Have you ever taken a tour of the secrets of the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Well, that’s exactly what you’re going to get here. We’re sharing all the little known facts we know about the museum. This is less about the unparalleled art collection, for which guides abound, but more about the tidbits that make the building like none other in the city. It’s about its architecture, its rich history, and the hidden gems to look out for on your first, second, and umpteenth visits to the museum. Rather than one building, the Met is more like a jumbled collection of wings and various building campaigns. Over almost a century and a half, several prominent architecture firms played major roles in the museum’s growth, while many others also had a hand in the countless modifications, renovations, and additions that make the Met what it is today.
1. The Met wasn’t always in Central Park:
The first Metropolitan Museum of Art was located in a brownstone at 681 Fifth Avenue, then in a mansion at 128 W 14th Street. All were temporary locations until a permanent facility could be built. A Central Park location for the museum was first hinted at in 1869 by publisher George P. Putnam.
2. When built, the Met was in an “undesirable” area:
When construction began, the museum’s new location at Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street was significantly north of what was considered “desirable” during that era. In fact, it was predominantly farmland, far from the mansions of the old money set and new robber barons. The grid plan was already laid out but the streets weren’t yet paved that far north.
3. Central Park’s designers were against public buildings in the park:
Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux were opposed to the construction of public buildings within the park. They eventually allowed one provision””when an area could not easily be incorporated into park landscape. One such spot was the current location of the museum along 5th Avenue, where the architects deemed any large buildings placed there would be “seen from no other point of the Park”¦while the whole of the territory thus enclosed was too small for the formation of spacious pastoral grounds.” [Morrison H. Heckscher, "The Metropolitan Museum of Art: An Architectural History"].
4. The Medieval Hall in the middle of the Met is the original building:
Calvert Vaux (with Jacob Wrey Mould) was given the commission to design the first wing of the museum. The Medieval Hall (Gallery 305), which is in the center of the museum complex today, was the first wing built and is now surrounded by extensions on all sides. It was completed in 1880, and the interior looked very different in its original form. The Romanesque-style interior that present-day visitors know actually dates from a 1930’s renovation:
Original museum from 5th Avenue in 1880.
You can still see Vaux’s original Victorian Gothic façade in various places, like in the Robert Lehman Wing (below, Gallery 961/962). Originally, this would have looked onto Central Park as the previous image shows.
In the second-floor passage that leads from the Grand Stair south towards the Impressionist wing (Gallery 690), you can catch another glimpse of the original facade peeking out. This elevation once faced east towards 5th Avenue:
The unique cast-iron staircases flanking the east end of the Medieval Hall, rarely used but publicly accessible (from Gallery 304), are also remnants from the original Vaux building:
Theodore Weston and Arthur Lyman Tuckerman added a wing to Vaux’s original building in 1888, and another in 1894. The Petrie Sculpture Court (Gallery 548) exposes Weston’s south facade and the grand portal that was the main museum entrance from 1888 to 1902. During this period, visitors entered off the park from an entrance drive, rather than from 5th Avenue as today:
5. The front facade is still unfinished! (and was the third addition to the original building)
Richard Morris Hunt died before construction began on the famous 5th Avenue façade that visitors have known as the Met’s main entrance since 1902, but his son carried out the design almost to his specifications. Thirty-one pieces of sculpture were designed for it, but a lack of funds left piles of uncarved stone atop the columns which has become an “accepted part of the façade.” [Heckscher]
In Hunt’s original design, the four columns were to be topped by sculpture groups representing ‘four great periods of art’: Egyptian, Greek, Renaissance and Modern. Between each pair of columns sat a niche where Hunt intended to set a copy of one great work from each historical era.” [Gregory Gilmartin]
6. There are half-floors in the Met Museum
McKim, Mead and White designed the fourth phase of the museum, extending Hunt’s facade along 5th Avenue to the north and south. The architects pushed for a floor-to-floor height that was greater than Hunt’s by almost a half-floor. As you walk around the museum, look out for the staircases and ramps (particularly in Asian Art and Ancient Near Eastern Art on the second floor) that were installed to accomodate the variance. In some stairwells, you’ll see office entrances midway between floors and strange gallery entrances off the beaten path, like the Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Gallery.
Adapting the Met for handicapped access has also created idiosyncratic half-floor situations, like this one in the American Wing:
7. The American Wing was once a freestanding building
The neoclassical facade of the American Wing, curiously built into the wall of Engelhard Court (Gallery 700), was actually a freestanding building facing an exterior garden for fifty years, until it was enclosed in 1980. The facade was rescued from the Branch Bank of the United States, located on Wall Street, before that building’s demolition in the 1920’s:
The American Wing in 1925.
Also in Engelhard Court, don’t miss the two Beaux-Arts bronze lampposts flanking the Bank facade. These were the original lampposts Richard Morris Hunt designed for the Met entrance. They are strategically placed in the Court, highlighting the ambiguity between nineteenth-century American art and its European influences.
8. Open-air courtyards were once part of the Museum
One of the design principles shared by the original and subsequent designers–Vaux and Mould, Richard Morris Hunt, and McKim Mead and White–was to use courtyards to provide natural light. Over time these have all been filled in. With the advent of and preference for electric lighting and air conditioning, it was “no longer necessary to have interior courtyards [to] serve as light wells and air shafts…Thus began an informal program, today nearly complete, to fill in the vast interstices between the Museum’s wings” [Heckscher].
9. A raised driveway for cars was once envisioned for the entrance
The main staircase (expanded in the 1970’s and a favorite hang-out of Blair Waldorf and Co. in Gossip Girl), was once considered an “overbearing ornament.” The steps were also thought to “strike terror in all persons who have reached middle age,” so various plans were drafted to do away with it including this one, from the mid-twentieth century, to accomodate the automobile.
Robert B. O’Connor and Aymar Embury II. A proposal for vehicular ramp, drawn by Hugh Ferris (1944).
10. The Museum is still changing!
Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates have been working on the museum since 1967. This aerial view of the museum from 1991 shows the amalgamation of extensions that were constructed over the last 136 years. Heckscher writes that “the resulting structure thus represents in microcosm more than a century of American architectural history.” Who knows what exciting renovations and new spaces the next century may hold? Incidentally, Kevin Roche is also the lead architect at the other museum technically within Central Park’s bounds, the American Museum of Natural History.
Bonus: Some of our favorite Untapped spots in the Metropolitan Museum of Art:
The Chinese Garden Court (also known as Astor Court, Gallery 217), located in the Asian Art Wing, is a recreation of an authentic Ming Dynasty garden from Suzhou, complete with a small koi pond. Every twist and turn brings a new view, as described in this Met Museum video.
One of their most celebrated additions by Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo is the Sackler Wing housing the Temple of Dendur (Gallery 131). You can enjoy a little-known elevated view of the Temple and Roche’s grand space from the Japanese Art Reading Room (Gallery 232) on the second floor of the Sackler Wing:
If you ever find yourself in need of design or interior decor inspiration in the form of period grandfather clocks, chairs, tables, and desks, you’ll have everything you could possibly need in the Luce Study Center open storage area of the American Wing (Gallery 774):
The marble patio from the Castle of VÃ©lez Blanco, Spain (Gallery 534/535). The marble fittings made their way to Paris, then to George Blumenthal’s New York City mansion, and moved to the museum in 1945 as approximately 2000 stone blocks when the mansion was demolished.
A circular panoramic view of the Versailles Palace and Gardens located on the first floor of the American Wing (Gallery 735):
In the American Wing, there are early rooms from Frank Lloyd Wright (below, Gallery 745) and McKim, Mead & White (Gallery 741), showcasing some of their residential work before they became famous:
Some of the museum’s collections have become part of the architecture, accessible and usable by the visitor. One example is the pair of Louis Sullivan stairs, rescued from The Chicago Stock Exchange (built 1893), that take you from the first to second floor of Engelhard Court:
A visual display of all the items in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection, located in the American Wing’s Luce Study Center on the First Floor Mezzanine (Gallery 773):
End your visit with a drink on the fifth-floor roof garden (accessed from the elevators south of Petrie Sculpture Court) and take in the views of Central Park and the Manhattan skyline. In the summer, exhibits like Cloud City and Big Bambú draw big crowds.
Vintage photos from “The Metropolitan Museum of Art: An Architectural History” by Morrison H. Heckscher. Go inside the Metropolitan Museum and check out some of the spots we’ve highlighted using Google Art Project.
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Get in touch with the author @untappedmich.