A New Three-Story Wing Makes This Art Museum The Largest In Florida
TEXT Heather L. Schreckengast
PHOTOGRAPHY Courtesy of Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, FL

ABOVE: The three-story atrium is the centerpiece of the new Nessel wing — named after longtime benefactor Melvin Nessel and his wife, Gail. Photography by C.J. Walker, West Palm Beach, FL.

ABOVE: The Dale Chihuly glass ceiling comprises 693 pieces of art glass. Photography by C.J. Walker, West Palm Beach, FL.r.

ABOVE: The first floor functions as flexible gallery space for contemporary art and photography. Photography by C.J. Walker, West Palm Beach, FL.

ABOVE: “European Art before 1870” features art from the 17th to 19th centuries. Photography by C.J. Walker, West Palm Beach, FL.


When architect Chad Floyd, of Centerbrook Architects in Connecticut, began designing the new addition to the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla., he was given only one directive.
“The new wing had to be an ‘event’ — something that would make visitors feel as if they’ve arrived at a place of power and presence,” Floyd says.
Completed in March 2003, the new wing achieves that and much more. With its three-story atrium, floating spiral stairway and Dale Chihuly glass ceiling, it is truly a “structural extravaganza,” Floyd says.
Having completed the Norton’s first renovation in 1997, Floyd and his team “understood the genetic code of the building,” he says. “This thorough understanding allowed us to seamlessly develop the addition.”
The Nessel Wing — named after trustee and longtime benefactor Melvin Nessel and his wife, Gail — expands the entire museum to 122,500 square feet, making it the largest art museum in Florida. Fourteen new galleries, a pavilion, an enclosed courtyard with a full-service café and educational spaces comprise the new wing. In addition, Floyd and his team redesigned the museum’s original gift shop and museum store.
“The new wing is welcoming, user-friendly and shows the art in the best light,” Museum Director Dr. Christina Orr-Cahall says. “And the visitor amenities make this museum all the more meaningful to the community, visitors and tourists alike.”
To accommodate the three major permanent collections that the new atrium would house, Orr-Cahall decided to dedicate an entire collection to each floor. Hence, the first floor features a rotating exhibition of contemporary art and photography. The second floor, also known as “The Elizabeth B. McGraw Floor,” highlights the museum’s collection of Chinese art, and the third floor displays “European Art before 1870,” a showcase of signature works from this period.
Floyd conceptually tied the collections into the atrium’s design by incorporating key characteristics from each style of art. The atrium’s oval shape, for example, reflects the fluid form often seen in Baroque paintings and architecture. “The oval is an expression of design that could allude to the Old Masters paintings,” he says.
In a nod to contemporary works, Floyd “detailed the oval in a modern manner — an expression that conveys the speed of contemporary life,” he says.
Incorporating elements from Chinese art proved to be a bit more challenging. “We tried to think of a lot of ways to include Chinese motifs, but so many were geometric and pictorial that they wouldn’t work. We decided on a two-dimensional design — a loose interpretation of the Chinese tradition of cracked ice, which is reflected in the floor medallion and skylight,” he says.
No less of an architectural feat is the floating, sculptural concrete stairway, which spirals its way past each floor without any visible means of support. “The stairway is an oval-shaped spiral and goes inward and tighter as it goes up,” Floyd says. “Each spin of the spiral is connected to a stair below, so it’s organic and free-flowing.”
Located just off the atrium is the J. Ira and Nicki Harris Family Pavilion, where a specially commissioned glass ceiling by Dale Chihuly takes center stage. Composed of 693 pieces of hand-blown glass in aquatic blues, greens and golds, the ceiling conveys a feeling of being underwater, or in a “baroque grotto,” as Orr-Cahall calls it. At night, the ceiling is lit from above, as if the sun is beaming through the water.
“There are a lot of paintings of mythological grottos in Baroque art,” Floyd says. “This was also a way to connect the building and the subtropical environment of Florida.”
In addition to its renowned permanent collections, the Norton Museum of Art also offers traveling exhibitions throughout the year, which are on view in the main building.
“We have a remarkable offering of special exhibitions during the next three years,” says Dr. Roger Ward, chairman of the curatorial department and curator of European art. “They span the entire range of
our permanent collection and curatorial interests — from Chinese painting and the treasures of Spain’s Golden Age, to the sculptures of Deborah Butterfield and the photography of Candida Hofer.”
The Norton’s expanded size and offerings have elevated its stature and visibility. “Many compare us to the Art Institute of Chicago and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in terms of quality,” Orr-Cahall says. “More than being the largest art museum in Florida, we’re interested in being the best museum with the highest quality of exhibits and educational programs.”
For more information on the Norton Museum of Art and its upcoming exhibits, please call 561/832-5196, or visit its website at