Major addition to Fairbanks Museum to open to the public Saturday

The Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium in St. Johnsbury, Vt. — seen here on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024 — will be unveiling a major new addition on the rear of the building to the public on Saturday. (VtDigger - K. Fiegenbaum)

The Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium in St. Johnsbury, Vt. — seen here on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024 — will be unveiling a major new addition on the rear of the building to the public on Saturday. (VtDigger - K. Fiegenbaum) VTDigger — K. Fiegenbaum

An architectural rendering shows the planned addition at the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium in St. Johnsbury, which will cost around $2 million and be the first addition since 1895. (Courtesy Vermont Integrated Architecture)

An architectural rendering shows the planned addition at the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium in St. Johnsbury, which will cost around $2 million and be the first addition since 1895. (Courtesy Vermont Integrated Architecture) —

By K. FIEGENBAUM

VTDigger

Published: 02-17-2024 9:01 PM

This Saturday, a Northeast Kingdom institution is set to unveil to the public a project long in the making: the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium’s new Tang Science Annex.

The 6,500-square-foot, three-story addition comprises hands-on galleries exploring meteorology and astronomy, classrooms, an outdoor “science discovery deck” and — for the first time — an elevator allowing access to all floors for those with mobility differences. 

The approximately $7 million project marks the first major addition to the historic Victorian building since 1894.

Plans for the museum addition began in 2018, but the COVID-19 pandemic put the project on hold, and construction costs increased dramatically in the interim. This forced the museum to return to fundraising in 2022, according to Adam Kane, the museum’s executive director.

“The level of support and ongoing enthusiasm for this vision is what kept us going,” Kane said in a written statement. “This project reflects the value people place in making a treasured place more accessible, relevant and dynamic. It’s incredibly inspiring to know that so many people wanted to see this investment in our historic museum and in our community.”

A little over half of the funding came from federal sources, including nearly $2.5 million from a federal appropriation — or “earmark” — obtained by then-U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., in 2022. Oscar Tang, a retired Chinese-American financier and philanthropist who spent part of his childhood in St. Johnsbury, provided lead funding, and additional money came from a mix of state agencies, private foundations and individual donors.

In a press release following the annex’s dedication on Thursday morning, Tang said the addition “will act as a catalyst for the renewal of St. Johnsbury, a town that first welcomed me to this country 75 years ago.”

The annex was constructed using a burgeoning technology called “mass timber,” which layers wood products together to create incredibly strong panels, posts and beams with less carbon emissions than the more traditional concrete or steel. The addition is Vermont’s first mass timber building and the first in the world to use mass timber construction made from Eastern hemlock, which was harvested in Vermont and New Hampshire.

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The classroom space in the new annex is already in use through a partnership with Community College of Vermont, which is making the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium its new St. Johnsbury headquarters.

While the new annex will be open to the public starting at 10 a.m. Saturday, some work — including some interior finishes and all of the outdoor grounds work — will be completed in the coming months, according to Anna Rubin, a spokesperson for the museum.