One of our favorite fun facts about the Metropolitan Museum of Art is that it’s still unfinished (and that it grew over time, so you can still see earlier versions inside). Here are tidbits about where to see these incomplete portions today and how they came to be.
The original museum, built by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould in a Victorian Gothic style, quickly outgrew its space and Richard Morris Hunt was hired to design an expansion for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Hunt, who had just designed the Administration Building for the Chicago World’s Fair, created an Exposition style building, stretching from 79th Street to 85th Street and from Fifth Avenue to the foot of Cleopatra’s Needle, which would surround the museum’s original Gothic home. Hunt, who had worked for Napoleon III as Inspector of Construction, was used to having wealthy clients (he designed numerous mansions in New York City) and did not factor money into the cost of his design.
Hunt passed away in 1895 and his son, Richard Howland Hunt was appointed to carry out his father’s plans in consultation with George B. Post. This event coupled with the financial upheavals of the intervening years led the Museum’s Building Committee to focus their depleted funds on the museum’s unfinished interior, so that the building could be put to use, rather than its exterior.
Sacrificed were some of the building’s unbuilt wings and statuary and sculptural groups from its façade. The most visible remnant of Hunt’s grandiose plans are the pyramidal blocks surmounting four of the façade’s columns. Hunt had said that “in order to express, in the principal sculpture on the façade of the Museum, the character of the building, I would suggest that the four large groups over the columns should represent the four great periods of Art, using the Egyptian for ancient art, the second group, Greek for classic art, the third group, renaissance, and the fourth group modern art.” Hunt envisioned that “directly under the principal group…a reproduction of the best examples of art expressed in the group above.”
In addition to money, other facts can be attributed to the unfinished state of the museum’s façade. There was fear that a controversy would erupt of how “modern art” would be interpreted. According to famous American sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward, “There is also another point concerning the periods of art to be represented [in] these groups. If the term modern art means to include any art later than the ‘renaissance’ you would be getting into a sea of difficulties where there would be danger of disaster. Modern art, that is, any art, painting or sculpture, since the renaissance is too undefined, too chaotic to be clearly represented in a group or be any one great example universally accepted.”
The Met sought a second opinion. The architect Thomas Hastings said that since the Museum was short on funds it was better not to wade into this quagmire. Lastly, there may have been a fight between the sculptors and the Plasterers’ Union (can you imagine them setting up an inflatable rat in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art?). Today, these unfinished pyramids, alongside the unfinished lobby which was supposed to be painted with murals, stand as a testament, albeit a mostly unknown one, to the history of the City’s most famous museum.
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