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Wednesday, Dec 6, 2023

Johnson renovation: A triumph

The interior of Johnson Memorial Building was unveiled on Sept. 28
The interior of Johnson Memorial Building was unveiled on Sept. 28

John McLeod and his team have achieved remarkable success with their expansion and renovation of the Christian A. Johnson Memorial Building.

In 2004, Carl Larson ’03, Anne Callahan ’03, Jon Coble ’06, Buck Sleeper ’05 and I organized Johnson Week, a symposium celebrating the building, headlined by an in-person tour and lecture by its architect, Jean-Paul Carlhian. Needless to say, until the grand reopening last month, we would have called ourselves the building’s biggest fans.

It is now clear that honor goes to John McLeod, who managed to preserve and celebrate the building’s most cherished spaces, materials and details, while gracefully improving its accessibility and functionality. He restored the grandeur of the Johnson gallery, brought aging studios back to life and even managed to heighten the drama of the entrance experience.

It will come as no surprise, if you have toured the building, to learn that McLeod did not parachute in for this commission. As a Middlebury architecture professor who has taught in these spaces for years — intimately aware of  their glory and flaws alike — his drafting pencil deftly added practical function while sacrificing neither character nor spirit. Outdated equipment and infrastructure have been modernized without the sterilization typically inflicted on buildings of this era.

Most importantly, McLeod reinforced the building’s primary purpose: to serve as a venue — and often canvas — for art to emerge. Generations of Johnson-dwellers have hung, applied, performed, filled, projected, situated and otherwise presented all forms of art on and in every surface and space under that skylighted roof. It is, ultimately, a nearly invulnerable shelter for artistic expression —  or at least that’s how we treated it.

McLeod clearly understood what many contemporary architects do not: that our greatest buildings create beautiful, functional space for humans to do great things rather than steal the limelight from them. The Johnson of the past, and even more so its masterful revision, is a monumental backdrop for monumental ideas. Nowhere is McLeod’s commitment to this mission more evident than in the translucence of his sublime new lobby, which simultaneously embraces space for its residents and beckons passersby in to join.

Die-hard Johnson fans may miss the lumbering freight elevator, the mammoth sliding glass doors or the oddly luxurious bathrooms (none of which, frankly, ever seemed to work too well). But in return, McLeod has breathed new life into our beloved great hulking creature of a building, which will in turn shelter and showcase our humans and their great works for decades more to come. Bravo.