The American Museum of Natural History was conceived by Albert S. Bickmore, a naturalist who won the backing of wealthy and prominent New Yorkers, including J. P. Morgan, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., and Andrew Haswell Green. The museum was first organized in 1869 and commenced its life in the Arsenal two years later.
The young museum had big plans, and shortly after moving into the Arsenal it decided to move west to Manhattan Square, one of the few park areas included in the original Grid Plan. Calvert Vaux was commissioned to design the new building. Vaux’s design filled the entire square and consisted of “four great buildings 700 feet long, ornate in material and detail, and distinguished by large entrances of architectural dignity and strength,” as described by the museum’s president Henry Fairfield Osborne in 1911. The cornerstone was laid on June 2, 1874, with much pomp. The President of the United States (and three of his cabinet members), the Governor of New York, and the Mayor of New York City were present.
There had been the possibility that the Metropolitan Museum of Art would be located in the same building, but the museum’s founders managed to convince the Central Park Commissioners that they needed a separate park location. Vaux, with the assistance of Jacob Wrey Mould, designed both buildings, complementing one another, in the Victorian Gothic Style. Their Victorian Gothic Work can also be seen in Central Park, especially in the former Sheepfold.
In 1891, Josiah Cleveland Cady (who also designed the Old Metropolitan Opera House) was hired by the museum to design additions to their Vaux and Mould building. Over the course of the intervening decades, tastes had changed and Cady designed a Richardsonian Romanesque addition, which completely enveloped the original Victorian Gothic Building.
Once again, the decades passed before the museum was ready to continue their expansion, by which time Cady’s Romanesque had also fallen out of style and another grand design scheme was put to the wayside. This time, the wings were executed in “no particular style,” save the neo-classical Central Park West façade designed by John Russell Pope as a memorial to Theodore Roosevelt and inspired by the Arch of Constantine.
In what became a continuing saga, two decades passed and the museum once again decided to expand. In 1943, Eliel Saarinen consulted with Aymar Embury II, a New York architect, completely redesigned the 77th Street façade, erasing its character in exchange for mid century “style.” Luckily this plan never left the drawing board.
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