A museum goes up on the Upper West Side

When the American Museum of Natural History was created in 1869, its home was the Central Park Arsenal.

By 1862, it had outgrown that space. So museum bigwigs obtained land called Manhattan Square across Central Park West from 77th to 81st Streets. Plans for a grand, world-class natural history museum were drawn up.

The first building, above, opened in 1877. It sure looks lonely all by itself out there on the empty and untamed–looking Upper West Side, doesn’t it? (photo from the Museum of the City of New York)

Piece by piece, the rest of the museum came together, until finally the Beaux-Arts Central Park West entrance was completed in 1936.

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7 Responses to “A museum goes up on the Upper West Side”

  1. Museum in the West Side Wilderness « museummonger Says:

    […] Ephemeral New York posted this awe-inspiring pic of the American Museum of Natural History building back when visiting the Upper West Side was known as “going out to the country.” […]

  2. petey Says:

    i know i’ve said this before, but still, it’s amazing that in the not too distant past the center of manhattan was occupied by rubble and pools (and homesteads: i’m thinking of the picture taken SW from that museum when it was young).

  3. wildnewyork Says:

    I know, and think of the pigs and goats and other animals roaming around Seneca Village and other neighborhoods. Life changed drastically in the late 19th century.

  4. T.J. Connick Says:

    Manhattan Square was purchased by the City to be a section of Central Park lying west of Eighth Ave. (Central Park West). Museum bigwigs didn’t buy any land. They were rather able gents, you must recall, and like their counterparts today, were great ones for sipping the champagne, making speeches, and posing for pictures — while someone else paid the bills.

    Even today’s bunch haven’t lost the touch for cutting themselves in for more credit than is their due. A glance at their web site’s history page reveals the kind of slippery-lawyer phrasing that never goes out of fashion.

    1872…The Museum…secures Manhattan Square…to build a bigger facility”

    Well, they may like the feeling of having secured, but it would be like some kid using the word to describe how he got his new toys from Santy Claus. The City annexed the land to the park years before; the city gave the entire square, to be used rent-free; the city obligated itself to erect the first building; the city incurred the costs associated with preparing a suitable 18-acre setting for construction; the city committed to ongoing maintenance; the city issued bonds for further construction. Almost a century and half later, we’re still paying.

    Through resolutions in City Hall, and through legislation in Albany, they managed to get the city into a permanent position of patronage for their Museum (it certainly isn’t ours). In 2009, it cost us over $18 million. And if you’re thinking of going to their Museum, it will cost you $16, and $9 for each of the kids.

    My research was hasty, and if I got things wrong, welcome correction. We spend lots more on less worthy projects, but it is a great tradition in our town for others to take credit when the taxpayer was the one who laid out. Irksome, no?

    Another note: It is hard to “fit” the first image to the second. They didn’t raze or rebuild the original building, but merely surrounded it with subsequent construction. The original building shows obliquely its wide, east-facing side to the camera. The shot was probably taken from a point along the west side of Central Park West, somewhere below 81st Street, and shows the first building roughly halfway between Central Park West and Columbus. The south side of the original building lay between the 77th Street boundary of the property and the line of 78th Street. The north side (in shadow) only approaches a point midway between where the lines of 78th and 79th Streets cross the square.

    The early plan envisioned a square encompassing a cross, with captured courtyards within. The first building and the remarkable 77th-Street facade were laid out accordingly.

  5. Linden78 Says:

    A great little bit of history from the Upper West Side. These are some great old images of both of the museum locations. Thanks for sharing =)

  6. Vintage Photographs of Famous NYC Museums in Their Original Incarnations: Guggenheim NYC, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum, MoMA | Untapped Cities Says:

    […] we know today. Between 1869 and 1877, the newly created Museum of Natural History held a temporary residence at the Central Park Armory while its current location at Central Park West was being […]

  7. Meet the original Upper West Side old timers | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] also recalled Manhattan Square (created before Central Park was built across the street from today’s Museum of Natural […]

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