The 1850s

The 1860s

The 1870s

The 1880s

Early 20th Century

The 1920s

The 1930s

Post World War II

The 1960s

The 1970s

The 1980s

All text from:
The Park and the People

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The "Spoils of the Park"   |   Rides and Restaurants   |   The Central Park Zoo
The American Museum of Natural History   |   The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
In 1880, three years after the natural history museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened a matching building, also designed by Vaux and Mould, almost directly across the park.

Several men served on the boards of both museums, and their histories had been intertwined from the outset. Less than a year after the campaign for a natural history museum was launched, the Metropolitan had its formal start at a meeting at the elite Union League Club. Presiding at the 1869 meeting, William Cullen Bryant, whom most educated New Yorkers took as the exemplar of culture, hit on many of the same themes of metropolitan destiny, civic responsibility, and moral uplift that motivated the natural history museum's founders as well as, of course, the gentlemen who first advocated the park. At the dedication of the Victorian Gothic building on the park eleven years later, museum leader Joseph Choate similarly invoked a mission of diffusing "knowledge of art in its higher forms of beauty" in order to "humanize, to educate and refine a practical and laborious people." [Ch1347]

Yet in practice the Met's trustees tended to view this mission somewhat ambivalently -- much more so than the natural history museum's founders. The trustees closed the doors to the public on Sundays, and they courted the rich by holding private receptions for paid members. Curators and trustees also assiduously cultivated the city's wealthy art collectors, who took up Choate's challenge to "convert pork into porcelain, grain and produce into priceless pottery, the rude ores of commerce into sculptured marble, and railroad shares and mining stocks ... into the glorified canvas of the world's masters." Noting its reputation for snobbishness, the Tribune in 1880 charged that the Met was "an exclusive social toy." [Ch1348]

When architect Richard Morris Hunt won the commission for the Met's Fifth Avenue wing in 1895, he set a new tone by designing a massive Beaux-Arts structure on the building's east side, reorienting it away from the park and toward Fifth Avenue. In 1906 McKim, Mead, and White extended Hunt's civic monument until classical grandeur largely enveloped the museum's original brick building. (Today, the remaining west facade of the Vaux and Mould structure can be glimpsed only from inside the Lehman Wing.) Just as conspicuous consumption had triumphed over modesty on the carriage drives, so did the architecture of display and grandeur triumph over the romantic Victorian architecture of restraint and moralism. [Ch1367]


The "Spoils of the Park"   |   Rides and Restaurants   |   The Central Park Zoo
The American Museum of Natural History   |   The Metropolitan Museum of Art