The stories behind the buildings, statues and other points of interest that make Manhattan fascinating.
Saturday, June 26, 2010
The Unfinished Cornice of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
By 1895 the red brick Gothic-inspired Metropolitan Museum of Art building in Central Park had become inadequate for its collection. Designed by park designer Calvert Vaux and his assistant Jacob Wrey Mould, it sat back from Fifth Avenue, a chunky Victorian building that blended well with other Central Park structures.
The museum trustees called upon Richard Morris Hunt, who had been busy designing massive Vanderbilt mansions, to plan an addition. Hunt designed a grand Beaux Arts palace to the front of the existing museum, rich with sculpture and monumental columns.
The architect envisioned the building executed in glimmering white marble. This was, unfortunately, the middle of the great depression that lasted from 1893 to 1897. Indiana limestone would have to do. Shortly after finishing his plans, Hunt died in 1895 never to see the completed structure.
The financial Panic of 1901 struck the year before the new museum building was completed. Albany was strapped for cash and the museum trustees were in no better shape. In 1902 the grand edifice was finally completed.
Except that it wasn’t.
Sculptor Karl Bitter had executed four limestone statues for the facade; allegories of Sculpture, Painting, Architecture and Music. High above the street atop the paired Corinthian columns Hunt had provided for monumental sculptural cornice groups. Great limestone blocks had been hoisted into place creating bulky, crude pyramids waiting to be carved. But then the money ran out.
The massive blocks sat unfinished. The same fate befell the huge circular stone blanks in the Great Hall which Hunt intended to be sculpted out as portraits.
In 1911 architects McKim, Mead and White added the north wing to Hunt’s Fifth Avenue facade. Then two years later they matched it with the south wing. The limestone pyramids, however, were ignored.
Starting in 1975 the Museum was greatly expanded with six additional wings being added by architects Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo and Associates. Vaux and Mould’s original structure was now completely engulfed by the additions, one section of the facade still being visible in the Lehman Wing. And with all the additions and construction, the clumsy limestone piles atop the Fifth Avenue cornice remained.
Today thousands of visitors climb the grand sweeping stone stairs of the Metropolitan Museum of Art daily. Few, if any, of them notice the crude, unfinished blocks on the otherwise elegant Beaux Arts facade.