Beyond the Village and Back: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
In our series Beyond the Village and Back, we take a look at some great landmarks throughout New York City outside of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo, celebrate their special histories, and reveal their (sometimes hidden) connections to the Village.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of the great landmarks, and the great institutions, of New York City, the nation, and the world. With more than two million objects in its collection, it is by far the largest museum in both New York and the country. Covering what would be several city blocks, stretching nearly a quarter mile long, and housing over 2,000,000 square feet of space, it’s roughly the size of the Empire State Building (itself the subject of a Beyond the Village and Back for its own surprising connection to Greenwich Village). Designated a landmark by the City of New York on both its interior and exterior, the Met is a must-see for any visitor to the city and a staple for any New Yorker with even the slightest interest in art or culture. Its grand Beaux Arts facade, fronted by a sprawling staircase and graceful fountains facing Fifth Avenue, are among the most iconic images of New York, and form the anchor of the Upper East Side’s elegant “Museum Mile.”
Few know, however, that the ultimate uptown institution once had a much more downtown address, and owes its very existence to one prominent Greenwich Villager, and the form by which we know it to another.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art was officially chartered by an Act of Incorporation of the New York State Legislature on April 13, 1870, “for the purpose of establishing and maintaining in said City a Museum and Library of Art, of encouraging and developing the Study of the Fine Arts, and the application of Art to manufacture and natural life, of advancing the general knowledge of kindred subjects, and to that end of furnishing popular instruction and recreations.” City and State fathers decided it was time for New York, and indeed America, to have a museum of art which would rival those of Europe, and they established a system whereby the City owned the land and the building, while the institution owned the art, creating a model for the relationship between large cultural institutions and local governments that has been commonplace throughout the country ever since.
The museum first opened in 1872 in a no longer-extant former mansion at 681 Fifth Avenue near 54th Street. Led by a combination of industrialists and artists, the museum began with a modest collection of about 175 mostly European paintings and a Roman stone sarcophagus.
In 1873 the Museum made an important leap forward in their quest to gain their desired stature. They acquired a collection of over 6,000 pieces of Cypriot art and artifacts, which meant their Midtown home would no longer be adequate for their holdings. They soon went about commissioning a new purpose-built home — their first — that would fulfill their aspirations and leave room to grow.
The Met negotiated a deal with the City of New York allowing them sway over the section of the park between East Drive and Fifth Avenue, 79th and 85th Streets. Construction of that first building that became the foundation of the Met’s nearly century-and-half residency in Central Park began in 1874, with a structure designed by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould, architects of most of the early buildings and structures in Central Park. The new building, designed in the Victorian Gothic style and located well inside Central Park rather than along Fifth Avenue, opened to the public on March 30, 1880, with U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes presiding over the dedication. The new building was designed in a “picturesque” tradition, meant to look as if it was a well-worn structure that had been there as long as the natural terrain around it — very different from the grand, formal look the museum is known for today.
With the equivalent of six city blocks to build upon and an ever-growing collection, the original Vaux building did not remain alone for long. In fact, Vaux was one of a team of architects who devised a master plan for the museum’s long-term expansion, parts of which were executed almost as soon as the original building opened. Two new wings were quickly added — the south wing designed by architect Theodore Weston, in 1884-88, and the north wing, designed by Weston in collaboration with architect Arthur L. Tuckerman, in 1889-94.
Soon after, though, the Met’s trustees began to plan a very different future for the museum, leaving behind behind Vaux’s quainter, picturesque image of rough-hewn buildings scattered in a naturalistic landscape. The World Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago unleashed the “City Beautiful” or “White City” movement in America, and suddenly grand, neo-Classical or Beaux Arts buildings made of crisp white marble and stone, placed on formal axes with greenery as accents rather than holistic setting, were de rigueur. And the image of the Met we know today was born.
The architect Richard Morris Hunt, chairman of the museum building committee, was given the commission to plan new structures and a new master plan for future expansion that would embody this aesthetic. Hunt designed a monumental structure based on Classical Roman prototypes. It was to be built east of the three existing structures, orienting the museum towards Fifth Avenue rather than the park, and creating a formal axis with the main entrance along 82nd Street. Hunt’s death in 1895 delayed the course of construction, but execution of his distinctly Beaux Arts vision for the museum was carried out by his son, Richard Howland Hunt, and by Hunt Sr.’s protege, architect George B. Post. The main building which forms the entrance to and the visual identity of the Met opened in 1902, with three grand arches surrounded by four sets of two-story high pairs of Corinthian columns atop a grand staircase.
The majestic new building was an immediate hit. The New York Evening Post described it as “the most noteworthy building of its kind in the city, one of the finest in the world, and the only public building of recent years which approaches in dignity and grandeur the museums of the old world.” Regarding the new Grand Hall (designated an interior landmark in 1977) through which the public entered the museum, the New York Times said “the great staircase and large hall are unlike anything else in the city, but are as large, finely proportioned, and elaborate in decoration as the great court of the Louvre and the staircase of the National Gallery in London.”
The Met’s expansion continued almost unceasingly after the opening of the main building. The renowned architectural firm of McKim Mead & White, adopting Hunt’s master plan to one of their own, was responsible for many of the museum’s Beaux Arts additions along Fifth Avenue north and south of the main entrance, built between 1906 and 1926. The American Wing was added in 1922-24 by Grosvenor Atterbury. In 1967 in anticipation of its centennial, the museum (which had just been designated a landmark by the City of New York) commissioned a new master plan from the firm of Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo & Associates.
As a result, the grand entrance staircase, formerly a tight, formal approach which only went straight up and down from the entrance, was opened up to spill out to the north and south as well as the east, making it one of the great public gathering, sitting, and observing spots in New York. New modernist wings with vast expanses of open glass and smooth stone were added facing the Central Park side of the museum , intended to harmonize with the grand early 20th century Beaux Arts buildings and house important new collections such as the Temple of Dendur, an expanded American Wing, the Greek and Roman wing, 20th century art, the Islamic wing, and the art of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. The museum now consists of more than twenty structures, and is more than twenty times larger than the original 1880 structure.
So what’s the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s connection to the Village? The most concrete one is that the Met was in fact once located in Greenwich Village. After the museum left its first home at 681 Fifth Avenue in Midtown but before its first new building in Central Park was ready, the Met decamped to what was then one of New York’s grandest private houses, the Douglas Cruger Mansion at 128 West 14th Street, on the south side of the street between 6th and 7th Avenues. After the passing of its owner, Harriet Douglas Cruger, the Museum leased the house, which offered five times the space of No. 681 Fifth Avenue, from April of 1873 until their new home in Central Park was ready. The free-standing mansion had been built in 1853-54 by architect James Renwick, when 14th Street was, for a while in the mid-19th century, the most prestigious address in New York.
After the Museum moved to its permanent home in Central Park in 1878, the mansion — located on what was now an increasingly commercial street that catered more and more to the working man and woman (14th Street came to be known as “the poor man’s Fifth Avenue” for its many bargain shopping outlets) — was in 1914 taken over by the Salvation Army’s Red Shield Club for Service Men. In 1928, the Salvation Army gave up the ghost entirely and hired the architectural firm of Voorhees, Gmelin & Walker to replace the former mansion with the art deco structure we see today which serves as the Salvation Army Headquarters (a New York City landmark), a dramatic reversal of fortune for a site that once housed one of the most opulent homes in New York.
But its one-time home on 14th Street is not the Met’s only connection to the Village; it’s arguably not even its most important one. The entire idea of creating such an institution was the brainchild of Greenwich Village resident John Jay II, grandson of Founding Father, First Continental Congress President, and first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Jay. Like his namesake grandfather, Jay was a lawyer and a fervent abolitionist, who dedicated much of his life to the anti-slavery cause. But Jay was also a great promoter of the arts, and was passionate in his belief that American had a greater role to play in that regard.
As with all his beliefs, Jay, who lived at 22 Washington Square North, translated his ideas into action. In 1866 in Paris, France, he gatherer a group of Americans to promote his idea to create a “national institution and gallery of art” to bring art and art education to the American people. Jay swiftly moved forward with the project upon his return to the United States, using his role as president of the influential Union League Club to rally civic leaders, businessmen, artists, art collectors, philanthropists and civic leaders to the cause. While it was Jay’s vision that brought the Metropolitan Museum to light, his unique set of connections in the worlds of art, business, and government allowed him to help endow the Museum with the extraordinary level of public and private support and investment that enabled it to become the singular American institution that it is today.
But Jay was not the only Greenwich Villager who shaped the Met as we now know it. The grand Beaux Arts face the Metropolitan Museum has presented to the world for one hundred twenty years and the master plan for the museum’s phenomenal degree of expansion was the brainchild of Richard Morris Hunt. Hunt was the first American to graduate from the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and established the very first school for architects in America to help share those ideas. And that school was located in his atelier in the Tenth Street Studio Building he designed at 51 West 10th Street in Greenwich Village. Here he trained and shaped the thinking of a generation of American architects, including George B. Post, who would end up executing his Beaux Arts vision for the Met in stone on Fifth Avenue.
That’s not the only way in which Hunt shaped the Met from Tenth Street. The Tenth Street Studio Building which he designed was the first building in America purpose-built to house artists, and quickly became the center of the American art world. It was a great leap forward in the development of an artistic culture in the United States; when the studio was built in 1858, America was not taken seriously by Europeans, and even many Americans, as a place where art of any consequence could be produced. But the Tenth Street Studio not only helped produce many of the great artists and artworks which filled the Met in its early years right up to the present. It also introduced the idea of a collective space for the production, appreciation, and nurturing of American art, and of America as an important hub of artistic creativity, without which the Metropolitan Museum of Art would never have come into being.