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Beyond the Village and Back: The Whitney

Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Musuem of American Art in 1966, Ezra Stoller/Esto

When Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum of American Art opened in September 1966, New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable noted that the inverted ziggurat-like Brutalist structure had quickly become “the most disliked building in New York.” However, Huxtable also wrote that the building was a “harshly handsome…mannered tour de force in the current mode of architecture for sculpture’s sake.” The new Whitney Museum of American Art on Madison Avenue succeeded in being an art exhibition unto itself without becoming the whole show (like the Guggenheim, as Huxtable shrewdly pointed out). 

But…how does a 20th-century gargantuan granite museum building on the Upper East Side tie into the history of Greenwich Village? The Whitney Museum of American Art – whose daring and creative avant-garde ethos is imbued throughout the design of Breuer’s 1966 Brutalist masterpiece – was founded in the heart of Greenwich Village at Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s historic carriage house studio on MacDougal Alley in 1931. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875-1942) was an American sculptor and influential art collector who hailed from the wealthy Vanderbilt family and married into the wealthy Whitney family (of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin fame). Whitney used her immense financial resources to foster an environment for creative exploration in American art. Prior to founding the museum, Whitney founded and hosted the Whitney Studio and Whitney Studio Club out of this townhouse from 1914 to 1931 to nurture struggling artists with unconventional ideas. During this time, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney consolidated four townhouse and carriage house buildings to become the first location of the Whitney Museum of American Art. 

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Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s Greenwich Village studio, shown here, is a former hayloft on MacDougal Alley purchased in 1907. It was the first piece of a complex of four contiguous townhouses and carriage houses on West Eighth Street that she purchased over time and ultimately transformed into the first home of the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1931.
Tom Sibley for The New York Times
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The 8th Street façade of the original Whitney Museum of American Art, the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture since 1964. Courtesy the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Interior of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s Greenwich Village studio featuring a custom fireplace by Richard Winthrop Chandler circa 1918. Benjamin Norman for The New York Times.

After Whitney’s death in 1941, the Whitney Museum and its trustees began to explore a partnership with the Museum of Modern Art and a move Uptown. Upon the announcement of an impending move in 1943, the New York Times lamented “the passing of the original Whitney Museum…[the] reconstruction of several fine old houses served to create a museum structure quite unique; one impregnated with an atmosphere that seemed warmly reciprocal in its relation to the art there shown.” Eventually, the Whitney Museum of American Art moved into a temporary new location in 1954 adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art. Trustees continued to search for a permanent home that firmly established the Whitney as an independent arts institution. The Whitney trustees soon purchased the 13,000-square-foot lot at Madison and 75th Street that would host the museum for nearly 50 years. 

The Whitney Museum of American Art’s galleries featuring their signature concrete coffered ceilings circa 1966. Ezra Stoller/Esto.
The Sunken Sculpture Garden at the museum’s Madison Avenue entrance circa 1966. Ezra Stoller/Esto.
Marcel Breuer at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1967. Photo by Evelyne Burnheim. [Marcel Breuer Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution] via PLACES Journal.

Competition to design the new Whitney Museum was steep. Marcel Breuer was narrowly chosen over Louis Kahn for the project. He pitched an imposing building that would evoke the gravity of the power of art in its design. Breuer said, “ “Its form and material should have identity and weight … in the midst of the dynamic jungle of our colorful city. It should transform the vitality of the street into the sincerity and profundity of art.” Breuer’s Whitney Museum of American Art delivers on all of these fronts. The towering granite cladding and capricious inverted massing turned the relationship between space and weight on its head from the museum’s facade to its innermost galleries. While the museum proved an engaging vessel to view art, the square footage of the museum became limiting as the Whitney grew. After failed expansion plans designed by Michael Graves and Rem Koolhaas, in 2011 the Whitney Museum of American Art announced that it would build a new museum designed by Renzo Piano and return downtown to a waterfront lot in the Meatpacking District mere blocks away from where the museum was founded in 1931. The Whitney Museum of American Art opened in its downtown Renzo Piano building in 2015.

Renzo Piano’s 2015 Whitney Museum of American Art . Courtesy the Whitney Museum of American Art.

The Whitney Museum of American Art occupied the Marcel Breuer building from 1966 to 2014. Following the Whitney’s departure, the Metropolitan Museum of Art leased the building for contemporary art exhibitions from 2016 to 2020 when the Frick Museum began to utilize the space to display their permanent collection during an extensive renovation of their historic house museum building. The Whitney Museum of American Art’s return downtown is a boon to the cultural life of Greenwich Village and the surrounding area, but the museum’s time in the Breuer building at Madison and 75th helped the museum establish itself as the premier institution of American art.

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