The Museum of The City of New York
1220 Fifth Avenue

103rd to 104th Streets

Museum entrance

Museum entrance

By Carter B. Horsley

This very handsome, Georgian-style museum occupies the Fifth Avenue east blockfront between 103rd and 104th Streets.

The red-brick building has a very attractive, raised front plaza and a very elegant entrance.

The museum has a fine collection of paintings and furniture and many impressive photographic collections.  It also has a nice bookstore.

View from the south

   View from the south

In his November 6, 2005 "Streetscape" column in The New York Times, Christopher Gray noted that "The museum was founded by Henry Collins Brown, a Scottish-born writer who was enthralled by New York when he arrived at age 13. Brown did not care for what he saw as the stuffy, forbidding character of the New-York Historical Society, established in 1804, and sought a more populist approach to presenting the city's story. So he created a new museum, taking over Gracie Mansion, the future mayoral residence, in 1923. Brown had published widely on the history of New York and had become in the public mind the single person most associated with the city's past. His idea prospered, but in 1926, he was suddenly replaced by the board for unstated reasons. It must have been a crushing blow.

"Brown's successor, Hardinge Scholle, intensified the search for new quarters, and the city offered the blockfront of Fifth Avenue from 103rd to 104th.

"The trustees selected Joseph H. Freedlander's impeccable but bloodless neo-Georgian design, a great U-shape of red brick and white marble around a garden forecourt. At a time of skyscraper modernism and the Art Deco style, Freedlander's design was a polite nod backward, but it also played nicely against the fortress-like Historical Society building, at 77th and Central Park West.

"Scholle shared some of Brown's populist fervor, and told The New York Times in 1929 that he wanted to collect material on private houses and tenements, dogcarts and elevated trains, even every newsreel ever made in the city....

"Freedlander's design included a provision for expanding onto an additional plot at the rear, about half the size of the museum's existing footprint....

"The museum remained popular. In 1938, The Times said that, with an annual attendance of more than 200,000, it had already outgrown its new building - but nothing more was ever built. Beginning in the 1990's, the museum explored a series of plans, like moving to the Tweed Courthouse near City Hall or merging with the Historical Society. But those projects stalled.

"Another idea was to expand onto the rear lot, for which the architects James Stewart Polshek & Associates designed a seven-story-high gridlike brick facade that responded to the original design while remaining contemporary. But that project faltered. 

"Now, after two years as president, Susan Henshaw Jones has been able to marshal city funds for a revised Polshek expansion, downsized from seven floors to two. Although far less than the original plan, it does add space on the critical first floor, with a new gallery just behind the main stairway....

"Since 1923 we have been collecting steadily, but the building has never changed," she said. This contrasts with other major museums, like the Whitney, the Museum of Modern Art, the Frick Collection, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim, which have expanded since their founding, in some cases several times. Ms. Jones said construction would begin next month....An unexpectedly startling exhibit dates from the museum's beginnings. It is a large relief model of the houses, wharves, yards and even hedges of the tiny city in 1660, when it stretched only from the Battery to Wall Street."

Use the Search Box below to quickly look up articles at this site on specific artists, architects, authors, buildings and other subjects
Home Page of The City Review