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Take a virtual tour of New York's museum district
The Ukrainian Institute of America at 2 East 79th Street, which was designed by C.P.H. Gilbert in French chateau style, in New York, March 17, 2020. With the Metropolitan Museum shut during its anniversary, a New York Times critic strolls with a historian along a posh stretch of Fifth Avenue called Museum Mile. Zack DeZon/The New York Times.

by Michael Kimmelman

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The Metropolitan Museum of Art was preparing to celebrate its 150th anniversary right about now. But with COVID-19, it has closed, along with the Guggenheim, the Neue Galerie, the Cooper Hewitt and all the other museums along the stately stretch of the Upper East Side known as Museum Mile.

This is the second in a series of strolls exploring the city, a project that originated before New Yorkers went on pause and started sheltering at home, when taking a walk was still prescribed. Back then, I canvassed architects, historians and others for suggested routes, with the goal of distracting readers and reminding everyone that, though shuttered, the city remains glorious and isn’t going anywhere.

Andrew Dolkart is a professor of historic preservation at Columbia University and an architectural historian. He volunteered to talk about Museum Mile. With all that he had to say, we managed to cover about a half-mile, keeping the recommended distance from each other and everyone else.

Like every installment in this series, what follows is edited, condensed and, for the time being, intended to be consumed at home, not on foot. Upcoming walks may be virtual.

Dolkart and I met in mid-March at the corner of 78th Street and Fifth Avenue, outside the Institute of Fine Arts, one of the city’s most refined landmarks, a mansion modeled after an 18th-century chateau in Bordeaux, France.

ANDREW DOLKART: The plaque on the building calls it the James B. Duke House, though we should call it the James and Nanaline Duke House because not only men were involved in the design decisions.

James Duke was a self-made American, born a poor farm boy. He ended up running the tobacco industry. When he moved to New York, he bought this plot and between 1909 and 1912 built a free-standing house with a little moat in the front and a garden in the back. It’s very, very rare today to see a free-standing house in the middle of Manhattan. I chose to meet here because the whole block is unusual. For years, while this neighborhood was being developed, the owner of the block, Henry Cook, chose not to develop.

Then around the turn of the last century, he decided to divide his property into lots, which meant the site was developed more or less at once, albeit by different designers and clients, making it one of the most architecturally cohesive and remarkable blocks in the city. Along Fifth Avenue between 78th and 79th streets alone, there are four mansions and town houses, all distinguished works by very important architects.

MICHAEL KIMMELMAN: Including 972 Fifth Ave., the beaux-arts town house with the bowed facade next to the Duke House.

DOLKART: Yes, it was designed by Stanford White as a wedding gift for Payne and Helen Whitney. It belongs to the French Embassy.

Duke hired Horace Trumbauer from Philadelphia to design his house. It’s a masterpiece. I love the winged female figures in diaphanous clothing carved into the spandrels at the entrance. We owe a debt to the anonymous immigrant stone carvers who did this work. Many of Trumbauer’s best-known works were designed by the chief designer in his firm, Julian Abele, one of the first African American architects in America. Abele designed the Duke campus, for example, although he by some accounts was never allowed to set foot on it.

KIMMELMAN: I’ve read that Abele worked on the Duke house, interestingly — an African American architect at the turn of the last century designing for a Southern-born tobacco baron on the Upper East Side.

DOLKART: The Upper East Side, even then, was not quite as homogeneous as some people think. Immigrant communities later established themselves farther east. But more than just the superrich lived around Fifth Avenue. Predating the mansions, during the late 1860s, ’70s and ’80s, speculative developers built housing for middle- and upper-middle-class residents, like the brownstone row houses on the south side of 78th Street between Fifth and Madison. You see that side of the street looks very erratic today. That’s because later owners ripped off the old facades, many of which had stoops, so they could build fashionable town houses out to the lot line.

KIMMELMAN: Like Gilded Age proto-McMansions.

DOLKART: Before we leave here, I don’t want to forget another masterpiece, the Colonial Revival house on the southwest corner of Madison at 78th, No. 28. McKim, Mead & White designed it for Philip A. Rollins, who spent years out West, collected Western art and wrote about cowboys. At a glance, somebody might think the house is less grand because the facade isn’t all stone. It’s red brick. But check out the brick. It’s in at least three different shades, some glazed — exquisitely crafted, with a rusticated limestone base and a glorious entry portico.

KIMMELMAN: OK, we’ve now moved to 79th Street, between Fifth and Madison.

DOLKART: In “House of Mirth,” Edith Wharton’s heroine turns a corner and sees grand new houses, “fantastically varied, in obedience to the American craving for novelty.” Americans at the turn of the century felt they had inherited the whole of Western civilization, that it was theirs to do with as they wished.

So you get the Acquavella Galleries at 18 East 79th, designed in 1908 by Ogden Codman Jr., a Francophile, next to a building that looks like it was shipped from Bedford Square in London, next to two buildings that could have arrived straight from Beacon Hill, Boston. Then the block ends at the corner of 79th and Fifth with a chateau from the Loire Valley. Crazy and wonderful.

KIMMELMAN: And it works together.

DOLKART: I think of this variety as Americanness. The corner chateau, for example, both fits in and stands out. It was designed by C.P.H. Gilbert, who studied architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, came back to the U.S., worked in mining towns, then became an architect for the very wealthy. He particularly loved this French chateau style, which he also used at the Warburg mansion, now the Jewish Museum, farther up Museum Mile.

Today this is the Ukrainian Institute of America. Just stop and look at all the whimsical details, like the carved dragonfish in the railings and those figures in funny hats holding up the windows.

KIMMELMAN: They’re facing north, across Fifth Avenue, toward the Met Museum.

DOLKART: Which of course is a building that, as much as any other, represents the optimism New York felt during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Wealthy New Yorkers had traveled to Europe, doing what tourists do today: going to museums, opera houses, zoos, botanical gardens. They realized if New York was going to become a great international capital, it needed these things too. So for several decades beginning in the 1880s, Carnegie Hall and the original Metropolitan Opera House were constructed; Columbia and City College established new campuses; the New York Public Library at 42nd Street was built; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art expanded along Fifth Avenue.

It moved from midtown to downtown to a small building in Central Park designed by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould, then to this site, which, significantly, looks out from the park onto the city. Richard Morris Hunt, the most prestigious architect in America, was hired to do the new building. Except for the stairs, which were enlarged 50 years ago, Hunt designed the central portion of what we see now, with the immense free-standing columns and arches and pedimented windows, including the three-bay wings to either side and the caryatid sculptures — allegories of painting, sculpture, architecture and music.

Hunt imagined lots of other sculptural ornaments that were never completed because the museum ran out of money. You notice those huge piles of stone on top of the columns? Hunt conceived them to be carved into allegorical sculptures. They never were, but the building announced its ambition. As the collection expanded, McKim, Mead & White added the wings to the north and south of Hunt’s building.

KIMMELMAN: We’ve walked a little farther up Museum Mile, to 86th Street and Fifth.

DOLKART: To the Neue Galerie, which opened in 2001 in a mansion built in 1914 by William Starr Miller and Edith Warren Miller. Carrère and Hastings were the architects.

KIMMELMAN: They designed the great 42nd Street library.

DOLKART: Their masterpiece. Like the library, the Miller house is modeled on French precedents — in this case the Place des Vosges in Paris, with all the architectural drama focused on the three central bays along 86th Street, capped by this mansard roof with round windows. In 1944, the mansion was sold to Grace Vanderbilt, the widow of Cornelius Vanderbilt III. It’s one of the last great houses to survive as a single-family home. Then in 1955 the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which collected material about Yiddish culture, bought the house. There are wonderful photographs of Yiddish researchers working amid the old fireplaces and moldings.

Then Ronald [S.] Lauder bought the building in 1996 and founded the Neue Galerie as a museum of Central European modernism.

KIMMELMAN: Annabelle Selldorf did the conversion.

DOLKART: A German-born, New York-based modernist architect, she seemed a curious choice to many people because she wasn’t known for renovating historic buildings, but she did an absolutely spectacular job, so subtle — a superb example of how to fit a modern institution into a historic building in a way that’s both contemporary and incredibly sensitive to history.

KIMMELMAN: We’re passing Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim now. We can’t not mention it.

DOLKART: The building is unavoidable. In a sense, that’s its glory. New York is a fabric of buildings, and most of them you don’t necessarily notice. Then there are a few masterpieces that stand apart, like the Public Library and the Woolworth Building. The Guggenheim is another.

KIMMELMAN: It creates its own weather system.

DOLKART: I would love to go back 60 years to when the museum opened and see people’s scandalized reactions because now we can’t imagine Fifth Avenue without it. I will say that after spending my entire career in New York, involved with preservation and researching the history of buildings, the worst thing to happen to architecture in the city during that time is the addition the Guggenheim added in the 1990s.

KIMMELMAN: Note to self: potential Twitter thread, #worstthingtohappentoarchitectureinthecity. One last stop?

DOLKART: The Cooper Hewitt. It is Andrew and Louise Carnegie’s former house and the template for transforming Museum Mile mansions into modern museums. During the 1970s, Hugh Hardy did the conversion, a model of adaptive reuse.

KIMMELMAN: The conversion preserved the great staircase inside and also the yellow herringbone bricks on the sidewalk outside the entrance. A few years ago the museum also revamped the garden and opened it free to the public. I believe Walter Hood led the design team.

DOLKART: Carnegie purchased the entire blockfront along Fifth Avenue between 90th and 91st Streets in 1898. Back then people thought he had moved to the country, this was still so far uptown and largely undeveloped. But he wanted room for a garden, and he also bought up all the land around the house so he could sell it only to people whom he approved of, who would design buildings that complemented his.

KIMMELMAN: He gerrymandered his own neighborhood.

DOLKART: With his house in the middle. The architects were Babb, Cook & Willard. The firm was more famous for doing commercial buildings than for residential ones, and some architect quipped at the time that Carnegie hired Babb, Cook because it was the only firm that didn’t solicit the job.

It’s not a masterpiece, in my opinion, but it has memorable details, like the bronze-and-glass canopy and the enormous urns and chimneys that agitate the skyline.

KIMMELMAN: We can’t leave before you explain those yellow herringbone bricks.

DOLKART: That was the vehicular entrance to the house for horse-drawn carriages. Note how the curbs are canted. The bricks held onto horses’ hooves so the horses wouldn’t slip.

That’s the thing about looking at buildings in the city. You may not know why something looks the way it does. But there’s always a reason.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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