We are talking about 19 sheets of glass almost 7 feet by 10 feet and more than half an inch thick, plus 14 more sheets for the Chinese scroll room, each measuring nearly 6 feet by 12 feet.
"Glass!" said Evans. "Laminated optical glass from Germany, and in this gallery-antireflecting! The best-huge sheets of it! It took four different companies to make it. Yet they still couldn't guarantee against imperfections smaller than a grain of sand. We said we were willing to take the chance, and they said OK, but they couldn't deliver until the critical weeks just before the museum's reopening."
What followed was a saga of sorts. The glass was unloaded from a container ship in Baltimore and brought to Washington on a tractor-trailer. But the sheets wouldn't fit through the Freer's doors, so they had to come in via a 90-ton crane-over the building and into the courtyard. Which meant that the courtyard floor had to be built up to the exact level of the gallery floor so that the load could be rolled in smoothly.
"We had to disassemble a forklift to get it inside the building," recalled Evans. "We had to find an electric one so it wouldn't pollute the air. By this time the artwork was actually going into the museum, and a lot of it was already in place. So we had to be terrifically careful about jarring anything."
The sheets were installed with glass cups. Now, these were not the hand-held jobs you see glaziers using to carry plate glass off the truck when they replace a store window. These cups were part of a sophisticated robotic device that permitted the mover to control every movement of a giant sheet of glass as it was fitted into place.
All right, the big cases are finished. Now, how do we get into them to insert the artwork?
Not simple. Evans showed me a series of steps, not unlike a Chinese puzzle box-and elaborately secure from burglars-that allow a staffer to pull out one of the glass side panels. "It's so airtight that when the panel is pulled open with suction cups, there's a great whoosh of air," he said.
In the Chinese scroll room, a 12-foot-high case is entered by pushing one of the glass side panels just a few millimeters into the wall to permit the front panels to slide sideways on a trolley system. A temporary frame, built adjacent to the case, holds the glass while the curators do their thing. "It takes most of a day," says Evans. The biggest sheets of glass can weigh as much as a half-ton each, after all. And they are so massive that they bend. Just a bit. Like the Empire State Building.
Another little detail in the renovation job at the Freer was the rooftop skylights. There are 13 of them and 21 laylights, or windows in the gallery ceilings. For generations, museums were lit with natural light, and galleries always featured sprawling skylights and glass ceilings. The thinking today, however, is that natural light can damage fabrics and fade colors. As Patrick Sears put it, "Our challenge was to allow for the wonderful variations of natural light while keeping the light within conservation guidelines for extremely fragile works of art."
Also, the original glass windows did not meet code standards. "They were unsafe," Buck Evans remarked. An understatement, it seems. Over the years, Evans told me, those glass panes were known to break, showering sharp glass into the galleries. Fortunately, it never happened when visitors were present, and no one was ever hurt. "Now we have a double layer of glass with a plastic layer between. It's designed to break like auto safety glass. The plastic filters out ultraviolet rays. But at the same time, we matched the look of the old panes. It all looks unchanged."