In 1994, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency invited the Contemporary Jewish Museum to develop the historic Jessie Street Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) Power Substation, a 1907 landmark designed by architect Willis Polk.
The CJM selected architect Daniel Libeskind in 1998 to design its new home, an adaptive reuse of Polk's substation. In the design for the Contemporary Jewish Museum, his first commissioned project in North America, Libeskind responded to the Museum's mission to be a lively center that fosters community among people of diverse backgrounds through shared experiences with the arts by focusing on the celebratory nature of the Jewish experience.
Unveiled in 2005, Libeskind's design combines the history of an early 20th-century San Francisco landmark building with the dynamism of contemporary architecture. The 63,000 square foot facility marries many of the character-defining features of the original substation with bold contemporary spaces, emanating a powerful connection between tradition and innovation and reflects the Museum's mission to celebrate Jewish culture, history, art, and ideas within the context of 21st-century perspectives.
The building embodies a number of symbolic references to Jewish concepts. Most notably, Libeskind was inspired by the Hebrew phrase "L'Chaim" (To Life), because of its connection to the role the substation played in restoring energy to the city after the 1906 earthquake and the Museum's mission to be a lively center for engaging audiences with Jewish culture. The architect based the extension's conceptual organizing principles on the two symbolic Hebrew letters of “chai” (life), the “chet” and the “yud.” From the outside, the extension is most remarkable for its unique shape, as well as its skin: a vibrant blue metallic steel, which changes color depending on the time of day, weather, or one's vantage point.
Featuring over 10,000 square feet of exhibition space as well as a multipurpose room, the facility greatly increased the Museum's space for exhibitions and innovative programs in visual, performing, and media arts. At the heart of the new facility is a large education center, which allows the Museum to provide ongoing education programs in conjunction with its exhibitions for children, youth, adults, and seniors.