The Chamberlain Building, which houses works by sculptor John Chamberlain as part of the Chinati Foundation, was an office and warehouse for the Marfa Wool & Mohair Company when artist Donald Judd moved to Marfa, Texas from New York in 1971. Built in 1943, the long structure consisted of three sections of different proportions, with sliding doors on the long sides for the transfer of goods to trains and trucks. When the Dia Art Foundation bought it for Judd along with other properties in 1979, arrows leading pilots to nearby Marfa Airport were painted on the roof. Judd’s renovation clarified and unified the building: he added open-Face Adobe walls, aligned openings and windows to establish a large long axis and short secondary axes, painted the walls a sand color (which he preferred for interiors), replaced two roofs and placed skylights, created a small apartment and planted a sunroof grid at the front. The 23,000-square-foot hall was the first part of Judd’s Chinati Foundation to open to the public in 1983.
In the following decades, the building, initially poorly built, continued to evolve: the interior and exterior finishes cracked, due to the thunderous tremor of passing trains; the foundations were packed; the roof leaked; the polycarbonate of the skylights turned yellow; and the doors and Windows failed. Judd’s renovations, though inspired, were not done with replacement in mind. The windows and doors were simple, using dimensions derived from standard pine wood and manufactured in Marfa using available labor, and they were integrated into their frames, making them difficult to repair when a component wore out. The thin 1× frame of a functional quarter panel pivot sagged under its weight and was quickly fixed in place. (It stayed in this state when I did an internship in Chinati in 2010.) Almost everything required serious attention.
In recent years, the Chinati Foundation has funded this attention, and a restored Chamberlain building opened to the public in April. The partners Troy Schaum and Rosalyne Shieh from the architectural firm SCHAUM/SHIEH, based in Houston and New York, carried out a series of careful improvements. They first evaluated the building in 2014 and made drawings in 2017; construction began in 2020 under Schaum’s direction with partner Andrea Brennan. The scope of SCHAUM/SHIEH’s work included both camouflaged but impressively executed restoration operations and new improvements such as a wide entrance ramp and ADA-accessible bathrooms. Of particular interest are the three types of doors in the project, because 14 of them were recreated.
Judd used these “two on two” doors in all his buildings in Marfa. The Shape came to Judd from historical reliefs, but the cruciform arrangement also refers to grids, because “the cantonment is the simplest form of a grid”” he said in a 1985 interview. (The divided square window also appears in Aldo Rossi’s architecture. Outside, three exterior doors of different designs, all by Judd, have been rebuilt. In the building itself, the contractors made a new slider, hinged doors and a fixed unit with a usable quarter-paneled window, the main improvement being that pine boards now cover a hidden welded steel tube frame. The rotating lamps included in some places were also made using a hidden steel corner. The wood was sealed with linseed oil and turpentine, a familiar ranch finish, and Tempered Glass was used instead of Sheet Glass. The three interior sliding doors have been preserved but restored with new windows and finishes.
Peter Stanley, then Chinati’s director of planning and conservation, took advantage of the recent times to create an early prototype of the upgraded Judd door in the museum shop. The frame plus cladding Assembly” allows you to replace parts over time as needed compared to a total rebuild when the whole frame rots” ” he told a. (Stanley is now director of operations and preservation for Marfa at the Judd Foundation.)
For this restoration, Simpson Gumpertz & Heger’s Los Angeles office provided structural engineering and JC Stoddard, based in San Antonio, was the general contractor. The specialization of the latter in the historical restoration has greatly contributed to the quality of the work. To begin with, the Carpenters first built new barn door sliders with a steel Unistrut rail, hidden by wooden flashing on the west side of the building; upon completion, Chamberlain’s crushed car sculptures could be removed to be kept in a safe place during the renovation. At the height of Stanley’s prototype, Kepha Hawkins, a carpenter of a historic building, made the remaining parts on site in the warehouse, with areas dedicated to working with wood and steel.
SCHAUM / SHIEH worked with team members, each of whom brought their specific expertise. “It seemed to me that our process was a kind of echo of the way Judd worked, because he used local intelligence and craftsmen to create his art and architecture,” Schaum said.
This approach was very appropriate: before Chamberlain’s pieces were installed, Judd had planned to install his aluminum works in space; plywood models were built and examined on site, and he even considered putting some of the final works there.
It was important for Schaum to maintain the brightness of the place and at the same time to strengthen its role as a welcoming point of arrival for the Chinati Foundation—hence the new wide slope. The ease of use of the new doors is counterintuitive for an art museum; when they are open, “you really feel connected to the landscape and air of the place”” Schaum said.
The importance of the Chamberlain building is one of many inspirations for the recent creation of the Marfa Central Historic District, marking the first time that Judd’s approach to architecture and conservation has been recognized by the federal government as historically significant. The 183 contributing buildings include 11 preserved and redeveloped by Judd. The restored Chamberlain building better offers what, according to the assessment of the former director of Chinati, Marianne Stockbrand, Chamberlain’s “eccentric constructions” need: “light on all sides, smooth walls and floors, and space.”