«On February 6, 1871, a committee of the Board of Trustees of The Metropolitan Museum of Art discussed the plan that led to the construction of the Museum's first building at its current site on the east side of New York's Central Park.»
The original Central Park building of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1880
Having been formally established only ten months earlier (see "Today in Met History: April 13"), the Met had few artworks, no permanent home, and no professional staff. The Trustees, closely aligned with their counterparts at the recently established American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), decided to petition the New York State legislature to approve a tax measure that would finance a building—or buildings—to house and exhibit the collections of both institutions.
Joseph H. Choate, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives
Joseph Hodges Choate, a lawyer who served on the boards of both institutions, drafted the petition, while other Trustees rallied support from prominent New Yorkers such as William Cullen Bryant, Samuel F. B. Morse, J. Pierpont Morgan, and Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. (father of the future U.S. President). Together with a representative from the AMNH, Metropolitan Trustee George Fiske Comfort delivered the petition to Albany and met with state power broker William "Boss" Tweed, who agreed to support the effort.
1871 petition to the New York State Legislature, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives. See larger images below.
Peter Barr Sweeney, one of Tweed's deputies, negotiated a compromise that granted ownership of the proposed buildings to the City of New York, which would be responsible to build and maintain them, while the boards of each institution would hold title to the collections within.
On April 5, 1871, nearly a year after granting the Museum's act of incorporation, the Legislature of the State of New York passed a bill authorizing construction of a building for each institution, including "a suitable fire-proof building for the purpose of establishing and maintaining therein . . . a Museum and Gallery of Art, by the Metropolitan Museum of Art . . . ," which Governor John Thompson Hoffman signed into law. In the months that followed, civic leaders debated where to situate the new museum, and it would be several years before construction began along Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street. During this time, the Museum's Trustees raised operating funds, formed the nucleus of a collection, and began hosting exhibitions in rented spaces, first at 681 Fifth Avenue and later on West 14th Street.
James Moske is managing archivist in the Museum Archives.