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.



  1. Wow, what an interesting story. I can't believe I've never noticed that before! Do you know if there are plans to eventually finish the sculptures, if they're intentionally being left as-is, etc.?

    1. At this point I do not believe the sculptures will never be done. The blocks have become part of the history of the building.

    2. Once the sculptures are finished, the next day they are history again.. I don't see the problem. The building was intended to have the sculptures completed in the first place, and it looks visually unpleasing as it stands, so why not complete the job? the sooner the better. Documentation of how they were before will still exist.. its not like we're forgetting its history.
      Anyway great little article, cheers.

  2. I was always disturbed by this facade.

    Below the cornice is staid limestone suggesting the Italian Renaissance, while above it suggests a Mesopotamian ruin with nothing behind it. The highlight is the steps, the Great Hall and art within.

    I look forward to the new plaza. The old one was almost a dead zone.

  3. Thank you for this article. I have been walking by the Metropolitian (on my way to and from work) for about 2 years now before I noticed those unfinished sections on the top of the columns. I searched on the internet for an answer - the Met website doesn't seem to address it. So thank you, I am about to leave work and today when I walk by the museum I will finally know why it looks like it does.

  4. Nice, Sculptor Karl Bitter had executed four limestone statues for the facade.

    Aceh History

  5. Tom, the old facade that is now a wall of the European sculpture garden in the Lehman wing is not the original 1880 Vaux facade. It's the facade from the 1888 addition by Theodore Weston. He echoed elements of the Vaux design with the stone detailing outlining the arched windows, but went his own, Classical way with the rest -- a departure from Vaux's darker, Gothic original. All that is visible of Vaux's original are the low brick arches underneath the Grand Staircase in the appropriately named the Crypt Gallery.