Thursday, April 25, 2013

Schadenfreude on Display: The Huntington Hartford Gallery of Modern Art, Part 3

In my previous post, I wrote about Huntington Hartford’s iconoclastic views on art and his art collection.  As he planned a museum to showcase the art he favored, he needed a building in Manhattan.  Once built, the museum building received a mixed reaction from critics, just like the art that was on display inside.

The Site

     Hartford faced a daunting task when deciding to place his new museum in New York City.  New York has dozens of art institutions and galleries, so making an impression (both then and now) is difficult.  Hartford chose a prominent location for the museum, and it was a location that would certainly get noticed.  But, the lot he chose posed some very specific problems. 

The building that sat at Columbus Circle in the 1950s.
     Columbus Circle sits at the southwestern corner of Central Park.  Serving as the intersection of Central Park West and Broadway, it’s about as high-profile a location you can get in Manhattan.  The plot of land at 2 Columbus Circle is where Hartford decided to build.  It’s a small, trapezoid-shaped bit of land surrounded by busy streets.  In another, less populous city it might have just remained undeveloped green space at the edge of a traffic circle.  But, in space-starved Manhattan, something was built there.  A structure housing "a shoe store and offices" (according to Hanford Yang's proposal- see below) sat on the property when Hartford bought it in the late 1950s.  To any architect, the plot would be difficult to build on.  It was small (only 5,000 square feet- miniscule by New York standards) and oddly shaped.  Each side of the property was a different length, and the longest side was only about 100 feet.  Any architect that Hartford chose would have to deal with these limitations while still providing ample space inside to show the artwork sufficiently.  Hartford eventually chose Edward Durell Stone as the architect of the building, an experienced builder who approached the site and the museum in some pretty interesting ways.

Choosing an Architect

Hanford Yang's design
     When searching for a designer for the future Gallery of Modern Art, Hartford was initially drawn to the design submitted by a recent MIT graduate named Hanford Yang.  Yang, who was Chinese, proposed an innovative design (it was actually his Master’s thesis) that used three tall tubes, placed at the edges of the property, to house the mechanicals and stairs.  This left the interior spaces open.  In Yang’s design, the exhibition floors were hung from the three tubes and sheathed in plastic panels that acted as walls.  While researching this topic, I was surprised to find Yang’s entire original proposal from 1957 posted on the Internet.  It’s a fascinating relic from the past, documenting his unrealized concept as well as giving a contemporary account of 2 Columbus Circle before the museum was built.  But, Yang was not registered as an architect in New York State, so his design could not be used.  Hartford eventually brought in Edward Durell Stone as architect, an American designer with extensive experience in museums and public buildings.

Stone's American Embassy in New Delhi, India
     Stone was no stranger to museum design.  He had designed an expansion at the nearby Museum of Modern Art, and was at the time receiving international attention for his designs of the US Embassy in New Delhi, and the US Pavilion at Expo ’58 in Brussels.  He also designed such notable buildings as Radio City Music Hall and the Kennedy Center in Washington DC (I discovered while writing this that he also designed the Buffalo News Headquarters.  I drive by this building almost daily and never realized Stone was the architect.  You truly do learn something new every day!).  At the time, Stone’s buildings were characterized by delicate, perforated screens that covered a building’s entire façade, making it seem light and airy.  These screens became a sort of trademark for Stone, and would prove difficult to integrate into the final Gallery of Modern Art plan.

The Building

     Stone faced many challenges while designing the GoMA.  Art needs wall space, but interior spaces also need light.  Bringing large amounts of natural light into the museum wasn’t really an option, since windows take up wall space.  Therefore, most of the light in the GoMA had to be provided artificially.   The windows were small, porthole-shaped openings that were pushed to the edges of the structure, allowing only limited natural light to reach the interior.  From the outside, they were covered by Stone’s trademark perforations.
The GoMA's interior.  The small porthole windows can be seen in the background.
      Inside, Stone handled the space restrictions quite elegantly.  The museum was constructed with nine floors, but only four floors showcased the art.  When planning the exhibition spaces, Stone had to contend with such things as mechanicals, elevator shafts, and stairways.  These essential elements can’t be removed from any structure, so Stone had to figure out a way to work around them.  The size of the stairs between the exhibition floors was expanded, creating large stair landings.  These landings also served as gallery space, greatly increasing the amount of wall space available.  The wall spaces were decorated with exotic hardwoods and the floors were carpeted.  A far cry from the stark white walls popular at the Museum of Modern Art.  The effect was more like being in someone’s living room instead of a sterile museum.  A pipe organ provided live music for patrons as they strolled through the galleries.  The remaining floors housed offices, a small café, and Hartford’s lavish Polynesian restaurant, named the “Gauguin Room”.

An early rendering of the GoMA
    The outside of the building proved more challenging.  Stone’s perforated screens covering the windows were pushed to the corners of the structure, leaving most of the façade a stark, unadorned marble slab.  One critic compared it to a “punched railway ticket”.  It created an imposing, unfriendly edifice facing one of Manhattan’s busiest intersections.

     But at ground level, one could find what were perhaps the buildings most characteristic features (for better or for worse).  Stone designed the museum as sort of a stretched-out Venetian palazzo, supported by columns with round windows above them.  Critics were quick to compare the shape to lollypops, and the building was unofficially called the “Lollypop Building” for decades afterwards.  The features of the building were either wildly ahead of their time or just plain comical.  The building has been described as slyly referencing other architectural styles; a precursor to what later became known as Post-Modern Architecture.  To others, it just looked silly.  A white elephant stranded at the edge of the traffic circle.  Critics were divided as to whether Stone had created a modern masterpiece, or was signaling that his best work was now truly behind him.

The lollypops are clearly visible here
  Had the museum survived, it would have caused more headaches for later directors or curators.  Expansion at the Columbus Circle site would have been impossible, since the museum was totally landlocked.  Contemporary museum amenities like a bookstore or expanded café would have been difficult to place in the cramped quarters.  Hartford did initially have plans to build a freestanding restaurant/café across the circle at the corner or Central Park, but New Yorkers didn’t want a privately owned restaurant operating in a public park.  Protests first delayed, then eventually prevented, construction.








Legacy and Renovation

The Museum of Arts and Design
     Hartford spent a considerable amount of his own money to construct Stone’s design.  The building, which had been budgeted at about 3 million dollars, ended up costing over twice that.  The Gallery was open for about five years, and Hartford failed to recoup his investment.  The lukewarm reception of both the art and the building that housed it hastened its closure.  By July of 1969, the GoMA was finished.  The museum had failed to make an impression on the New York art world and Hartford transferred ownership to Fairleigh Dickinson University, who operated the site as the New York Cultural Center.  The building survived long after the Gallery of Modern Art was dead and buried, and slowly became a part of the fabric of New York City.  Manhattan residents remained divided as to its legacy, though, and several efforts to get the building landmark status failed.  In 2008, The Museum of Arts and Design (formerly the American Craft Museum) moved into the building and radically changed both the interior and exterior.  This touched off numerous battles between preservationists and architecture scholars who wanted to save the building as Stone designed it, and developers and planners who wanted something done with the structure regardless of what it looked like  (it had been unoccupied for many years at that point).  I won’t re-hash the arguments here, but a good version of the events can be read here.

     Architect Brad Cloepfil was hired to adapt the building for the 21st century.  The marble cladding was removed from the entire structure and replaced with windows and ceramic panels.  The interior was redesigned as well.  The lollypop columns at ground level were kept, though now they are sheathed by glass panels.  

     Both the art collection and the museum are gone now, relegated to the category of Cultural Ghosts.  Photographic evidence is all we have left to remember them by.  Stone’s building design, which stood for decades, appears in photos and films (people do occasionally make movies in New York).  Huntington Hartford didn’t make out so well.  He died mostly forgotten, his art collection long dispersed.  The museum building held up much better, now silently joining the ranks of such lost buildings as the venerated Penn Station.  It is gone, but not entirely forgotten. 
Stay Puft Marshmallow Man included to show scale.

Next week, some concluding thoughts as I wrap up another topic.