A new name, an eponymous new typeface by Chester Jenkins of Pentagram, and a landmark headquarters renovated and reimagined by a complex array of design professionals signaled last December’s long-awaited $91 million reopening of America’s official museum of global design excellence, The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. The design team included Gluckman Mayner, Beyer Blinder Belle, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Hood Design, Thinc Design, and Local Projects, among others.
The Carnegie Mansion
Such innovative adaptive reuse had to fit inside the existing envelope of an eclectic and for its time eccentric, mix of Colonial Revival and Georgian vocabularies in the former Andrew Carnegie Mansion designed by the firm of Babb, Cook & Willard in 1902. Since its adjacent Arthur Ross Garden, conceived by Richard Schermerhorn Jr., was retained, it all had to fit within 17,000 square feet.
This design feat is highly pertinent to the debate about planned growth at the nearby Frick Museum, where leadership argues that only with the addition of 42,000 square feet, commissioned from Davis Brody Bond, can they meet future need. It would do so by demolishing and filling in its 1970 entry sequence designed by John Barrington Bayley (in a Post-modern style yet to be labeled) and a courtyard garden by Russell Page. Of the total new contextual insertion, just 3,600 square feet would be used as exhibition space. (As in the Cooper Hewitt adaptation, the opening of the second floor would yield the balance of the additional gallery space.)
The Frick Collection
It is worth considering the historical context of the overall house museum typology when examining this contrast in alternative design solutions and the ways reuse can succeed when drawing from the latest technologies and materials.
Aside from European palaces of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, restored to the public as repositories for national art collections either by revolution or political reform, the Cooper Hewitt stands as one of the few museums anywhere that is housed in a former residence not linked conceptually to such a user outcome.
Soane Museum. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
A shift from house to purpose-built museum began in 17th-century England with the “Old” Ashmolean Museum of Oxford University, 1683, attributed to Sir Christopher Wren, and London’s 1626 Dulwich Picture Gallery, redone in 1801 by Sir John Soane (both, by coincidence, were added to and updated in the 21st century by the late expatriate American architect, Rick Mather). Even so, the conversion of private home to public museum has continued unabated.
Three distinct typologies emerge when considering the residential design origins of so many museums today, especially as they continue to multiply and expand.
For starters, there is the house museum, where and when a house and ideally its furnishings are deemed of historical and/or aesthetic distinction and thereby fixed in time as a curatorial artifact worth preserving to the hopeful end of sustained public engagement. The first in America sprouted in New York State, which in 1850 purchased the Colonial Dutch John Hasbrouck House that had served as General Washington’s Newburgh, New York, headquarters for most of the Revolutionary War.
Today, America boasts more than 15,000 house museums, Modernist among them, many of which are struggling to survive in the face of audience indifference amidst the shifting demographics and tastes of prospective visitors. With notable exceptions, like some of the homes of great artists and others with significant landscapes such as Frederick Church’s Olana, the overall trend has been downward even at a national shrine (and UNESCO World Heritage Site) like Monticello.
Secondly, there is a house conceived in part from the outset as a gallery of private connoisseurship. Propelled by collecting and collection sheltering, such a house built as museum constitutes the formal opposite of the house museum. In Andrew Carnegie’s theoretical treatise, The Gospel of Wealth (propounding among other things that the employing elite could provide services and diversions they deemed worthwhile, like libraries, to justify low wages) he said, “It is well, nay essential, for the progress of the race that the houses of some should be homes for all that is highest and best in literature and the arts, and for all the refinements of civilization.” When New York architect John Carrère (with Thomas Hastings) designed the 1902 high-tech Beaux-Arts Whitehall mansion for Henry Flagler in Palm Beach, he said, “The amount of art education which a building can disseminate among the masses is far beyond what we can realize.” And sure enough, a few decades later just as conceived, the newly labeled “Flagler” became Florida’s first museum of any sort. The private domicile thus remained standing to fulfill its true formative intent; the client was presciently self-conscious and a well-prepared architect knew it. The paradigm holds for some of the most competitive practitioners today in this new age of concentrated affluence again driving an ambitious wave of self-proclaimed connoisseurs.
The Barnes Foundation
In this category the examples abound: London’s John Soane Museum; Musée Nissim de Camondo in Paris; J.P Morgan Library & Museum; The Isabella Stewart Gardiner in Boston; The Huntington Library and Art Collections in San Marino; and, perhaps in a sort of extraterrestrial category of its own, Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation (Tod Williams + Billie Tsien Architects) housing a replica of Paul Cret’s original from 1922. Since 2012, it alone functions as a purpose-built museum as house museum.
The publicly accessible destinies of all such residences were set in stone as immortal measures of personal taste and accumulated wealth carefully cultivated for the world to see.
This second grouping includes the Frick.
And finally there is the third and rarest type unfolding at the Cooper Hewitt: The house transformed into museum despite an absence of such original intent.
The Great Hall at the Cooper Hewitt
Many of the most treasured museums today started out in homes with their governing boards of directors gladly relocating later as resources allowed to purpose-built structures. Among them in New York City were The Metropolitan Museum of Art (from 1872 in the Douglas-Cruger Mansion at 128 West 14th Street, where one now finds a spiffed up Hotel Chelsea), and brownstones on West 53rd Street respectively: The Museum of Modern Art before episodic, massive expansion, The Museum of Art and Design before relocating at 2 Columbus Circle, and The American Folk Art Museum before constructing and then selling off the now demolished Tod Williams Billie Tsien building.
Purpose-built substitutes made these original sandwiched-in accommodations obsolete.
Ironically, many of these house-transformed survivors in America are neighbors on a stretch of New York’s Fifth Avenue that became known as Millionaire’s Row. The National Academy Museum stayed put in the 1902 Ogden Codman, Jr. mansion of Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington, who donated it to them in 1939. Thanks to its wartime donation by the Sulzberger Family in 1944, the French Gothic Revival Felix M. Warburg House of 1908 by C.P.H. Gilbert (no relation to Cass) took hold as the Jewish Museum which got its twin expansion in 1993 in controversial Post-Modern style by Roche Dinkeloo Associates.
The Carnegie Corporation gave its namesake Mansion to a newly hatched Smithsonian satellite museum in 1972 as it searched for a new home following its 1963 eviction by the Cooper Union. Ambitions grew and off it went. Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer did the first museum retrofit in 1977 with the exterior refreshed by the Polshek Partnership.
As a museum, its unfolding architecture has evolved by good fortune or by accident, depending on the visitor’s point of view. And yet happen it did, moving forward to this new threshold of public service, making do with an adaptive reuse as what paradoxically is the foremost institution committed to design in all its modern applications.
Interior of the Frick
When considering the present debate over the Frick’s proposal to grow conventionally with additional square feet built in seamless classical style, the solution stands in ingenious contrast just up Fifth Avenue at the Cooper Hewitt. It represents a more challenging assignment. The architectural result looks forward to a new model of institution building amidst a generation concerned about carbon footprints and ongoing operating burdens. Moving staff offices to existing buildings nearby, greater access to digitized collections, use of beacon apps and regular exhibition rotation. Such interpretation of past accomplishment set in contemporary context is what any flourishing museum should strive for.
Only over time can new architecture and its commissioning purpose be measured against history. The Cooper Hewitt accomplishment, in contrast to the Frick’s intent, offers more promise for such long-term prospects.