Masterpiece: Kimbell’s design aesthetic extended

2/10/18,, Tim Madigan contributor

When he died in April 1964, Fort Worth industrialist and art collector Kay Kimbell left behind a vague if imposing mandate, to “build a museum of the first class.”

Those he left behind fulfilled it beyond any reasonable imaginings. Eight years later, the opening of the Kimbell Art Museum put Fort Worth and perhaps even the state of Texas on the cultural map.

The early acclaim owed largely to the museum’s first building, designed by the 20th century master Louis I. Kahn. With its hushed intimacy, imposing stone walls and trademark cycloid arches, it was immediately recognized as one of the greatest architectural creations of the last century.

Supported by the board of the Kimbell Art Foundation, museum directors Richard Fargo Brown, Ted Pillsbury, Timothy Potts and Eric Lee brought coveted masterpiece after masterpiece to Fort Worth, creating an art collection admired from Florence to New York to Tokyo. Over the years, the Kimbell has also hosted some of the world’s most popular and prestigious art exhibitions.

Five years ago came another seismic moment, the opening of the Kimbell’s Renzo Piano Pavilion, the art temple built across the lawn from the Kahn building.

Finally, the Kimbell more quietly celebrated another milestone in early February. With the opening of a six-acre car park just across Van Cliburn Way from the Kahn building, the museum’s campus is now complete.

The carefully landscaped acreage blends 227 additional parking spots with abundant green space. It also builds on the already historic legacy of Kay and Ben Fortson.

A young couple in the mid-1960s, the Fortsons guided the Kimbell over succeeding eventful decades. Kay Fortson, Kay Kimbell’s niece and heir, officially took over leadership of the foundation board in 1975. From the beginning, her husband was Kay’s chief adviser and confident, and Ben Fortson’s business acumen has been instrumental to the museum’s long-term success.

In later years, as vice president of the Kimbell Art Foundation, Ben Fortson took on another role. During the design and construction of the Piano Pavilion, he became what one observer called “the conscience of scale,” batting ideas back and forth with Renzo Piano, the superstar architect from Italy.

Only after the pavilion’s completion in 2013 did Fortson turn his attention to the six acres, which the Kimbell had bought from the Fort Worth Independent School District years before. To complete the museum campus, he hired Fort Worth architect Joe Self of FIRM817, a long-time admirer of the Kahn building and the Kimbell generally. Self has been the architect for Grace Restaurant downtown and the Cendera Center, among many others.

On the frigid winter morning of Feb. 5, Self and Larry Eubank, the Kimbell’s longtime operations manager, strolled the length of the new car park, watching as workers put down the final pieces of sod and swept the last of the construction dust from walkways and parking spots.

Self reflected on his daunting assignment – to complete the car park with a measure of the elegance and care that went into the Kimbell’s two great buildings.

“It was always recognized that a pleasant experience at the museum begins the moment patrons enter the campus – and that often happens by car,” said Self, who collaborated on the Kimbell project with his wife and design partner, Tracy Self. “We wanted to create a sense of scale that moved people from the fast pace of the surrounding road to a calmer and slower pace.”

The result is a combination of parking lot and budding urban oasis, what Self called “a tapestry of plantings, materials, color, light and even machines – the cars.”

On the recent morning, Self and Eubank pointed out the carefully textured surfaces of the walkways and parking spots. But most striking was the amount of space given over to green.

The amenity is built around the massive and historic John Peter Smith Oak, named for one of Fort Worth’s most prominent early residents. Dozens of other mature trees have been incorporated into the landscape. Hedges of holly bushes provide green borders. Also preserved in Self’s design was an existing curving pathway that winds beneath ancient trees and through what will be a lush and shaded lawn. Handling general contracting duties on the project was Innovative Developers Inc.

“In the initial design there was more parking, less trees and no curving path,” Self said. “But Mr. Fortson said, ‘You know what, we need to keep those trees. We need to keep that path.’ ”
On their chilly stroll, Self and Eubank eventually found themselves on a sidewalk along bustling University Drive, the eastern border of the Cultural District. Self pointed to one of the car park’s signature features, a terraced garden built of concrete and steel. It spans the city block facing University. The linear garden replaces a tattered berm of landscape timbers.

“Again, one of the earlier designs was much more wall-like,” Self said. “It was Kimbell Wynne, [new president of the Kimbell Art Foundation board and daughter of Kay and Ben Fortson] who wondered if there was something we could do to make it less severe. So we started terracing and adding plants. I’m really glad the conversation unfolded that way.”

The result, Eubank said, allows the museum to “put our best foot forward to the busiest street in the Cultural District.”

Kimbell Director Eric Lee agreed, saying the linear garden “provides a picturesque point of entry for driving visitors and beautifies University Drive.”

The Kimbell, meanwhile, is certainly not the car park’s only beneficiary. Parking and walkways on its eastern edge beckon to patrons of the Modern Art Museum, the Kimbell’s neighbor across Darnell Street.

“Now you can park and walk to the Modern without having to negotiate a curb,” Self said.

The car park also features subtle but ample lighting, security cameras and emergency call boxes, reflecting an emphasis on safety.

Extra bike stands have been installed.

“No detail was overlooked, from the green space and preservation of the John Peter Smith Oak to the pedestrian walkways and bicycle parking,” said Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price. “The Kimbell Art Foundation did an extraordinary job completing the campus.”

To Price, it was indeed a quiet but noteworthy moment in Fort Worth history, a final chapter in a story that began with Kay Kimbell’s mandate in 1964.

“It’s phenomenal to see the Kimbell Art Museum complete the final phase of development,” the mayor said, “making its vision a reality, in the heart of Fort Worth’s Cultural District.”