A Brief History of the Metropolitan Museum Plaza, Where Ground Was Broken Today

This morning a groundbreaking ceremony was held for the new $65 million plaza at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with officials of the museum and city stabbing shovels emblazoned with the museum logo into the site, the New York Times reports. Construction actually started back in October, but the ceremony was postponed due to Hurricane Sandyaccording to a museum statement.

It’s estimated that the plaza project, which will fix the four blocks of decrepit sidewalks and fountains and spruce up the dead trees, will take two years and cost around $65 million. Once finished it will be named the David H. Koch Plaza in honor of David H. Koch, a trustee of the museum and high dollar donor to the arts in New York (and, more controversially, a prominent Republican) who is covering the whole cost of the plaza.

The last time the plaza in front of the museum’s façade on Fifth Avenue was renovated was in 1968 (in an adaptation for vehicular access), which is when the current crumbling fountains were built. The new plaza will limit access to cars and instead emphasize accessibility for pedestrians. The front steps that spring forward from the building will be untouched, although other seating options will be added to minimize their crowding. Since the museum opened in 1872, it has steadily evolved from Calvert Vaux‘s original red brick design, which was criticized for resembling a “mausoleum,” to its overwhelming by Beaux Arts wings and subsequent modern renovations. This plaza is just the latest in the museum’s evolving form as more a jumble of successive constructions than a single design. Below are some images of plazas past.

1880: Here is Calvert Vaux’s original Metropolitan Museum in a still-rugged Central Park. (via the Metropolitan Museum)

1906: Richard Morris Hunt’s design, the façade of which is still part of the museum, replaced the old Calvert Vaux building (standing in the back). (via the New York Public Library)

1914: With a wing now added to the right, more cars were appearing instead of horses in the early 1900s, something that would eventually lead to the late-1960s plaza renovations. (via WikiCommons)

1930-45: Closing in on the mid-century, the two wings were in place, stretching the museum to its imposing blocks-long form. (via Boston Public Library)

1965: In the 1960s, plants can be seen by the steps, which are still closed in, although this will all open up with the following renovation. (via Getty Images)

2008: The Met today has its staircases and sidewalks open, but the plaza’s concrete is breaking and the fountains leak to the street. (via WikiCommons)

The Future: The new plaza promises a more pedestrian-friendly design with more trees and redesigned fountains. (via OLIN)

Allison Meier

(Top Image: Rendering of new plaza, via Crain’s New York.)