When the Taft Museum of Art was built more than 200 years ago, it wasn’t a museum at all, instead serving as a home for the city of Cincinnati’s most prominent families, including the Tafts. Today, it stands proud as ever as one of the oldest and most beloved structures in Cincinnati. But while downtown’s “White House” was allegedly built to withstand an earthquake, it wasn’t originally intended as an art museum—and similar to many of Cincinnati’s historic buildings, it’s past due for a few infrastructure updates.
Luckily, Chris Magee at GBBN Architects is up to the task, ready to breathe new life into the museum with the collaboration of a talented team focused on careful, attentive rehabilitation.
Magee, who serves as lead architect for the Taft Museum’s Bicentennial Infrastructure Project and assisted leading recent renovation efforts at the Cincinnati Museum Center, says the building lacks proper ventilation and temperature and humidity control, which creates a special challenge for a historic home that now houses priceless artworks and irreplaceable pre-Civil War murals on its walls.
“House environments and museum environments require two very different sets of conditioning, humidification, and air temperature,” Magee says. “With the house being 200 years old, the museum is at a point to do some rehabilitation work to ensure the historic house’s longevity for the next generation.”
A crucial element of the project involves rebuilding the exterior walls and replacing the building’s HVAC system, which is critical to creating an interior environment to preserve the museum’s artwork. The exterior siding, and windows will be removed and rehabilitated. The masonry foundation walls will be rehabilitated and waterproofed, and the building will be abated of any hazardous materials during the process.
Thoughtful preservation requires that the architects follow strict standards and best practices to keep the home a treasured historic place. The museum isn’t just a prized possession to the city of Cincinnati and a gift from the Taft family themselves—it’s also on the National Register of Historic Places.
And while Magee notes that guests won’t notice drastic changes, fresh paint and refurbished elements will certainly make the space feel like new.
“We’re not taking it back to how it was originally built,” Magee says. “We’re applying modern technologies to rehabilitate the house as it is while retaining the maximum amount of historic material as possible.”
In addition to the structural updates, the $12.7 million bicentennial project also involves efforts to enhance the visitor experience. Art is reinterpreted often—and it’s important to put each piece into perspective based on current understanding. New additions like digital signs, flexible furniture, and electrical infrastructure to use with art-making tools will offer guests a more immersive, diverse, and accessible experience at one of Cincinnati’s oldest homes. And with a flurry of updates and critical preservation projects on the way soon, fans of The Taft can rest assured the beloved museum will stick around as a bastion of the arts for years to come.
Support the museum’s Love This House capital campaign
The Taft is raising money to support the renovation to preserve the museum’s 200-year-old historic house. Donate to the Love This House campaign to help support the project.
Visit the In a New Light exhibition
While the house is under renovation, The Taft’s iconic artwork is temporarily on display in the Fifth Third Gallery. The 80 hand-chosen pieces explore eras, cultures, art forms, materials, and makers, the works are literally positioned in a new environment. Now is the time to experience Charles Phelps Taft and Anna Sinton Taft’s collection dedicated to the people of Cincinnati. Visit the website to learn more about the exhibition. Admission is free with a suggested $10 donation to support the Love This House campaign in lieu of admission.
The Taft Museum of Art has also partnered with the Cincinnati Museum Center for the special exhibition, Borrowed Gems from the Taft, sharing more than 40 works of art at Union Terminal. Borrowed Gems tells the story of the Tafts’ collection and its impact on the Cincinnati community and the legacy that continues to inspire each generation anew. Admission is free. Visit the website to learn more.