The Metropolitan Chapter of the Victorian Society in America

By Lynne Funk

Newly exposed facade (photo by Lynne Funk)

Pedestrians on Columbus Avenue are being treated to a teasing, but temporary, glimpse of stone voussoirs, red brick walls, and a slate roof dating from 1877. Following removal of several small buildings at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, a west-facing façade of the First Building is now visible.

After the museum broke ground last year for its Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation, demolition revealed the polychrome façade designed by Vaux & Mould. That illustrious partnership, along with Frederick Law Olmsted, was responsible for many elements of Central Park, including Belvedere Castle.

In 1898, the museum expanded south from the High Victorian style First Building with a castle-like wing facing West 77th Street. Designed by J. Cleaveland Cady, the 42-foot-wide entry arch with corner towers established a NeoRomanesque character. It was a disappointment to at least one museum administrator when architect John Russell Pope chose a Roman Classic look for the 1936 wing on Central Park West. (Footnote 1). These structures were part of a grid of buildings originally planned to cover the jumbo block stretching from West 77th Street to 81st Street.

In a departure from traditional styles, Polshek Partnership created a monumental glass curtain wall surround for the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space to the north, which opened in 2000.

The five-story Gilder Center, with 235,000 square feet of gallery, classroom, library, theater and storage space, will feature a curvilinear silhouette and light-colored granite. Perhaps parts of the First Building will be visible from new vantage points within the museum. The popular Butterfly Vivarium exhibit will now be open year-round, and there will be a new kind of buzz when it opens in 2022: an Insectarium covering 6,210 square feet.

First Building, 1874 (Internet Archive Book Images)

Christopher Gray, “Streetscapes/The American Museum of Natural History; A Vaux Masterpiece Eroded and, Now, Ignored,” New York Times, June 19, 1994, and other Streetscapes columns (including 5/13/10).

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