SmithGroup will adapt and renovate a former 1920s refrigeration warehouse for the 430,000-square-foot Museum of the Bible, scheduled to open in October 2017 in Washington, D.C.

If the founders of the incipient Museum of the Bible had asked Frank Gehry to represent the parting of the Red Sea in billows of metal and glass, it might have been the least controversial thing about the project, which broke ground last week two blocks south of the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

The 430,000-square-foot, $400 million museum was dreamed up by Oklahoma’s Green family, owners of the Hobby Lobby craft-store chain, who recently won their much-publicized Supreme Court case to deny contraceptive coverage to their employees on religious grounds. Steve Green, a Southern Baptist and the president of Hobby Lobby, is the chairman of the museum’s board. The core of the collection will be his own trove of some 44,000 Biblical texts and artifacts, including Dead Sea Scroll fragments, cuneiform tablets, and medieval manuscripts.

As it happens, the Museum of the Bible isn’t courting controversy with its architecture. For one thing, its hands are mostly tied: The museum will operate out of a circa-1923 refrigeration warehouse that has been landmarked, nixing the possibility of a teardown or drastic exterior changes. SmithGroupJJR, a firm with several major D.C. museums on its resume, is leading the renovation of the warehouse, which housed the Washington Design Center furnishings showroom.

The building’s entrance will be moved back to where a goods train originally entered it, on 4th Street SW, a north-south axis. This will strengthen its connection to the Mall and the National Building Museum to the north, said David Greenbaum, the architect in charge of the project. Tall bronze panels depicting abstracted manuscripts will flank the entry, and a 40-foot stained-glass panel will stand in front of it; these will be designed by artist Larry Kirkland, and Zahner will fabricate the metal panels. Inside, in the museum’s high lobby—which Greenbaum hopes will evoke the original triple-height train loading dock—an LED ceiling will display rotating Bible-inspired works of art. 

SmithGroupJJR will transform the heart of the interior into three exhibition floors devoted to each of the museum’s main themes: the impact of the Bible, its narrative, and its history. Shaping the history floor with SmithGroupJJR will be PRD Group, an exhibit design firm that has worked for the Smithsonian’s history museums. The narrative and impact floors will be immersive multimedia environments, designed respectively by Burbank’s BRC Imagination Arts and New York’s C&G Partners. (The narrative floor will also have a replica of a first-century AD Nazareth village by Jonathan Martin Creative, based in Nashville.)

The architects’ most visible move will be on top of the warehouse, where they will add a two-story, vaguely ark- or scroll-shaped volume of glass and zinc to house a restaurant, ballroom, and auditorium, topping it all off with a green roof. SmithGroup will also add on to the roof of the office building next door for the museum’s research activities. A 1980s infill addition currently separates the old warehouse from the office building; Greenbaum and his team will replace this with a new service and circulation core, and on the north facade, cover it in a textured screen of handmade brick, with apertures revealing a window wall of clear and channel glass behind. The firm is targeting LEED certification for the project.

The Greens have appointed respected Bible scholars to a number of leadership posts at the museum and say their aim is to educate, not proselytize. But past statements by Steve Green—he has described the Bible as a “reliable historical document,” for example—and the fact that the museum is developing a Bible-based school curriculum would seem to signal a more evangelical mission, raising concerns among some scholars and groups that police the separation of church and state.

Will the museum be able to balance education and entertainment, religious faith and scholarly inquiry? Will it honor every way the Bible is read and every group that holds the text sacred? The announcement of the museum’s ground-breaking last week revealed little about the exhibits’ contents, which are no doubt still in early stages of development.

With a renovation plan that is restrained, however, the museum has breezed past the regulatory hurdles that often slow or even stop new building projects in the federal city. The designers “were able to push the iconography about as far as we can” for Washington, Greenbaum said. Just two blocks away from the museum is the site that still awaits Gehry’s Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, delayed for years as Congress and review boards wrangle over the polarizing design. One senses that the Greens, eager to tell the Bible’s story in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, were not about to let that happen to them. The Museum of the Bible is scheduled to open in 2017.