Metropolitan Museum of Art

A brief history of the building

This essay is adapted from a videoguide / app on Central Park, soon to be published by Guides Who Know.

If you want a quick overview, click here to see the map at the end of this article.

The beginnings: 1870-1894

Andrew Haswell Green  – the financial whiz among Central Park’s Founding Fathers – wanted Central Park to be a cultural showpiece as well as a pastoral retreat.  In the 1870s, he succeeded in having two museums constructed on park land.

The American Museum of Natural History opened its doors in 1877, on a parcel of land attached to Central Park on the Upper West Side.

Central Park 1870

Above: Map of Central Park, 1870. The parcel on Central Park West (here "VIII Ave.") between 77th and 81st Streets had been slated for a park long before Central Park was dreamed of.

AMNH

Above: The original building of the American Museum of Natural History, 1872-1873

Building the art museum took a few years longer. In 1870, prominent New Yorkers had organized “the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

MMA 1872

Above: The Met’s first home was a former dancing academy on Fifth Avenue at 54th St., far north of the fashionable part of town.

MMA 1873-9

Above: In 1873, the Museum relocated to larger quarters on 14th Street, much nearer the center of Manhattan's development.

By the early 1870s, the Board of Commissioners of Central Park had already promised to lease the Met a building in the Park. In a nod to the fact that Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux thought architecture should not intrude on the pastoral vistas within the Park, the Commissioners allotted the museum a relatively distant area, isolated by transverse roads and the reservoirs.

MMA Central Park 1873

Above: Southern end of Central Park, 1873. The MMA is sketched in at the lower right, filling the whole space between the original Croton Reservoir and Fifth Avenue, between the 79th and 86th St. transverse roads.

To draw up plans for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Board of Commissioners chose their favorite architects - Calvert Vaux  and Jacob Wrey Mould  - who had also designed the American Museum of Natural History. The Metropolitan Museum’s home in Central Park opened to the public in 1880.

MMA main hall 1880

Above: Inside, the Museum was high-tech glass and steel. Today this is the medieval hall, where the Christmas tree stands. The elegant cast-iron arches have been removed from the barrel vault, but ...

MMA original stairwell

Above: You can still see some of the cast-iron work in the original stairwells.

The exterior of the museum was in the fashionable Victorian Gothic style.

MMA 1880

Above: Exterior of the museum as it opened in 1880. Large stretches of wall were left without decoration, waiting for new wings. The main entrance (at the right in this photo) was a temporary set of wooden stairs facing Fifth Avenue.

MMA Wing A detial

MMA Wing A detail

Above: Glimpses of the facade of the 1880 building, from the Lehman Wing and the Drawings & Prints Gallery.

Mere months after the first building opened, the Met’s trustees commissioned a different architect to design another wing. Wing B, on the south side of the original museum, opened in 1888; it had an elegant entrance that faced Central Park. Wing C, its fraternal twin, opened on the north side in 1894.

MMA 1895 Wings A B C

Above: Wings B, A, and C, ca. 1895.

The Age of Expansion: Hunt and McKim, Mead, White

Next, the Museum’s trustees hired America’s most famed architect, Richard Morris Hunt (1828-1895), to design more wings.

Hunt's master plan

Above: Hunt’s master plan  (early 1890s) was enormous.

MMA Wing D

MMA Wing D interior

Above: Richard Morris Hunt’s Wing D (1902) gave the Met an imposing facade on Fifth Avenue and a magnificent entrance hall.

For the next expansion, the trustees hired McKim, Mead, and White.  From 1907 to 1926, this prominent firm oversaw the construction of six new wings.

MMA McKim Mead White master plan

Above: McKim, Mead & White master plan

MMA Wing E

Above: Wing E, 1907. Just north of Hunt's Wing D, this included the Rainey Auditorium.

MMA Wing F

Above: Wing F, 1910, just west of Wing E; now Arms & Armor

MMA Wing G

Above: Wing G, 1910, the original library

MMA Wing H

Above: Wing H, 1913, at the northeast corner of the building; currently houses Egyptian art

MMA east facade

Above: from the left (south) are Wings K (1926), J (1917), D (1902), E (1907), and H (1913)

1971-1991: Hoving and Roche-Dinkeloo

After Wing K was completed in 1926, the museum’s collections continued to increase,  but for a half century, its footprint remained the same. Then, in 1971, as the Met celebrated its centennial, Director Thomas Hoving  unveiled plans for six new wings.

MMA Lehman

Above: The Lehman Wing, housing Robert Lehman’s extraordinary collection of European art, opened in 1975.

MMA Sackler

Above: The Sackler Wing (1978) houses the Temple of Dendur, one of Hoving’s most spectacular acquisitions.

MMA American Wing

Above: The American Wing, with its stunning courtyard, opened in 1980.

MMA Rockefeller

Above: The Wallace Wing (1987) houses modern art; the Rockefeller Wing (1982) houses the arts of Oceania, Africa, and the Americas.

MMA Kravis Wing

Above: The sixth and final addition in the Hoving expansion was the Kravis Wing (1991), which includes the Petrie Court and galleries for European paintings. The wall on the right is the south-facing facade of Wing B (1888).

The Met’s collections are still expanding. The land it leases in Central Park is not. Stay tuned to find out where all those items will be stashed.

The MMA's Expansion, 1880-1991

And now that you know what all these bits and pieces are, here's the big picture.

MMA expansion 1880-1991