for a dramatic reopening on June 20, marking a major milestone in the museum's $345 million expansion plan. The MFA has hauled in 110 blocks of granite - a quarter of the stone produced each year on Maine's Deer Isle - to expand and resurface the landing in front of the doors, which first opened in 1915. Inside the Evans Wing, the museum is installing a new visitors' center with retro '50s-style furniture.
Looking to build buzz for its expansion, the MFA has moved up the date of the opening of the Evans entrance by two years. The museum hopes to send a message to not only the commu nity, but also potential donors as part of the final push toward its unprecedented $500 million capital campaign. (The museum says it has raised $453 million so far.)
With the ribbon-cutting, the museum will change its way of circulating visitors. The MFA's main entrances are now in the West Wing, which opened in 1981, and on Huntington Avenue. This summer, the museum will close the Huntington entrance to remodel it; those doors will reopen next year. Then in 2010, when the expansion is finished, the West Wing entrance will be used only for tour and school groups. By bringing the public once more through the Fenway and Huntington doors, the MFA will be reestablishing the North-South axis created by Guy Lowell, the architect who designed the MFA's neoclassical building.
Fenway neighborhood advocates, who have hoped for a rejuvenation of the long-neglected parkland designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, view the June opening as an important step. This spring, the Department of Conservation and Recreation, with financial help from the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, will have the path along the Fens redone.
In the next year, the US Army Corps of Engineers will put out to bid a project that calls for, in part, dredging the water to remove invasive weeds and restoring the river bank. The $70 million project will probably be completed in 2011 or 2012, according to Mike Keegan, who is managing the work.
"I don't look at this as a door, I look at it as a bridge to the city," said Ronald E. Logue, chief executive officer of State Street Bank, which has given the MFA $10 million for the entrance project and has, in turn, scored the naming rights to the doorway.
The MFA's overall expansion project, which will add an East Wing that includes new galleries and a glass-enclosed courtyard, is the most expensive in its history and the most significant since the opening of the Evans Wing. That project increased the museum's size by 40 percent and drew enough attention that, on a cold Wednesday night in February 1915, horse-drawn carriages and cars clogged Huntington Avenue as some 6,000 people made their way to celebrate the occasion.
The Evans doors were not opened that night, as visitors were taken through the Huntington entry, so they could form a receiving line for Maria Antoinette Evans, the philanthropist whose gift made the expansion possible.
This time, the MFA is holding a three-day celebration. On the Friday morning of June 20, with trumpet fanfare, a group of museum and city leaders will officially open the Evans doors. The next night, a private reception for major donors and bold-faced politicos - including US Representative Edward Markey and state Senate President Therese Murray - will feature entertainment by a group led by jazz saxophonist Joe Lovano. On June 22, the museum will open to the public for free, filling a tent in its West Wing parking lot with family art activities.
The MFA had planned to open the Evans doors in 2010, when it will complete its expansion project. But Malcolm Rogers, the museum's director, decided to move up the opening.
"In a very skeptical town, people will look at that entrance and say, 'Wow, it really is happening,' " said Rogers.
On a recent afternoon, project manager Charles Hall offered a tour of the soon-to-be-opened Fenway entrance. The entry resembles the old one, seen in the half-century-old postcards that museum archivist Maureen Melton has collected for an exhibition that will open in June. But Hall knows how much has changed. To make the entrance accessible to people who use wheelchairs, the museum raised the surface of the outside landing 5 inches. Hence, all the granite. The MFA also expanded the stairs and platform leading to the doors. The old landing stretched 7 feet from the building; the new one reaches 14 feet. The stairway has also been widened.
"It's a combination of needing a bigger landing and taking the stairs further out into the street, so you're beckoning people in," Hall said.
To highlight the Fenway doors, permanent lights will shoot up to illuminate the columns. A pair of new MFA fountains will shoot water 6 feet in the air. The Emerald Necklace Conservancy is hoping the work will inspire other improvements, ranging from crosswalks to pedestrian bridge repairs within the park.
"It really is exciting, but jeez, it's about time," said Fredericka Veikley, a member of the Fenway Civic Association's board. "I always felt that the setting was marginalized by corralling everybody through the West Wing. I did not like being greeted by a parking lot. The real elegant entries are through the doors of the Fenway."