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Architectural Record: Creating a Vision of the Bible in Bronze

Apr 30, 2018

Mus of Bible_Bronze DoorsEven a company that specializes in artistic projects can tackle a demanding project that challenges the company to take it to a higher level of skill, artistry, and complexity. That was the case for the A. Zahner Co. of Kansas City, Mo., with its breathtaking work on the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.

“The process for creating the Museum of the Bible portals required a high degree of engineering and production coordination, with particular sensitivity to esthetics,” said Tom Zahner, chief operating officer of A. Zahner Co., and chair of SMACNA’s Architectural Council Steering Committee.

“Our team excels at listening to our client’s design intent and creating their vision in metal. Each panel was produced using a combination of machinery and handwork. The result is unlike anything else that has been done before.”

Museum of Bible1Zahner worked with artist Larry Kirkland throughout the process on the artwork for the museum’s massive 40-foot-tall,16-foot-wide panels that flank the front entrance.

They created and installed the “monolithic bronze door panels featuring a series of tens of thousands of pounds of copper alloy, milled out to look like pages out of the Gutenberg Bible,” said company president L. William (Bill) Zahner. The Gutenberg Bible, printed in the 1450s, was the first major book printed in Europe using movable metal type. The panels are written in Latin and depict the first two chapters of the book of Genesis.

Each “chapter” took 88 plates. Each plate was 1½ inches thick, weighed 600 pounds, and each plate took 15 to 20 hours to fabricate. “We wanted to emulate what a real press block looked like,” Bill Zahner said.

One door features ornate scroll work in the margins of the Bible’s pages. Engineering, manufacturing and installation involved another 10 to 12 hours. Executing the 88 plates took more than two years altogether.

“We work with artists all over the world on complex projects,” Bill Zahner noted. “We’re a sheet metal signatory company that’s 120 years old. Everything we do is highly specialized.”

Museum of Bible2Zahner has two permanent manufacturing facilities, in Missouri and Texas, and sets up temporary assembly and installation facilities for large projects.

The museum, while within the company’s capabilities for featuring complex artwork, involved higher levels of complexity and skill than most jobs. “The main challenge was working with the plates’ alloy material,” Bill Zahner said. “It required using a high-speed mill in Germany to provide the metal.” The special copper alloy “looks like a bronze finish,” he added.

While the German manufacturer created the special alloy, Zahner’s craftspeople did all the fabrication.

Technology played a role in this project, Bill Zahner said. “All of our work is digitally defined, using the Catria 3-D experience to drive fabrication.”

Since each panel weighed about 600 pounds, “handling them without problems” was also a challenge. Then came the installation. That created its own set of challenges, requiring the design of a structure that could be attached securely to the museum wall while also serving as a device to stack the pieces.

Museum of Bible-Process Plate_FullThe 430,000-square-foot museum was donated to the city of Washington, D.C., and the country by the Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby, who also commissioned the artwork. “We worked directly with the client and interfaced with Clark Construction Company,” said Bill Zahner. “Everything went smoothly.”

The project gave A. Zahner Co. its most-valued result: “It’s always satisfying to have a happy client, architect, and artist,” he said. “We enjoy working on fine art like this. It’s challenging but fulfilling.”

View an update to the Museum of the Bible’s Bronze Doors at smac.news/youtu62c4b.