The American Wing gets ready to soar

May 2009 | When the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s renovated Greek and Roman galleries were inaugurated two years ago, critics acclaimed that majestic design by the architect Kevin Roche (1922–) as a crowning achievement of his career, and an equal triumph for the institution’s longtime director Philippe de Montebello, who soon afterward announced his retirement. Although Roche’s intervention deserved every bit of the widespread publicity it received, the Greek and Roman galleries were only a small part of his master plan of 1971, a monumental undertaking that de Montebello shrewdly finessed with a hidden hand worthy of Cardinal Richelieu.

For nearly a century after its founding in 1870, the Metropolitan Museum increasingly encroached on Central Park as if by divine right. But the massive scale of Roche’s scheme, initiated by de Montebello’s grandiose predecessor, Thomas P. F. Hoving, provoked an unprecedented public outcry. In order to win city planning approval, the museum swore off future outward expansions and thus far has stuck to its vow. Nonetheless, despite that finite (though ample) footprint, the museum since then has nearly doubled its floor space through an internal space-planning miracle de Montebello has termed, with notable understatement, “a domino game.” Because of his stealth strategy to avert local opposition, each successive increment was executed as quietly as possible, and only now is this monumental undertaking being recognized among de Montebello’s most formidable accomplishments.

On May 19, the former director’s successful coup will be reconfirmed when the best-known portions of the museum’s American Wing are unveiled after a thoroughgoing reconception, reorganization, and renovation, the second installment of a decade-long program that began in 2001. Since the American Wing was opened, in 1924, its survey of our nation’s decorative arts has ranked with the finest anywhere, but has never been shown to maximum advantage. That spotty presentation was the result of fitful growth, haphazard organization, and the lingering misapprehension that Americana was just not as significant in the big picture of world culture as the rest of the Metropolitan’s encyclopedic holdings. 

Fanatics may not have minded the American Wing’s jumbled accretion of reconstructed period rooms and drab displays of household objects, but the department’s glorious holdings were often lost on average viewers. In an attempt to engage a broader audience, Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo and Associate’s new American Wing of 1980 created a dramatic indoor plaza, the Charles Engelhard Court, to attract visitors to this remote corner of the museum (a distant locale that in itself signified the department’s status in the pecking order.). Though Roche’s soaring atrium will seem familiar to most people even after his reworking of it, the space has nonetheless been enormously improved.

In its initial incarnation, the Engelhard Court brought to mind an upmarket shopping galleria, not least because of the large rectangular planting beds and reflecting pool added by the landscape architect Richard K. Webel (1900-2000). If a museum with standards as high as the Metropolitan’s does not aspire to horticulture on the superior level of, say, the Museum of Modern Art’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden of 1953-1954 by James Fanning (1911-1997), or the landscaping of Louis Kahn’s (1901-1974) Kimbell Art Museum of 1966-1972 in Fort Worth by George E. Patton (1920-1991), then forget it. Now the Met wisely has done just that, and in place of Webel’s banal parterres of generic greenery, the Engelhard Court’s floor has been freed to fulfill its thwarted destiny as a sculpture hall of heroic proportions and paved with simple limestone to create a tabula rasa plaza.

This boldly reclaimed space now effortlessly encompasses more than sixty diverse works, including freestanding sculptures in marble and bronze spanning artists from Hiram Powers (1805–1873) to Harriet Whitney Frishmuth (1880–1980); architectural elements like Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s Vanderbilt Mantelpiece of 1881–1883, with flanking caryatids of red-brown marble that always remind me of sequoia trunks; as well as stained-glass windows and mosaics by Louis Comfort Tiffany and John La Farge (see Fig. 6) set into the atrium’s inner walls. Webel’s mingy reflecting pool remains, in deference to popular sentiment, but has been redesigned to accommodate two bronze fountains sculpted by Frederick William MacMonnies (1863–1937) and Janet Scudder (1869–1940).

No amount of remedial renovation could turn the Engelhard Court into an architectural masterwork, yet Roche has made his original space far better than before—not with a thunderbolt strategy like some ambitious young contender, but rather through a host of small adjustments that contribute to a substantial cumulative effect. For example, a third balcony gallery has been added halfway between two existing display areas that adjoin the court’s tilted glass wall overlooking Central Park. Roche’s insertion corrects that elevation’s inelegant proportions and provides the ideal platform for a recent coup—Robert A. Ellison Jr.’s much-admired collection of American ceramics from 1876 to 1956. Beefy brass handrails that gave the existing balconies a vulgar corporate style flourish have given way to discreet matte-metal horizontals that greatly improve the new trio of étageres.

Most of Roche’s refinements are so subtle that they need to be pointed out, as they were to me by Morrison H. Heckscher, the Lawrence A. Fleischman Chairman of the American Wing and leader of this project with Peter M. Kenny, curator of American decorative arts and administrator of the American Wing. When Heckscher became head of the American Wing, in 2001, he convinced de Montebello that the department’s galleries and period rooms were in desperate need of rearrangement. The Francophile director, though no great fan of Americana, agreed to Heckscher’s proposal, no doubt because the American Wing has always been among the museum’s most enduringly popular attractions. Furthermore, Heckscher’s clear conception of how to give it much-needed coherence impressed de Montebello, who never impeded initiatives he knew would benefit the museum, his personal tastes aside.

by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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