SAN FRANCISCO -- The long-awaited, new Asian Art Museum, reported to be the largest museum in the U.S. devoted exclusively to Asian art, reopened here in March, and some premier downtown hotels are offering packages with VIP admission (See sidebar: Properties on board).

The museum is located in a former library on the northeastern corner of Civic Center, which is said to contain the largest collection of Beaux Arts buildings outside Washington.

Because of its location in an historic district, the exterior of the library, built in 1917, could not be changed. Neither could the interior architectural elements, such as the travertine marble, the painted ceilings of the reading room, the loggias and the grand staircase.

The Asian Art Museum opened its new - and larger - facility in a former library at San Francisco's Civic Center on March 20. The $160 million project enables the museum to display at any given time about 2,500 objects from its 14,500-piece collection. Italian architect Gae Aulenti, an expert in transforming old structures into new uses, designed striking V-shaped skylights over two-story, glass-enclosed escalators leading to the galleries.

The skylights flood the first floor with natural light. The first floor contains the museum store, the cafe and other gathering places.

"Gae found the original light wells in the building not adequate because the building was dark and gloomy," said Emily Sano, museum director. "It became one of her major concerns."

The $160 million project, a public and private partnership, enables the Asian Art Museum to display more of its 14,500-piece collection than in its previous home in Golden Gate Park.

The museum is able to present about 2,500 objects at any given time in two stories of galleries, many with the ornately decorated ceilings of the library's old reading rooms.

The collection spans 6,000 years of Asian history and covers the art of Central Asia, China, the Himalayas, India, Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia.

Sano said the new museum is organized along the common thread of the vast region of Asia: Buddhism.

In the gallery devoted to the art of India is a 15th century Buddhist sculpture.

Other highlights are collections of stone and bronze material from Angkor Wat; Thai paintings; Chinese ceramics and porcelain; and Korean art.

There are several of what Sano calls the museum's "prizes," such as the 3,000-year-old Chinese bronze rhinoceros at the entrance of Gallery 14 and the Simhavaktra Dakini statue of a fierce, dancing warrior in the Himalayan and Tibetan room.

Two of the most beautiful galleries are the jewel box-like Jade Room, which contains a collection of Chinese jade from as far back as 6,000 years, and a room painted in red that houses paintings, sculptures, textiles and rare scrolls from Nepal and Tibet.

There is a museum cafe, with a terrace overlooking Civic Center; a museum store with books and replicas of the facility's artwork; and the grand, high-ceilinged Samsung Hall, the former library's card catalog room, now a performance, video and demonstration space.

Sano said the new location in downtown San Francisco makes the museum more accessible for visitors. Major public transportation routes, including the Civic Center BART and Muni Metro stations, are located within two blocks.

Admission to the museum is $10 for adults, $7 for seniors and $6 for children ages 12 to 17. A complimentary audio tour is included.

Museum hours are Tuesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with evening hours on Thursdays until 9 p.m. Through the end of 2003, admission is free on Tuesdays.

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