The Expansion of Holocaust Museum Houston Broadens Human Rights Mission
A Beacon of Hope: A $34M Expansion Transforms One of Houston’s Regional Icons into Nation’s Fourth-Largest Holocaust Museum
Houston is now home to the fourth-largest Holocaust museum in the nation. On June 22, 2019, the Holocaust Museum Houston, Lester and Sue Smith Campus (HMH) reopened after a 22-month expansion and renovation effort that nearly tripled the building’s size to 57,000 square feet.
HMH’s mission to educate students and the public about the dangers of prejudice and hatred in society. The upgraded facilities have enabled HMH to broaden its community outreach and impact through a variety of new or expanded attractions.
In a nutshell, the facility’s existing one-story east wing was replaced with a three-story building that houses a welcome center, four permanent galleries, two galleries for traveling exhibits, training and education classrooms, a research library, an indoor theater, administrative offices and a café. The new-and-improved complex also features an outdoor amphitheater used to host performances, lectures, and films, as well as an expanded parking lot.
“We are an educationally focused institution. Our main mission is to teach people about the lessons of the Holocaust and also other genocides,” says Kelly Zúñiga, Ed.D., the museum’s CEO. “This expansion gives us a greater opportunity to broaden the Holocaust narrative by making visitors’ experiences more experiential from the standpoint of interactivity and technology. It’s a very full, transformative learning experience for our patrons.”
A Project of Complexity
After the museum temporarily relocated its operations to a nearby industrial space in August 2017, the notice to proceed with construction was given in November 2017, followed by demolition and construction activities occurring between January 2018 and June 2019.
McCarthy Building Companies, Inc. (McCarthy) served as general contractor of the $34 million development, part of what was originally a $49.4 million expansion and endowment campaign that actually exceeded fundraising goals with $54.8 million in total donations. The project was delivered under a Construction Manager at Risk approach based on a guaranteed maximum price.
“The Holocaust Museum Houston project is unique in that nearly the entirety of the exterior structure and interiors were demolished and replaced with essentially four structures, all while protecting irreplaceable artifacts,” says Jim Stevenson, McCarthy Houston Division President.
To breathe new life into the exhibits and architectural features of the museum, the HMH expansion includes design input from PGAL as the architect of record as well as Mucasey & Associates Architects and Ralph Appelbaum Associates. According to project officials, this LEED version 4 project features recycled elements, locally sourced raw materials, products with low VOCs (volatile organic compounds), electric car charging stations in the parking lot, and a range of other sustainable components.
According to McCarthy Project Manager Adam Laura, this complex undertaking was essentially divided into three overlapping components. First, the existing structure – originally a medical office built about 25 years ago – was razed to the ground. Crews left two small tilt-wall structures in place after gutting the building, which had to be protected against the elements while the rest of the facility was expanded to house all of the new museum features.
The scope of work included demolishing the existing slab on grade, strengthening the foundations with jacked piers provided by Hayward Baker, re-pouring the slab on grade, adding a second level to the existing rotunda, and expanding the highest point of the building with structural steel so workers could install a 360-degree glazing system. Next, the sloping tilt-wall portion of the building – comprising five tilt-wall panels varying in height from 15 to 35 feet – were cut from the structure, dropped to the floor and hauled off to allow workers to move forward with the structural expansion work. All tilt-wall panels were cast in place, which made the project more complicated due to space constraint issues (the museum’s location is roughly the size of a city block).
Crews had to carefully relocate and preserve artifacts throughout the construction process, including two massive pieces originally located outdoors: a 5-ton fishing boat like those used by the Danish to ferry fleeing Jews to neutral territory, and a 10.5-ton rail car akin to the ones that transported Holocaust victims to concentration camps and killing centers. These items had to be moved inside the museum before crews could erect the final walls and place the roof on the tilt-wall portion of the building. TNT Crane & Rigging used a combination of scaffolding and cranes to carefully maneuver the boat and rail car into the museum’s new “Bearing Witness” gallery, where they had to be protected in place while construction continued a mere 10 feet away.
Several important portions of the existing building stayed intact during construction including the Memorial Room, interior metal panels, interior stucco and glass walls at the center of the project site. Additionally, exterior components such as the Memorial Wall and pavers, monument signs, masonry and site precast also stayed in place and required protection throughout the construction process.
The project team also had to preserve the sloping roof that covers half of the museum. The roof is topped with a large concrete cylinder – symbolic of a concentration camp crematorium – that was central to the original building design scheme conceptualized by architecture firm Ralph Appelbaum Associates. As part of the renovation effort, the design team incorporated a new roof opening atop this cylindrical structure that allows natural daylight to filter inside the museum and create a brighter, more welcoming ambiance. At night, thanks to programmable LEDs, the top of the cylinder shines blue as a beacon of eternal hope to the community.
“There’s symbolism in almost every design component that influenced not only the final product, but also affected the way the structure was built. McCarthy was proactive during the design phase to ensure the finished museum would be both a functional and unique space that educates and inspires visitors,” Stevenson says.
Laura adds, “The building was strategically designed to create a chronological flow of events. The design pathway of the building takes you through a timeline of events, starting with entry through the Morgan Family Welcome Center, which has an orientation film and exhibition materials in both English and Spanish, and ending with the Human Rights Gallery, a unique space featuring a compelling call-to-action exhibit.”
Innovative Construction Technologies
Also of note is the general contractor’s use of thermal and laser scanning technologies to gain a deeper understanding of the existing building conditions. Laura elaborates, “The first thing we did was a thermal scan of the overall building to understand the existing conditions and any potential problems we needed to address. After demolition, we brought in a laser scanner on two occasions to scan the existing structure to understand the dimensions of what was here so we could import that data into our 3-D model. This information assisted in our steel fabrication processes and allowed us to get a jump on modeling components for the structural expansion.”
The construction team also utilized Procore for its project management needs. “This was a relatively new program for McCarthy at the time we began this project. We have typically relied on so many different programs to do a specific task, and we were searching for a single program to tackle more of our daily responsibilities. Having the ability to access all relevant project information in real time using a single app on our smartphones or iPads was really beneficial,” Laura says.
From Darkness, Light
The museum is located at the heart of the Houston Museum District, home to 19 different institutions spanning the gamut of cultural arts, history, religion, and other areas of interest. Since first opening its doors on March 3, 1996, HMH has served as an education center and memorial designed to preserve the memory of those who perished as well as the stories of those who survived the World War II genocide.
The museum’s larger, brighter spaces are meant to evoke HMH’s tagline: From Darkness, Light. According to Zúñiga, this core message calls to mind the defining moment when a decision for good counteracts an act of evil, bringing people out of desperate, hopeless situations and into the light. In addition to the extensive Holocaust gallery, this lesson is most certainly exemplified in the gallery that displays the entire history associated with the human rights movement, which was majorly influenced by the Holocaust.
“I’m very proud of our human rights exhibition, which focuses on five distinct genocides in our history to provide a sense of relevancy as to where we are today, and in how the Holocaust impacted the direction of the human rights movement. In this space we highlight what we call exemplars, or human rights activists, who stood up at a great risk to their own livelihoods and futures to make a difference and to speak for the voiceless,” Zúñiga says.
A total 42 exemplars are rotated through the central part of the gallery, including both prominent and lesser known figures in history such as Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. “On the right side of the gallery we have a ‘call to action’ section focused on six Houston nonprofits, where we show films about what they do and how they serve the community. Here, visitors learn how they can get involved to make a difference,” Zúñiga says.
Museum attendance prior to the project averaged 130,000 a year, she adds. Annual attendance is expected to grow by 35 percent, with a 50 percent increase in student field trips.
Culturally Sensitive Builders
For members of the McCarthy team, the opportunity to work on this lifechanging museum was intrinsically rewarding. “This project was so incredibly unique. Not only did we have to bring our experience as builders to the table, there was also so much historical significance to the project itself. We had to educate ourselves on history, culture and religion and also consulted with the owner and design team to understand which features of the building were most important to them,” Laura says. Through this detailed-oriented lens, the project team successfully incorporated an array of symbolic elements throughout the facility.
“I think that McCarthy was very culturally sensitive to the heritage of the museum. Also, many of the museum’s founders were Holocaust survivors, and they would come and talk with the construction team and ask them about how things were going. McCarthy did such a great job of answering questions, always being respectful to the survivor, asking them about their history with the building and the meaning behind it. I just think they did a terrific job of understanding and respecting what this museum represents,” Zúñiga says.
With its state-of-the-art functionality and enhanced educational spaces, the Holocaust Museum Houston is in an even stronger position to memorialize the millions of innocent Holocaust victims impacted by one of history’s most notorious genocides. Using the lessons of the Holocaust and other historical atrocities, HMH will continue to share constructive lessons on the dangers of hatred, prejudice and apathy – and hopefully inspire positive change in the hearts and minds of people for generations to come.