Wednesday, June 18, 2008


San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum opened, with much ado, on Sunday, June 8, 2008.

In the heart of what has become the downtown Museum District, the Contemporary Jewish is as much an architectural wonder as it is an extraordinary museum.

Built on the site of a former PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric) Jessie Street Power Substation, the building combines the 1907 brick facade of the substation, which was designed by Willis Polk, with a modern extension which includes a three-story bright blue brushed steel angled cube of a building. Architect Daniel Libeskind is the building's designer. Libeskind's design work includes Berlin's Jewish Museum, the Denver Art Museum addition, and the master site plan for the rebuilt World Trade Center in New York.

The Contemporary Jewish is sandwiched between the Marriott Four Seasons Hotel and the historic St. Patrick's Church. It faces Mission Street and the Yerba Buena Gardens. It is set back from the street and has a large plaza, Jessie Square, in front. The main side streets are Third and Fourth Streets. The Yerba Buena walkway, where new restaurants and shops are starting to open, runs between Mission and Market Streets. Both the Powell Street and Montgomery BART stations are nearby. Union Square and the San Francisco Centre are short walks away.

The museum lobby runs the length of the brick substation facade, with a café on the east end and Admission Desk and Gift Store on the west end. The Gift Store is actually in the base of the new blue cube part of the building. Portions of the old substation have been incorporated into the airy lobby: these include tile-clad columns, iron trusses, and sections of the catwalk. Looking up at the catwalk, I wondered if it was left here to facilitate the changing of the light bulbs in the fixtures that light the lobby from high above.

The Blue Cube is probably the most striking part of the building. Balancing on one point, it is covered with more than 3,000 large diamond-shaped steel panels that glimmer in shades of blue as the outdoor light and time of day changes.

The blue color of the steel is achieved through a procedure called interference coating, a process that will retain this color, never allowing fading or chalking. For the scientific among you, this process consists of bathing the steel in chemicals that thicken the chromium oxide on the steel and draw out the blue color, interfering with the way the steel naturally reflects light, soaks up certain wavelengths, and reflects light.

Libeskind's design is based on the Hebrew phrase, "L'Chaim," which means "To life." Two hebrew characters make up the word "chai" or "life." The top part of the word is the "yud", which is the part of the building which is the blue cube and in which the Stephen and Maribelle Leavitt Yud Gallery resides. The long part of the word is the "chet," in which the Koshland Gallery resides.

As for the museum's exhibitions, the Contemporary Jewish is the only Jewish museum in the world that does not have a permanent collection. All exhibits are temporary, further adding to the dynamic nature of the building. The current exhibits include From the New Yorker to Shrek: the Art of William Steig, In the Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis, and an audio-only exhibit that fills the Yud Gallery, John Zorn Presents the Aleph-Bet Sound Project.

Several times during my afternoon at the museum, I passed Museum Director Connie Wolf, bustling around like a proud mother hen as she chatted with visitors about the exhibits, future fund raising, and the architecture and materials used in the building's construction and furnishings. I sat with her as she marveled at the "softness" of the concrete benches in the gallery housing the Being Jewish: a Bay Area Portrait exhibit.

I must say that the off-balance design of the museum, both inside and out, sometimes set me off-balance. The angled walls and windows and the tilting benches caused me, more than once, to grab onto a railing to keep myself in perspective. The diamond shaped windows and skylights in the Yud gallery give glimpses of the cityscape outside and create interesting designs on the blue cube from the outside.

To start my visit to the Contemporary Jewish, I met friends, H, D, and M for lunch in the museum's Café on the Square. The menu offers a few hot dishes, soups. sandwiches, salads and desserts. Service is cafeteria style.

H chose the day's special Panini Sandwich,

D had the Caesar Salad, M had the Baked Cod and a cup of soup, and my choice was a Cassoulet of summer squash, tomatoes and rice. All our meals were delicious. Most main dishes are priced between $10 and $12.

The Gift Store features books, lots of toys and books for children, and an array of decorative items.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum is open daily, except Wednesday, from 11:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Friday through Tuesday and from 1:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Thursday. Docents lead free guided tours throughout the day; check at Admission when you visit.

A nice feature of the museum is that, to encourage younger visitors, admission is FREE for youths age 18 and younger. Paid admission is $10 of adults, $8 for seniors and students. After 5 p.m. on Thursday, all paid admission is $5. There is no admission charge to visit the the café and the store.

Other nearby museums include the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Crafts and Folk Art, the California Historical Society, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Cartoon Art Museum, the Museum of the African Diaspora. The Mexican Museum is hoping to locate in this area sometime in the future.

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