Opinion

The Changing Façades of the Whitney Museum

The original facade of the very first Whitney Museum of American Art, located on 8 West Eighth Street (photo by @michaelferguson/Instagram)
The original facade of the very first Whitney Museum of American Art, located on 8 West Eighth Street, and currently the New York Studio School (photo by @michaelferguson/Instagram)

New Yorkers caught a glimpse of a hidden, historic slice of the Whitney Museum last week when the original inscription of the institution, which opened in 1931 in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, surfaced for the first time in over 50 years. As the New York Times reported, the recent removal of a sidewalk shed revealed the old signage lodged into the museum’s coral-colored stucco facade. The shed belonged to the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture, which took over the land in 1967; the Whitney had migrated to 22 West 54th Street in 1954 — likely the last time the inscription was visible to the public. This week, the Studio School reinstalled its sign over the Whitney inscription, but its brief exposure was a reminder of the museum’s humble roots and of how much architecture defines its image today.

The recent unveiling of the original sign was like discovering a relic: the building’s facade had experienced a layering rather than a complete replacement of signs, with the lowest stratum — the Whitney’s — lying under a sign belonging to the headquarters of the “National Recreation Association,” which the Studio School then covered with its own when it moved in. (Workers had uncovered the signs last year as part of the School’s ongoing reconstruction, but the museum inscription lay hidden until just last week.) The original letters of the inscription are Roman-style and carefully chiseled in marble, and the inscription provides context to the stylized, cast-aluminum eagle with spread wings that rests above it, always visible through the decades.

Designed by painter Karl Free, who was part of the original curatorial staff, the bird was a symbol associated with the Whitney during the museum’s first three decades of operation. Supporting the inscription are also two simple, fluted white marble columns that flank the entranceway, made of red Numidian marble.

The Whitney's facade at its 54th Street location (photo by Ezra Stoller / Esto) (click to enlarge)
The Whitney’s facade at its 54th Street location (photo by Ezra Stoller / Esto, and used with permission) (click to enlarge)

The Whitney abandoned this classical style when it made the jump to Midtown, where the five-story building designed by August L. Noel greatly increased its square footage. The museum’s inscription, too, grew to span the width of the facade and was comprised of embossed letters loudly pronouncing the Whitney’s title against a plain, brick surface. The eagle remained, this time rendered from head to talon as a massive gold-and-black bronze emblem, poised to take flight next to the massive signage.

The Breuer Building (photo via Wikipedia)
The Breuer Building (photo via Wikipedia)

This all disappeared from the Marcel Breuer-designed Whitney of 1966, which had no fixed sign at all — and definitely not one anyone I asked could remember. Sidewalk banners advertised its name, but the building’s modular exterior remained naked of lettering (Lawrence WeinerKay Rosen, and guerrilla protests aside). Architecture became intrinsic to identity; the building was both a cultural icon and a visual vehicle to heighten the museum’s profile. The same goes for the new Whitney in the Meatpacking District, which has digital screens in its courtyard but no apparently no prominent permanent inscription declaring it a museum of American art. That very lack emphasizes that it simply does not need one: the much-anticipated Renzo Piano structure, with its distinct architectural offerings, expresses the Whitney Museum’s status as not just an institution of but also a destination for culture.

The current Whitney Museum by Renzo Piano (photo by Shinya Suzuki/Flickr)
The current Whitney Museum by Renzo Piano (photo by Shinya Suzuki/Flickr)

Of course, this also speaks to the scope of advertising today: one can scrub one’s name from the walls when other surfaces — subway notices, brochures, et cetera — can spread identity for you. With that in mind, rediscovering the original, quiet Whitney inscription with its classical adornments also recalls a bygone time when museums engaged with their communities in entirely different ways.

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