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Maritime Museum Plans $28M Waterfront Center

DEVELOPMENT: New Building Will Anchor New Exhibits

Since its founding in 1948, the Maritime Museum of San Diego has been a museum without a museum in the sense that there was no museum building.

With the Star of India – the world’s oldest active sailing ship – as its main attraction, the museum has been a collection of boats tied up to the embarcadero and anchored just offshore in San Diego Bay.

Ray Ashley
President and CEO
Maritime Museum of San Diego

“Our presentation  is confusing in that regard because it’s  hundreds of years being presented when you walk by, but people don’t know what to make of it,” said Ray Ashley, the museum’s president and CEO.

That’s about to change, as the museum proceeds with plans to build a $28 million structure on the waterfront.

“It’s a big project because we have a big story to tell, we’re really talking about the relationship of our community with the sea, which is really a defining story,” Ashley said.

As it is now,  the museum has managed to stage world-class exhibitions aboard the ships, but many people pass by without taking notice.

In 2011, the museum put on an  exhibit that included original paintings by 18th century artists  John Webber  and  William Hodges, each of whom accompanied Captain James Cook in his voyages around the Pacific, and many original works by Paul Gauguin, showcasing a newly rediscovered wood sculpture.

Because people weren’t accustomed to seeing such a notable exhibit presented on ships, “We probably had a fraction of the visitors we would have had,” Ashley said. “To actually have a purposed built structure to correct that, that is something that we wanted to do for a long time.”

Raising Profile

Designed by Tucker Sadler Architects, the new  28,000-square-foot  structure will give the museum a more recognizable home.

To be built on a pile-supported pier along the North Embarcadero, the two-story building will include galleries, a theater, a café that will be open to the public and museum ticketholders, a museum store, and administrative offices.

Tucker Sadler also designed the Rady Shell for the San Diego Symphony, Sun Outdoors San Diego Bay RV Resort, and the Portside Pier restaurant complex.

Greg Mueller
Principal Designer and CEO
Tucker Sadler Architects

Greg Mueller, principal designer and CEO of Tucker Sadler, said that the museum building is designed to evoke a sense of a ship at sea.

The building itself would be about 12,000 square feet on each floor with outdoor decks that would be open to the public and barges tied up alongside each side of the museum for people to visit by boat or kayak, Mueller said.

“We’re providing lots of access on both sides for people who would like to walk around it, but not actually go to the museum,” Mueller said.

The 1,800-square-foot café on the first floor, to be operated by the Cohn Restaurant Group, would also have a  670-square-foot  outdoor deck.

“You could sit outside and look at the museum and enjoy a sandwich or coffee,” Mueller said.

Much of the exterior would be glass to allow passers-by to see through the building to the museum’s ships in the bay.

Exhibits inside the building would include an exhibit that shows how people from around the world migrated to San Diego over sea, where they came from, what route they took, what their experience would have been like, and how  that  influenced how San Diego was built, Mueller said.

As part of the project, the ships that comprise the museum would be moved farther into the bay, in part to protect them from tidal damage.

“What we’re doing is,  we’re rearranging the ships, moving them further out in the bay where they’re more attractively displayed and we’re moving them out of the turbulence of the water,” Ashley said.

The Port of San Diego gave the museum the go-ahead in April to submit the museum proposal for environment review.

Pending permitting, Mueller said  that  construction would take 18 months to two years.

Mueller said an actual building for the museum is overdue and would raise its profile.

“We are number three in the world for maritime museums. We definitely want to rival the number one museum, which is in Scotland. This hopefully will propel us to that level, and we’ll continue to add to the collection,” he said.

Maritime Museum of San Diego

Founded: 1948
Headquarters: Downtown San Diego
President/CEO: Ray Ashley
Business: Museum
Website:  www.sdmaritime.org
Contact: 619-234-9153
Notable: The museum preserves one of the largest collections of historic sea vessels in the United States. The centerpiece of the museum’s collection is the Star of India, an 1863 iron bark.

A view of the new docking configuration for the planned Maritime Museum expansion. Rendering courtesy Maritime Museum of San Diego
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