Everyone has been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is familiar with its imposing but unfinished Beaux Arts façade. Yes, unfinished, but don’t get me started on that. How many know though, that the original one hundred and forty year old Met Museum building, an ugly duckling pile if there ever was one, still exists, buried deep (thankfully) within the current museums buildings? Yes it’s still there and if you don’t believe it go and see for yourself. I will tell you where to look, but first a little history.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the largest art museum in the United States with over two million works in its collection was founded in 1870. Among its founders were the most notable businessman, artists and art collectors of the era who decided the time had come for a world class American art museum. Its first home was a former private residence at 681 Fifth Avenue. Soon outgrowing the modest structure, the museum’s trustees realized a large permanent home was necessary with room for expansion to house its rapidly expanding collection. The museum negotiated with New York City authorities to secure a portion of Central Park at Fifth Avenue and 82ND street as its new and permanent home. Amazing as it may seem to us now, the still rural area, without paved roads, was considered an undesirable location. The closest neighbors were dilapidated old farmhouses complete with chicken coops and pig sties. The upper crust in those days rarely ventured beyond the mid-fifties on Fifth Avenue.
The first order of business was the construction of a suitable building that could showcase the art but also be flexible enough to allow additions as necessary. They naturally turned to two architects very instrumental in the design of the adjacent Central Park, Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould. The results were disappointing. The red brick structure, designed in a style called High Victorian Gothic opened to scathing reviews on March 30, 1880. The leading architectural critics of the day hated the “mausoleum” as one called it. Another labelled it “a great whale stranded in the park” and the press heaped scorn upon the museums directors for accepting the rather old fashioned design. The director of the museum, no fool, admitted the building was a “mistake” and began quickly planning additions. Disillusioned, he turned his back on Vaux and Mould and hired other architects to plan future construction. Eventually the entire original structure was surrounded by over twenty additions. In the 1930’s the old building underwent an extensive interior renovation and became the new home for the Medieval Hall. With so much of its distinctive ornamentation covered behind new plaster and its exterior walls now largely hidden, most people forgot the building had every existed at all.
But, it’s all or mostly all still here. So, you want proof? Ok, but first I have no intention of telling you about all the portions still visible. Why should I spoil your fun of discovering them for yourselves? In the Robert Wood Johnson Gallery at the top of the Grand Staircase part of one of the windows of the original Fifth Avenue façade is visible. You can’t miss it! In the Robert Lehman Wing the entire west façade of the old building forms one of the walls of the new wing. Back in the Medieval Tapestry Hall under your feet is a beautiful black and white marble floor. Yup…you guessed it! The rest is up to you. Think Victorian!
About William Wetzel: I am a long time Greenwich Village resident who has been in the Civil Engineering business for many years. I am endlessly fascinated by New York City history and architecture. Did you know I recently discovered the semi- secret location of the last surviving iron stake from the 1810 survey that laid out the streets of Manhattan? Well it’s true! Hint…it’s in Central Park.
Source: Staff at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Fig. 1: www.metmuseum.org/blogs/now-at-the-met/features/2012/today-in-met-history-march-20
Fig. 2: Taken by William Wetzel