Thinking Outside the Box: An Artful Adaptive Use Project in Hudson Valley

Posted on: October 15th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

This is the latest in a series of posts celebrating the 10th anniversary of the National Trust Community Investment Corporation (NTCIC) by sharing some of its biggest successes.

Written by Erica Stewart

The vacant Nabisco box making factory before rehabilitation.

The vacant Nabisco box making factory before rehabilitation.

When then-Dia Art Foundation director Michael Govan first laid eyes on the vacant Nabisco box making factory, he didn’t just see 292,000 square feet of abandoned brick, steel, concrete and glass. Rather, he envisioned a vast exhibit space for Dia’s expansive contemporary art collection—including major works by Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys, Walter De Maria and Donald Judd —and complemented by the 1920s industrial architecture of the structure. Its large, unfettered rooms, 36,000 square feet of skylights and high ceilings were perfect for a museum that exhibits monumental sculptures and delicate drawings. The clincher was the hardwood maple floors.

That was in 1998, and the Nabisco plant and its 31-acre site was for sale for $2 million. It had been vacant since 1991. The property is located along the Hudson River, a short jump from the Metro North station in Beacon, New York, though there were hardly any reasons for New York City day trippers to make the hour-long trip at that time. Beacon was a gritty, forsaken city, with a reputation (as recently as 1995) for its flophouses, crack dens and brothels—a far cry from the type of place one might expect to tempt an art foundation.

Dia:Beacon after renovation.

Dia:Beacon after renovation.

But Dia officials persisted, and with help from then-Governor George Pataki, they persuaded the owner (a subsidiary of International Paper at that point) to donate the building for free as long as Dia paid for a required $1 million environmental cleanup. A $50 million historic rehabilitation ensued, facilitated by the National Trust Community Investment Corporation (NTCIC) which partnered with Bank of America to purchase the federal historic tax credits generated by the rehab. This generated a significant source of financing, $6.6 million, which would not have been otherwise available to Dia (as nonprofits do not pay taxes). NTCIC formed a specific partnership to enable the transaction. The National Trust was also instrumental in the listing of the property on the National Register of Historic Places—a prerequisite for qualifying for the historic tax credit.

The site’s master plan was designed by California artist Robert Irwin, and retains the original character of the factory while accommodating its 21st century museum function. Irwin also planned the surrounding landscape, including a grid of flowering trees that shade the parking lot, and gardens that change with the season. The interior of the museum is in harmony with the environment as well: there are few lights other than mandatory emergency ones, so the galleries’ closing time changes with the seasons as well: 4:00 p.m. in winter, 6:00 p.m. in summer.

Richard Serra installation at Dia:Beacon. (Photo: Richard Barnes)

Richard Serra installation at Dia:Beacon. (Photo: Richard Barnes)

The result is 240,000 square feet of exhibition space, bathed in beautiful natural light in unadorned space where the intensity of the large installations can be felt. This scale makes Dia:Beacon more than four times the exhibition space of the Whitney Museum of American Art and almost twice the size of the Tate Modern in London. The size has enabled Dia to more than double the number of artists in its collection, and commission works specifically for the Dia:Beacon space.

And like the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, and MassMoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, the museum has had a major revitalizing influence on Beacon. In its first year, the museum attracted 145,000 visitors, and has been attributed with triggering approximately $10 million in economic windfall to the city of Beacon and Dutchess County annually.

Dia:Beacon’s presence has had an undeniable catalytic effect: Scenic Hudson, a nonprofit environmental organization and land trust has purchased more than 2,000 acres to create a new development with a hotel, restaurants, public waterfront, a park and a network of hiking trails. A new performing arts center designed by Frank Gehry opened at nearby Bard College. The $132 million Rivers and Estuaries Center on the Hudson, an institute devoted to advanced environmental research, is slated for construction in Beacon. A theater company intends to revive a long-shuttered playhouse. Its Lower Main Street District, listed on the National Register in 1987, features many rehabilitated Italianate-style commercial buildings that now house galleries and high-end retail. One of the historic properties, a former firehouse, is now a cut glass shop also distinguished for its historical significance. The fertile farmland of the surrounding area, coupled with the proximity of the Culinary Institute of America, means a visitor to Dia:Beacon won’t be surviving on art alone, either.

So in this tenth anniversary year for NTCIC, we fondly regard one of our first investments, Dia:Beacon. Despite the 180 degree-evolution in its use, the old Nabisco box factory again represents the marriage of form and function and is driving Beacon’s economic engine, much as the factory did during its industrial heyday.

Erica Stewart is the outreach coordinator for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s community revitalization department.

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National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

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