Morrison Heckscher, curator emeritus of The American Wing, presents the history of the building—including interviews with Kevin Roche of Roche Dinkeloo & Associates, and Peter White, grandson of architect Stanford White. This tour is available in English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.
The Architecture Tour contains fifteen audio stops in total. Below, listen to three select audio messages from this tour.
Morrison Heckscher: Welcome to The Metropolitan Museum of Art and to its Great Hall, one of the most magnificent interior public spaces in New York City. I'm Morrison Heckscher, the Lawrence A. Fleischman Chairman of The American Wing, and I'll be your guide for the special audio tour we've created about the Museum's architecture. Find a comfortable place to stand while I tell you a bit about the history of this remarkable building. The Metropolitan Museum is itself a work of art, but it's a work of art that has been in more or less constant evolution since its doors first opened, in 1880. Fortunately, the Museum has preserved its past and kept vestiges of its many iterations. Taken together, these elements illustrate the history of America's most important nineteenth- and twentieth-century architectural styles.
Of the many architects who have worked on this building, Richard Morris Hunt was among the most prominent. Hunt was the first American architect to study at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His legacy at the Metropolitan can be seen in the Museum's stately facade, the Grand Staircase leading up to the second floor, and the vast, ceremonial space of the Great Hall in which you are now standing. The Metropolitan demonstrates Hunt's mastery of the Beaux-Arts style, an architecture particularly suited to civic buildings at the end of the nineteenth century. Named after the school in Paris, the style is distinguished by its unified treatment of interior and exterior spaces and by its references to traditional, classical forms. In the Great Hall, many details are classically inspired. For example, the four pedimented niches overflowing with flowers, which originally were intended to display classical sculpture, the elegant colonnades—or rows of columns—which lead to the Museum's galleries, and the domes, which correspond to the three massive arched windows that define the Museum's facade. If you'd like to hear more about Richard Morris Hunt, one of America's first internationally renowned architects, press the green play button now.
Morrison Heckscher: In 1880, when The Metropolitan Museum of Art first opened in Central Park, this staircase was touted by many as one of the Museum's most elegant features. Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould designed the building in the High Victorian Gothic style. We see the pair's talent for ornamental design in this painted iron balustrade with its sextafoil, or six-part, openings. The staircase resembles Central Park's picturesque cast-iron bridges and the balustrade leading down to the Bethesda Terrace on the 72nd Street transverse. The similarities are not coincidental.
The Museum's first architect, Calvert Vaux, also collaborated with Frederick Law Olmsted to create Central Park. The size of this staircase indicates how small the original building was relative to the Museum today. The Great Staircase that now leads up to the second floor had not been built. Instead, this staircase, and three similar ones, transported all Museumgoers between the Museum's first and second floors. Though narrow, the stairway was nevertheless a dramatic sight. Originally, there was a large circular window in the stairwell between the first and second floor, offering spectacular views of the art below.
Morrison Heckscher: In the late 1880s, this monumental brick-and-granite wall served as the entrance to the Museum. A curved ramp delivered visitors arriving by carriage to the front door. The facade is now incorporated into one of the Museum's most beloved spaces, known as the Petrie Court. The man responsible for this short-lived entrance was Theodore Weston, a civil engineer with little architectural experience. Why did the Museum select as its new architect a civil engineer who had spent his career designing the city's sewer and water systems? The answer is that Weston was a member of the Board of Trustees. The Board believed he could be trusted to scale back the Museum's grand architectural scheme and create something that could actually be completed. But, as is often the case with architecture, financial constraints played a role in final design. The gray granite and red brick is a simpler, more understated facade than Weston had envisioned. Look at the three central arches of the facade.
The blank roundels between the arches were intended to feature bronze medallion portraits of Michelangelo and Raphael. And on the upper level of the flanking walls, you can see three large, flat granite panels between the pilasters, or columns attached to the wall. Weston conceived carved sculptural friezes depicting scenes of peace and war. When funds ran dry because Weston had underestimated the costs, the Museum quickly jettisoned his plans for sculptural friezes and bronze doors. The walls have remained blank ever since. If you'd like to take a moment to hear briefly about the fascinating origins of Central Park, walk toward the windows facing the park and find a comfortable place to sit. Whenever you're ready, simply press the green play button.