The beloved Marcel Breuer headquarters for the Whitney Museum of American Art at Madison Avenue and 75th Street was in fact the institution’s third home since Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney founded it in 1931.
With the May 1 opening of a fourth, Renzo Piano–designed Whitney location at the southern Gansevoort Street source of the High Line (and with the Breuer building secure in the operating and contemporary curatorial hands of the Metropolitan Museum), the time is right to understand its architectural origins and creative pedigree.
Miss Vanderbilt grew up in what still holds the record as New York’s biggest residence: the 103-room 1893 Renaissance Revival house built for her father Cornelius II. It stood until 1925 on the Grand Army Plaza site that now features the Bergdorf Goodman flagship as opened in 1928, designed by the 20th century maverick Ely Jacques Kahn.
The Mansion was designed by the Beaux Arts trained architect George Browne Post, whose greatest surviving trace is the newly glistening, hipster-haven Williamsburgh Savings Bank at the foot of its name-sharing Bridge. (If still standing, the old Vanderbilt mansion could by birthright be home to great-grandson Anderson Cooper…)
As a wealthy self-defined bohemian and skilled sculptor, daughter Gertrude set out in 1907 for Greenwich Village, where she created her first studio in a former stable at 19 MacDougal Alley, the mews-like cul-de-sac between West 8th Street and Washington Square North. This first burst of gentrification was steadily followed by the acquisition of four 1830s Greek Revival brownstones, numbered 8 to 14 along West 8th Street proper, as well as the alleyway stables attached to each.
As her real estate footprint grew, so did her circle of fellow contemporary artists and the impulse to collect and display this collective accomplishment. The amalgamation of now interlaced buildings, which she started to call the Whitney Studio Club, set the stage. It was her home, her workplace, her personal kunsthalle, and a welcoming salon for artist friends often shunned elsewhere. Here was held, for example, the first exhibitions of John Sloane and Edward Hopper.
Perhaps of foremost initial design importance was her own personal sculpting studio built atop 19 MacDougal, conceived by her artistic fellow traveler, Robert Winthrop Chanler, as multi-media gesamtkunstwerk of painted bas-relief, decorated surfaces, and stained glass windows. (The Chanler Studio in particular has been on the World Monuments Fund’s renowned Watch List since 2012.)
When the by then Mrs. Vanderbilt Whitney’s offer to donate 700 contemporary artworks by Americans was refused by the Metropolitan Museum (Hopper? No thank you.), as well as soon after by the Euro-centric Museum of Modern Art, she created the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1931. Taking matters into her own hands, Gertrude launched it for the display and appreciation of contemporary art—the 20th-century up until then and proceeding onward. She did so with her long-time assistant, Juliana Force, recognized ever after as the Whitney Museum’s first director.
These two women—besides their art collecting—were also an important, unsung catalyst for modern interior design and the evenly-illuminated white cube aesthetic that still sets the standard of museums worldwide, even as they keep growing in scale and room-denying flexibility. This architecture unfolded in a warren of early 19th century domestic residential interiors with attached stables, whose generous volumes emerged with the removal of stalls and haylofts. The result helped foretell the formal future of museums, even as its historic role goes largely unnoticed today.
Mrs. Whitney and Ms. Force did so in partnership with the design team consisting first and foremost of her son-in-law, architect Auguste Noël, and his umlaut-free firm of Noel & Miller Architects. Like Jacques Kahn, this team was Beaux Arts trained, yielding to the classically descended vocabulary of art deco and especially its later offshoot, moderne, which heralded capital-M Modernism. They worked with a society interior designer of like urbanity, Bruce Buttfield.
In 1954, the Museum decamped for its second home, which was a building on West 54th Street just west of Philip Johnson’s reconfigured MoMA sculpture garden, west of where the Taniguchi’s Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Educational and Research Center stands today. It too was designed for the Whitney/Force duo by Philip Johnson, but it turned out the shadow of its ziggurat neighbor was too strong both physically and metaphorically and off they went to commission the great Breuer reverse juggernaut masterpiece, which opened in 1967 as an instant landmark on the Upper East Side. Contextual it was not.
It was at this time that the old Whitney Studio and Museum crucible on West 8th Street became the New York Studio School (NYSS), opening in the academic year 1964/65. Now at the half-century mark, this Whitney legacy holds a place as a leading independent school of fine art pedagogy grounded in the traditional atelier of life study and a rigorous pedagogy to provide the springboard for a professional career. It resolutely does so in the heart of Greenwich Village, existing today as a precious trace of New York’s first Bohemia on what is now a street undergoing rapid commercial and residential gentrification. Stepping inside, the visitor today discovers a fascinating palimpsest of the old townhouses and former stable voids altered as galleries with then-radical recessed bands of ceiling lights and moderne details of travertine floors, aluminum railings, and jazzy doorjamb thresholds. This glimpse of design modernism and its tie to American art of the 20th century as it prepared for global supremacy in the wake of World War II is a sort of secret cultural treasure, living and breathing still as a place for making art.
The Whitney’s return downtown brings it closer to home as still evident to the roving architectural eye. Take a look when next passing by.