Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City (2)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, seen from the corner of 5th Avenue and East 83rd Street, around 1903. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The view around 1904-1909. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2019:

As discussed in more detail in the previous post, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has been at this location on 5th Avenue since 1880, but the building has been dramatically expanded and altered from its original appearance over the years. The first two photos here, taken only a few years apart, show some of this work in progress during the early 20th century.

The original museum building was set back from 5th Avenue, as were two additions that were constructed in the 1880s and 1890s. A portion of the northern wing, completed in 1894, is visible in the distance on the right side of the photo, but the rest of the 19th century museum building is hidden from view behind the 1902 addition, which stands in the foreground of this scene. This wing extended the museum all the way to 5th Avenue, and provided a grand main entrance that remains in use today.

This section of the building was designed by prominent architect Richard Morris Hunt, who is perhaps best remembered for designing Gilded Age mansions for affluent New York families such as the Vanderbilts. He was the first American to attend the École des Beaux-Arts in France, and this is reflected in his works, which are generally in the Beaux-Arts style. The museum expansion was among his last commissions, and he died in 1895, long before it was finished, so his son Richard Howland Hunt ultimately saw the project to completion.

The first photo was taken within about a year after this wing was completed. At this point, 5th Avenue was still not fully developed this far north, and there were still many vacant lots here in the vicinity of the museum, including one directly across the street in the foreground of the scene. The street itself was unpaved, and there are no automobiles in sight, but there is a mix of horse-drawn vehicles, including a delivery wagon on the extreme left, a stagecoach in front of it, and what appears to be a construction wagon on the far right. Next to this last wagon is the blurry image of a bicycle, and elsewhere there are a variety of pedestrians, including a man walking a small dog and several women with baby carriages.

Although the Hunt addition was only just finished, the museum was already preparing for further expansion. While architecturally impressive, it added little gallery space to the museum, as it consisted primarily of the Great Hall, which served as the museum’s main entrance, and the Grand Staircase, which connected the new wing to the original building. As a result, in 1904 the museum hired the architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White to design new wings, including one that extended north along 5th Avenue, on the right side of this scene.

The first photo does show some work occurring on the right side, although it does not seem clear as to whether this is related to the new wing or something else. However, by the time the second photo was taken a few years later, the expansion work was well underway. The exterior wall was largely completed by this point, but there was no roof yet, and the window here was an empty hole, with a brick wall visible beyond it. This project would eventually be completed in 1909, and four years later the northern side of the 5th Avenue facade was completed with the construction of another McKim, Mead & White addition.

As shown in the previous post, the museum would remain asymmetrical from this view for several years, but in 1917 a matching wing was built to the south, on the left side of this scene. This was the last significant change to the 5th Avenue side of the museum, but it would continue to expand to the rear, including a number of additions during the 1970s and 1980s. This incremental growth over the years has given the museum an interesting combination of architectural styles, and the original 1880 building is still standing, although it is now entirely surrounded by newer additions, with only small portions of the old exterior visible inside the building.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City (1)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, seen from the corner of 5th Avenue and East 81st Street in New York, around 1914. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, taken by Irving Underhill.

The museum in 2019:

The Metropolitan Museum of Art was established in 1870, and it opened to the public two years later. During the 1870s the museum was housed in two different temporary locations, first at 681 5th Avenue and then at 128 West 14th Street. Then, in 1880 it moved to this site in Central Park, on the west side of 5th Avenue opposite East 82nd Street. It has remained here ever since, although its exterior appearance has been radically changed by a series of expansions over the years.

The original building here was designed by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould, two of the main architects involved in designing Central Park. It featuring High Victorian Gothic-style architecture, but the exterior deliberately had an incomplete appearance, as it was intended from the beginning that it would be expanded with new wings. However, the design proved very unpopular, and Vaux and Mould were not hired for the first additions, which were built starting in the mid-1880s. Instead, these were designed by Thomas Weston and Arthur L. Tuckerman, and they were constructed on the north and south sides of the original structure. The south wing, which was completed in 1888, is partially visible here in the distance on the left side of the first photo.

Perhaps the single most distinctive feature on the exterior of the museum is the present-day entrance here on the 5th Avenue facade, which was completed in 1902. It was the work of noted architect Richard Morris Hunt, featuring a distinctive Beaux-Arts design that included three large arches, Corinthian columns, an ornate cornice, and other classically-inspired elements. On the inside, Hunt’s wing featured the Great Hall, which served as the museum’s main entryway, and it was connected to the rest of the museum by way of the Grand Staircase in the rear of the T-shaped addition. Hunt died in 1895, before construction began, but his son Richard Howland Hunt subsequently oversaw the rest of the project.

This addition was completed in 1902, but it was intended as just the first step in a much larger expansion plan for the museum. Before his death, Hunt had developed a master plan with large wings extending to the north and south of the entryway, but his vision was ultimately not carried out. Instead, the museum shifted its architectural focus yet again, this time hiring the firm of McKim, Mead & White in 1904. Perhaps best known here in New York for designing the original Penn Station, they were one of the most important architectural firms in the country during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and they designed most of what is now visible along the 5th Avenue side of the museum.

The firm’s work was partially completed by the time the first photo was taken in 1914. Immediately to the north of the main entrance are two wings, which opened in 1909 and 1913, and these were also joined by a central wing, which was completed in 1910 on the other side of the building. Architecturally, the new wings are different from Hunt’s work, but they were deliberately designed to harmonize with the design and scale of the older section. McKim, Mead & White also designed matching wings on the south side of the building, but these would not be completed until 1917, several years after the photo was taken.

The wings by McKim, Mead & White dramatically increased the amount of gallery space in the museum, but the building  continued to expand throughout the 20th century as the museum’s collections have grown. Aside from the 1917 addition on the left side of the scene, very little has changed here on the 5th Avenue side of the building, yet there have been further additions to the rear, most of which were built in the 1970s and 1980s. As a result, the original building and the late 19th century additions are now almost entirely encased in new construction, although there are portions of the old exteriors that are still visible inside the museum.

Today, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of the largest and most visited art museums in the world. From its modest beginnings in leased quarters in the 1870s, it now features more than two million works of art in more than two million square feet of gallery space, and in 2019 it drew nearly 6.5 million visitors over the course of the year. Because of the many expansions over the years, its architecture is now nearly as varied as the works of art inside it, ranging from the Beaux-Arts main entrance to the modernist glass and steel wings on the other side of the building. In recognition of this, the museum was designated as a New York City Landmark in 1967, and a National Historic Landmark in 1986.

New York Public Library Main Entrance, New York City

The main entrance to the New York Public Library at 5th Avenue and 41st Street, around 1911-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The scene in 2019:

As discussed in an earlier post, the main branch of the New York Public Library was completed here in 1911, on the west side of 5th Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets. It was designed by the noted architectural firm of Carrère and Hastings, and it features an ornate Beaux-Arts exterior. Here on 5th Avenue, the main entrance consists of three archways, each flanked by a pair of Corinthian columns. Six statues stand above the entrance, and there are also others closer to the ground, including in the alcoves on the left and right, and the lions on either side of the stairway.

The first photo was evidently taken soon after the building was opened, because not all of the statues were installed by this point. The lions, designed by sculptor Edward Clark Potter, were here, but the statues in the alcoves—Beauty and Truth by Frederick William MacMonnies—had yet to be added. Above the entrance, a lonely statue stands on the far right side in the first photo, although it would later be joined by the other five figures.

Today, more than a century after the first photo was taken, the sidewalk in front of the library is significantly more crowded, as is the skyline in the distance. However, the library has remained standing throughout this time, with hardly an exterior changes in this scene aside from the additional statuary. Over the years, the lions have become probably the most recognizable feature here at the main entrance, and they have since come to represent the library itself, even appearing in its logo. The building itself remains in use as one of the world’s largest libraries, and in 1965 it was designated as a National Historic Landmark because of its architectural and historical significance.

Mount Vernon, Virginia (4)

Looking south along the east piazza of the Mount Vernon mansion in Virginia, around 1900-1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

As shown in the previous post, perhaps the most distinctive feature of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate is the piazza here on the east side of the mansion, although it is not original to the house. The house was constructed in several stages, starting around 1734 when the future president’s father, Augustine Washington, built a small house here. This was later expanded twice by George Washington, first in 1758 with the construction of a full second story, and then in 1774 with additions on both the north and south sides, along with the piazza on the east side.

The mansion sits on a bluff about 125 feet above the Potomac River, and from here the piazza offers expansive views of the river and the Maryland shoreline on the opposite side. Following the American Revolution, George Washington had envisioned that the river would serve as the primary gateway to the west, with all of the resulting east-west traffic literally passing by his front door. He was even involved with establishing the Patowmack Company, which made navigational improvements further upstream. The river ultimately did not become the great trade route that he had hoped, but it did become the site of the new national capital of Washington, D. C., which was built only 15 miles upstream on Mount Vernon.

After George Washington’s death in 1799 and his widow Martha’s in 1802, Mount Vernon remained in the Washington family for more than 50 years. It steadily declined during this period, though, and by the late 1850s the piazza was in danger of collapsing, with ship masts being used to support the roof. Then, in 1858 the last Washington owner, John Augustine Washington III, sold the property to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. This organization restored the mansion, and opened it to the public and a museum in 1860, making it one of the first historic house museums in the country.

Very little has changed here at Mount Vernon since then. The first photo was taken at the turn of the 20th century, showing at least nine visitors, mostly women, on and around the piazza. More than a century later, it looks essentially the same as it did then, with even the same style chairs still lined up here. The estate is still owned by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, and it remains open to the public as one of the most popular tourist attractions in Virginia.

Mount Vernon, Virginia (3)

The Mount Vernon mansion in Virginia, seen from the east side around 1900-1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

As discussed in a previous post, which shows the house from the west side, Mount Vernon was the estate of George Washington, who lived here from 1754 until his death in 1799. This property had been in the Washington family since 1674, when it was acquired by John Washington. His grandson, George Washington’s father Augustine Washington, later owned the land, and around 1734 he built the original portion of this house, on the banks overlooking the Potomac River.

In 1739, Augustine Washington gave the property—which was then known as Little Hunting Creek—to his oldest son Lawrence. He subsequently renamed it Mount Vernon, in honor of his former commanding officer Admiral Edward Vernon, and he lived here until his death in 1752, when he was in his early 30s. Lawrence and his wife Anne had four children, although all of them died young, and shortly after his death she remarried to George Lee and moved out of the house.

Under the conditions of Lawrence’s will, Anne owned Mount Vernon for the rest of her life, at which point his brother George would inherit it. With the house vacant, though, Anne began leasing it to her brother-in-law starting in 1754, when George Washington was about 22 years old. In 1758 he expanded the house by adding a second story, and then in 1761 he gained ownership of the property upon Anne’s death.

In the meantime, in 1759 Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, a wealthy widow who was a year older than him. They never had any children together, but Martha had two surviving children from her first marriage, and they grew up here at Mount Vernon. This was also around the time that Washington became involved in politics. He had served with distinction as a colonel in the Virginia militia during the French and Indian War, and in 1758 he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses, where he served until the beginning of the American Revolution.

Washington further expanded the mansion here at Mount Vernon in 1774, with two-story additions on either side of the original house. The large piazza here on the east side was also added as part of this project, and it would later become perhaps the most recognizable feature of the house. However, Washington did not get to enjoy the enlarged house for very long, because in 1775 he traveled north to take command of the Continental Army, and he was away from Mount Vernon for eight years before the war ended.

At the end of the war, Washington resigned his commission in the Continental Army and returned to civilian life here at Mount Vernon. His retirement did not last for long, though, because in 1789 he was elected president. For the next eight years, Washington spent most of his time in the temporary capital cities of New York and Philadelphia, before eventually returning to Mount Vernon at the end of his second term in 1797. He lived here for the last two and a half years of his life before his death in 1799, and Martha Washington died in 1802.

With no biological children, George Washington left Mount Vernon to his nephew, Bushrod Washington, who was a justice on the U. S. Supreme Court. After his death in 1829, his nephew John Augustine Washington II inherited it, followed by John’s son, John Augustine Washington III. He was the last member of the Washington family to own Mount Vernon, and in 1858 he sold the estate to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which preserved it and turned it into a museum.

By the time the association acquired the property, the mansion was in poor condition. As with many other southern planters, the Washington family owned vast amounts of land, but had relatively little cash. Consequently, the house suffered from many years of neglect, to the point that by the 1850s ships’ masts were being used as makeshift supports for the piazza roof, which was in danger of collapsing. However, the house was subsequently restored, and it opened to the public in 1860.

The first photo was taken about 40-50 years later, showing the mansion’s appearance at the turn of the 20th century. As shown in the second photo, very little has changed since then, aside from the removal of the small porch on the left side and the balustrades over the piazza, neither of which existed during George Washington’s ownership. The estate is still owned by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and open for public tours, and it remains a popular tourist attraction, drawing an estimated one million visitors here each year.

Great Hall, Library of Congress, Washington, DC (2)

The Great Hall at the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, around 1897. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

The Great Hall at the Library of Congress was previously featured in an earlier blog post, although these photos here show a different angle, facing east toward the entrance to the Main Reading Room. As with the rest of the building, the Great Hall features ornate Beaux-Arts architecture, and it is decorated with symbolic carvings and paintings.

Starting at the bottom of this scene are three arches, which lead to the Main Reading Room. The central arch was designed by sculptor Olin L. Warner, and it features two male figures: one young, representing the search for knowledge, and the other old, representing wisdom and reflection. Above these figures is a tablet inscribed with the names of the people involved in the construction of this building, and the tablet is flanked by a pair of eagles.

On the second floor, the ceiling is supported by pairs of Corinthian columns, connected by more arches. Above each pair of columns in the foreground is a small tablet with the name of a prominent author. From left to right in this scene, they are Cervantes, Hugo, Scott, and Cooper. Further in the distance is another row of columns, and above these are painted figures of women, personifying the different genres of literature. In this scene, from left to right, they are Lyrica, Tragedy, Comedy, and History, and they were all painted by artist George Randolph Barse Jr. Beyond these, at the top of the stairs in the center of the scene, is a mosaic of Minerva, representing learning and wisdom. At 15.5 feet in height, the mosaic is more than double life size, and it was the work of artist Elihu Vedder.

The first photo was taken around 1897, the same year that this building opened. More than 120 years later, hardly anything has changed in this scene, and the Library of Congress remains one of the capital’s great architectural masterpieces, in addition to its role as one of the world’s largest libraries. Most of its collections are only accessible through the Main Reading Room, which requires a Reader Identification Card to enter. However, some of its most important items are on display here in the public parts of the building, including its copy of the Gutenberg Bible, which the library acquired in 1930. It is one of only five complete Gutenberg Bibles in the United States, and one of only 21 worldwide, and it is currently on display here in the Great Hall, just beyond the arch in the lower right corner of the present-day photo.