A Populist Makeover for New York’s Oldest Museum

The New York Historical Society opened its doors to the public last month after a three-year, $70 million renovation of its Central Park West Building.  Originally designed in 1903 by York and Sawyer, who trained with McKim Mead and White, the renovations were undertaken by Platt Byard Dovell White Architects, whose principal Sam White is the great-grandson of Stanford White and the firm an expert at renovating buildings of this ilk, which is described in the AIA Guide to New York City as “ a Beaux Arts treasure reminiscent of a Parisian bibliotheque”.

New York Historical Society/ Jonathan Wallen

While the renovation dutifully addresses the client’s directive to make the museum a more democratic place, by opening up the fortress-like structure, adding more glass and a creating a more open plan, one has to wonder if it will achieve this end or if populism will trump respectability in an effort to get more people in.   For years now, the museum has tried unsuccessfully to expand its facility, at one time proposing a controversial 23-story residential tower next to its West 76TH street building.  This time around, it has taken a subtler, less intrusive approach all the while insisting that the changes were necessary for its survival.

Many things about the renovation project are on point. On the exterior, there is a wider main staircase and an expanded main entrance on Central Park West; better sightlines into the building from the street have been created; and a wholly redesigned entrance on 77TH Street offers improved access for school groups and visitors with disabilities. But some aspects are less successful, such as the enlargement of the windows flanking the main entrance to create doors.  Given the rigorous symmetry of the building, these openings will not appeal to preservation purists.

Inside, a new gallery was added on the ground floor, improvements were made to the auditorium, and new amenity spaces were added including a new destination restaurant that will stay open after hours.   A new children’s museum, designed by Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership, was added in the lower level.  In the admissions area, a ceiling from Keith Haring’s original Pop Shop was incorporated to give the Museum a more contemporary feel and to attract a wider audience, particularly a younger crowd.

These improvements make for a more dynamic museum experience, says the museum.   Louise Mirrer, President and CEO of the New York Historical Society, describes the transformation thusly….”It is as if at entry level, we are going from being a beautiful treasure house to a great showplace of the American experience.”

The continuing trend on the part of cultural institutions to treat their treasure houses as populist places by dumbing down their contents to appeal to the masses and expanding amenity space, is concerning for those seeking a more authentic experience.  Making collections relevant to a broader audience, as was done here with an expanded focus on children and the incorporation of new technologies that bring materials to life in ways not previously imagined, is a good thing.  But when such measures serve to obscure history rather than illuminate it, as the New York Times writer Edward Rothstein said of the Museum’s opening exhibition,  ‘Revolution!’, history itself is the loser.

Hopefully in time the New York Historical Society will hit its stride and its exhibitions will not fall victim to the very technologies that were put in place to share its collections with new audiences.



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