The oldest museum in New York is getting a new lease on life as the New-York Historical Society prepares for a massive five-story addition by Robert A.M. Stern Architects that will add more than 70,000 square feet.
Enabled by $35 million from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the expansion will incorporate additional classrooms, galleries, study areas, a new space for the society’s renowned library, and the first museum in New York dedicated to LGBTQ+ history and culture. The entire project is predicted to cost some $140 million.
The NYHS was founded as a private organization in 1804. Its current Upper West Side location, a granite Roman Eclectic–style building designed by York & Sawyer, was completed almost a century later, in 1908.
But even when the Upper West Side site was initially purchased, NYHS president Louise Mirrer tells Architectural Digest, “it was always with the idea that there was room for expansion… It was always seen as ‘phase one.’”
In fact, in 1937 the society purchased the 10,000-square-foot vacant lot to its immediate west for the purposes of expansion. Plans were drawn up in 1940 but never realized. The closest the museum came was in 1938, when pavilions on both ends, designed by Walker & Gillette, were added to the core block.
That dream of growth is finally being realized, more than 80 years later.
“Even now, many people don’t realize the building was a two-stage operation,” explains Stern. “And we’re adding on in the same sympathetic way. There’s lots of architecture intended to shock at first glance, but I have no interest in that—I find it kind of trivial.”
His desire is to create a space “that goes forward with continuity,” he says. “Something where you maybe have to stop and say, ‘Hey, is this new?’”
The historic nature of the building was also a guiding force. “It’s a triple landmark,” Stern says with a laugh. “A landmark building on a landmark street in a landmark neighborhood.”
He calls the New-York Historical Society an “extremely important and unique institution”—he’s been a member since the 1970s—but he admits that, as a space serving the public, there’s room for improvement.
As an example, Stern references what he calls “the ‘dead-end’ problem”: “Basically when you get to the end of an exhibition you have to backtrack your way out. Now there will be a loop of circulation to see things, to give it flow.” The goal is to create a space that “extends and enhances the importance of the original,” he says.