Metropolitan Museum’s plaza renovation approved

Metropolitan Museum of Art’s plaza renovations. Image: Courtesy of OLIN

Opponents were concerned about how changes to plaza would impact views of the museum. On February 21, 2012, Landmarks issued a favorable advisory report on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s proposal to redesign its plaza along Fifth Avenue in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The museum is an individual City landmark, while the plaza is considered part of Central Park, which is a scenic landmark. The proposal calls for new lighting and the replacement of fountains, paving, and trees. 

At a public hearing, the Met’s director, Thomas Campbell, pointed out that it had been more than 40 years since the plaza had last been renovated. According to Campbell, the Kevin Roche-designed plan had focused on improving vehicle access to the museum, but pedestrian access had now become a far greater priority. He noted that some of the plaza’s exterior elements were no longer functioning as intended, but assured those in attendance that the Met’s iconic front steps would be left untouched.

Dennis McGlade, a partner at Philadelphia-based landscape architecture firm OLIN, presented the Met’s plan. McGlade testified that the re-design would help spread out the visitors who currently congregate on the museum’s steps. The Met plans to replace the long, rectangular fountains on the north and south sides of the front steps with smaller, “circle in a square” fountains situated near the steps. The new fountains would be flanked by stands of pollarded sycamore trees to provide shade for visitors. Three rows of trees currently planted in front of the Met’s north and south wings would be replaced with rows of deciduous trees pruned to create “aerial hedges.” According to Mc- Glade, the existing trees were in bad health, but had grown tall enough to obscure the museum’s facades. The Parks Department intends to transplant up to twelve of the existing trees to parkland elsewhere in the City. Overall, the Met will plant 104 trees to replace the 44 existing trees.

The Met will install granite benches and retractable parasols in the space between the aerial hedges and the museum’s facade. Two dark brown metal kiosks, one serving food and the other providing visitor services, would be built on either side of the steps within the stands of sycamores. The Met will provide 420 seats and 100 tables.

In a statement of support read by his representative, local Council Member David R. Garodnick said the changes would enhance the plaza and the museum’s historic facades. Garodnick noted that the plaza had become congested with an increasing number of visitors sitting on the front steps and congregating around the many on-site vendors, and expressed hope that the Met would address this issue. The Central Park Conservancy and the New York Landmarks Conservancy supported the Met’s plan. Manhattan Community Board 8 supported the majority of the renovations, but took issue with the proposed tables, chairs, and parasols.

Opponents expressed concerns about several aspects of the plan including how the new hedges would impact views of the museum and about whether the fountains would block access to the steps. Docomomo’s Kyle Johnson argued that the proposal deviated too far from the underlying principles of Roche’s original design. Johnson recommended reducing the size, shape, and location of the new fountains so that they would not impede access to the north and south sides of the steps. He also claimed that the hedges would obscure the museum’s facades and that the parasols would crowd the plaza’s narrowest walkways. Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts’ Tara Kelly, also claimed that the hedges were inappropriate and objected to the proposed kiosks. The Historic Districts Council’s Nadezhda Williams argued that the Met should restore, not demolish, the current plaza.

Chair Robert B. Tierney stated that the proposal would create a practical front porch for the museum. Commissioner Libby Ryan concurred, finding that the alterations were well thought out and justified. Vice Chair Pablo Vengoechea found the plan appropriate, but was concerned that the amount of new elements might diminish the perceived vastness of the plaza. Commissioner Michael Devonshire stated that the proposal would effectively spread out visitors across the plaza. As for the plan’s details, Devonshire found the aerial hedges appropriate, but said the parasols would “rob [the museum] of a certain amount of dignity.”

Landmarks agreed to issue a positive advisory report. Tierney noted that the report would incorporate the reservations expressed by the commissioners.

LPC: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan (12- 8012) (Feb. 21, 2012) (Architect: OLIN)

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