How the Metropolitan Museum was Born

On July 4, 1866, while celebrating America’s Independence Day in Paris, a group of American businessmen, financiers, artists, and thinkers of the day decided that New York City needed its own art museum. Thus, the idea of the Metropolitan Museum of Art was born. After four years of discussions in which American civic leaders, art collectors, and philanthropists were convinced to support the project, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was finally incorporated in 1870.

The creation of a major art museum was a very important part of New York’s transformation into a major metropolis on par with the old European capitals. Nowadays, Metropolitan’s collection ranks alongside that of the world’s best, such as Le Louvre, the State Hermitage, the British Museum, and the Uffizi Gallery, but it started with a single piece: a Roman sarcophagus, acquired in 1866. Several years later, the museum acquired 174 European paintings, including works by Anthony van Dyck, Nicolas Poussin, and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.

Before the Met settled into a permanent home, it led a nomadic existence. The first collection was housed at 681 Fifth Avenue (intersecting 54th Street). The museum required bigger space as the collection grew and moved, temporarily, into Douglas Mansion on 14th Street. It finally found its permanent location along Central Park in 1880. The original museum building, much smaller in size than the present one, was designed by Central Park architect Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould. The Victorian building, made of red brick, had a special entrance on the Central Park side built specifically for horse-drawn carriages. This entrance was located in the present-day European Sculpture Court where one can still see the original red wall. As the museum grew, the additions completely covered the original structure, which can no longer be seen from the outside but can still be spotted inside the museum.

In 1902, the museum’s new Beaux-Arts Fifth Avenue facade opened to the public. It was designed by Richard Morris Hunt, the famous American architect known for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty and the doors of Trinity Church. The Evening Post raved that the Metropolitan is “one of the finest in the world, and the only public building in recent years which approaches in dignity and grandeur the museums of the old world.” The north and south wings, added respectively in 1911 and 1913, were designed by the highly respected firm of McKim, Mead, and White.

Metropolitan Museum of Art with new Beaux-Arts Fifth Avenue facade

The Met Museum, which houses humanity’s greatest accomplishments spanning the last 6,000 years, is recognized as one of the world’s great wonders. With 17 curatorial departments,  over 2 million works in its permanent collections, and tens of thousands of pieces on display at any given time, the Metropolitan has certainly fulfilled the dream of its founders to give New York a cultural institution worthy of the great city.

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