BRUNSWICK (AP) – The grand stairway that rises from the Bowdoin College quad to the college’s art museum contains only 17 steps, but a plan to alter it is drawing howls of protest.

College officials have proposed removing a large portion of the concrete stairway and installing a new museum entrance as part of an $18 million renovation of the Walker Art Building.

Preservationists say the stairs are a distinctive feature and should be left as is. Removing the steps, they say, would be like taking away the steps to the U.S. Capitol or the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Bowdoin Board of Trustees last spring approved the renovation plan. College officials now say they’ll take another look at all options for the stairs – but they won’t make any promises.

Earle G. Shettleworth Jr., director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, said the plan to change the stairs has drawn opposition from preservation groups, historians and Bowdoin alumni.

The controversy involves the proposed removal of the bottom portion of the stairway in order to build three doorways that would lead into the basement. That means the main entryway would be at the bottom of the steps, not the top.

“That would radically alter the appearance and remove one of the most significant elements of the building, which is the grand, elegant staircase that provides transition between the campus and the art museum,” Shettleworth said.

Bowdoin President Barry Mills has asked the architects to revisit all options for entrances into the museum – on the rear of the building, on the sides and on the front without changing the stairs. A final decision is expected in October.

Meanwhile, alumni and the public are weighing in, said Bowdoin spokesman Scott Hood.

“You hear people say, Wow, this is great,’ and others say, This is a really bad idea,”‘ Hood said.

The Bowdoin Board of Trustees in May approved an $18 million renovation of the Walker Art Building, home of the Bowdoin art museum and one of the state’s most important art collections. It includes 14,000 objects valued at over $100 million.

Construction is expected to start next June and be completed in the fall of 2006. The renovated facility will reopen in January of 2007.

To some, the building itself is as important as the art inside.

Built between 1892-94, the structure was designed by Charles McKim of the prominent McKim, Mead and White architectural firm. The domed building is set high on a broad podium – almost as if it is on a pedestal – with the expansive stairway leading to the arched entryway.

It is considered one of Maine’s most significant examples of Renaissance Revival architecture. The college calls it a “landmark building in the history of museum architecture in the United States.”

The renovation plan calls for the installation of a climate-control system to preserve the collection and additional gallery space.

It will also improve storage facilities, office space, classrooms and the loading and receiving area.

Nobody objects to those improvements.

But the plan to remove the stairs is appalling to Richard Guy Wilson, an architectural historian who teaches at the University of Virginia.

Wilson, who wrote the book “The Architecture of McKim, Mead and White,” wrote a letter to Mills about his objections. He said he has received phone calls from upset alumni – people he doesn’t even know.

“It would be like me standing here and you cutting off my feet. You’re cutting off the base of the building,” he said.

Critics further say the plans mimic a trend nationwide where historic buildings are shutting off their front entrances and ushering in visitors through back doors and basements. When that happens, a building’s importance and grandness are lost and the architectural flourish of the entryway is gone forever, they say.

“I think psychologically, going down into things is not an uplifting experience,” said Carl R. Nold, president of Historic New England preservation organization in Boston and a critic of the plan for the museum stairway. “The reason these buildings – banks and post offices and museums and religious buildings – were set up this way was because of the concept of rising to a higher plane.”

Critics of the museum plan are quick to point out that Bowdoin has a long history of exemplary stewardship of its buildings. But in this case, the plans fall short, Shettleworth said.

“While the college has an extraordinary art collection, equally extraordinary is the building that houses it,” he said. “You would want to view the building as an extension of the collection.”

But the college says the entrance design approved by trustees is meant to “create a more welcoming invitation to the museum.”

Hood, the college spokesman, said he knows of Bowdoin alumni who never even went into the museum during their college years because it seemed so imposing and off-limits.

“One of the issues is there is one little door. It’s dark, it’s a tiny little door and it’s not particularly welcoming,” Hood said. “That’s one of the things we’re trying to solve.”

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