Inside the studio of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, original location of the Whitney Museum

Many of New York City’s museums are located in grand buildings designed specifically to show off the grandeur of their collections and to make a statement regarding the cultural standing of New York City. However, when the City’s museums were nascent they had to make due with whatever space they could. Their early homes were, for the most part, smaller, mirroring the size of their original budgets and collections. Looking back at the former homes of eight New York City institutions enables visitors to fully appreciate their current state.

1. The Museum of the City of New York

museum of the city of new york

The Museum of the City of New York, now located at 104th Street and Fifth Avenue, was founded in 1923 by Henry Collins Brown. Before moving into its current home on Fifth Avenue, the Museum was located in Gracie Mansion, and also hosted exhibits in the Arts Students League building on 57th Street. There were talks of the Museum relocating downtown, into the former Tweed Courthouse, but that idea was never realized.

2. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The museum’s original 5th Avenue incarnation in 1880. Photo from Library of Congress.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art was incorporated in 1870. Seven months later, the Museum acquired its first object, a Roman sarcophagus, and opened to the public in the Dodworth Building at 681 Fifth Avenue between 53rd and 54th Street. The Museum next occupied the the Douglas Mansion at 128 West 14th Street, before moving to its current location on Fifth Avenue in 1880. The stately brownstone building at 681 Fifth Avenue was later replaced by a more high-rise commercial and office building.

3. The American Museum of Natural History

The American Museum of Natural History was founded in 1869 by Albert Smith Bickmore. The Museum’s first home was the Arsenal in Central Park. When it outgrew that space the Museum moved into its current building, which opened in 1877, at a ceremony presided over by President Rutherford B. Hayes.

4. The Bronx Museum of the Arts

The Bronx Museum of the Arts started out in the rotunda of the Bronx County Courthouse. In 1982, the Museum moved into a former synagogue, also located on the Grand Concourse, where it can still be found today. The opening of the Bronx Country Courthouse itself was heralded citywide in 1934. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia even officially transferred the seat of the municipal government from City Hall to the new courthouse for three days.

5. The Museum of Modern Art

Original location of the MoMA at the Heckscher Building on 5th Avenue (the tall building behind the Vanderbilt mansion). Image from Library of Congress

The Museum of Modern Art was founded in 1929 in the Heckscher Building (now known as the Crown Building), the tall building next to the Plaza Hotel on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. In 1932, the MoMA moved into a townhouse located at 11 West 53 Street. In 1939, it completed construction on its first purposefully built home, at the same location. Today, the museum occupies a new building on this site and is expanding down the block. The above photograph  shows the Cornelius Vanderbilt II mansion still standing, which was later replaced by the Bergdorf Goodman department store.

6. Whitney Museum of American Art

Inside the studio of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney

In 1929, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, had offered her collection of 500 Modern works by American artists to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with an endowment, but was rejected. The Whitney Museum of American Art was founded a year later, and opened in 1931 in its first home at West 8th Street, in the studio of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in Greenwich Village. In 1954, the Museum moved uptown to West 54th Street and within a decade moved to a new home at Madison Avenue in a building by Marcel Breuer. This location is now home to the Met Breuer, where the Metropolitan Museum of Art is housing, fittingly, its contemporary art exhibitions now that the Whitney has moved back downtown to its new Renzo-Piano designed building adjacent to the High Line.

7. The National Museum of the American Indian

The National Museum of the American Indian is currently part of the Smithsonian Institution. Its main building is located in Washington D.C. and it possesses a satellite branch in New York City at the former Alexander Hamilton Customs House, a Cass Gilbert building at the foot of Broadway at Bowling Green. The Museum was originally founded as the Museum of the American Indian by Gustav Heye in 1916 and was located in Audubon Terrace, before being absorbed into the Smithsonian. Today, Audubon Terrace is home to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and The Hispanic Society (which has some stunning galleries).

8. Nicholas Roerich Museum

Riverside Drive and 107th Street, former location of the Roerich Museum.

Nicolas Roerich was a prolific Russian artist whose worked ranged from paintings to costumes and set designs for Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. In 1921, Roerich began a school called the Master Institute of United Arts, which was located, along with many of his paintings, in a mansion at 310 Riverside Drive. In 1928, Harvey Wiley Corbett (who influenced the look of mid-century skyscrapers) designed a 27-story building on the site of the old mansion for Roerich’s operations. Due to infighting, the Roerich Museum was relocated to to 107th Street and its former home is now apartments.

Next, check out vintage photos of NYC museums under construction and the Top 10 Secrets of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.