By Christopher Gray
Whiter the Whitney? Yes, it’s got a swell building designed by Renzo Piano under way in the meatpacking district, to be finished in 2015. But what about its structure at 75th and Madison, where Jacqueline Kennedy attended the ribbon-cutting in 1966? Ornery and menacing, it may be New York’s most bellicose work of architecture.
The artist, heiress and collector Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney established the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1931 in back of her studio in some row houses at 10-14 West Eighth Street. In the 1950s the Whitney jumped to a small structure behind the Museum of Modern Art. In 1961 the museum enlarged its board — to include, for instance, Mrs. Kennedy — and began seeking a site for a larger building.
The board found just the spot at the southeast corner of Madison and 75th Street, which was owned by the developer and art collector Ian Woodner. He had cleared it of a lovely little group of houses, including a brick-and-brownstone Queen Anne, an Edwardian limestone and a demure neo-Federal. Mr. Woodner, who had intended to erect an apartment house, agreed to sell the property to the Whitney.
The board, despite a mission to encourage American art, hired the architect Marcel Breuer, who was Hungarian-born and Bauhaus-trained, to design a building.
Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
A 1963 rendering of the museum shows it almost as it stands, projecting out over Madison Avenue like a medieval fortress, with oddly shaped windows reminiscent of the gun ports of the Maginot Line. But in the rendering the panels of granite are variegated in tone, giving the building a life it does not have today with its more uniform masonry.
In an article Dec. 12, 1963, Ada Louise Huxtable, the architecture critic for The New York Times, praised the initial design, finding it “serious and somber,” and “sympathetic to its neighbors.” But harmony was not, apparently, Breuer’s intent, since in 1966 Newsweek quoted him as saying that the neighboring brownstones and town houses “aren’t any good.”
By this point the elite had accepted modernist architecture, and anyone who protested risked denunciation as a hayseed. But the art critic Emily Genauer, writing in The New York Herald Tribune, also on Dec. 12, cautiously ventured that the new building seemed “oppressively heavy.”
A fortnight later Mrs. Huxtable backtracked slightly, saying that “it might be too somber and severe for many tastes,” but was still “careful” and “conscientious.” Her description, however, used the words bulky, sunken, gloomy, stygian and Alcatraz within three sentences.
The Whitney opened in 1966, and the hayseed lobby had apparently made itself known to Mrs. Huxtable; while acknowledging that it was “the most disliked building in New York,” she still admired Breuer’s design.
But Miss Genauer called it “the Madison Avenue Monster.” And Thomas B. Hess, writing in Art News, was of the opinion that the granite gave the museum “a mineral, prison look.” However, the stark concrete interiors received wide praise.
In 1967 the brash new “A. I. A. Guide to New York City,” by the architects Norval White and Elliot Willensky, quipped that passers-by should “beware of boiling oil,” but also called Breuer’s work a must-see. It was as if, as Olga Gueft put it in Interiors Magazine, the high-culture stamp of the Whitney and its trustees made it “completely invulnerable.”
Most writers at the time expressed skepticism about the Whitney’s choice of a cramped site. And only a little more than a decade after opening there was talk of a critical need to expand. In the 1980s the architect Michael Graves proposed demolishing the flanking brownstones down to the 74th Street corner for a complementary addition.
But in 1980 the Whitney had been included in the Upper East Side Historic District, designed to preserve just those buildings that Breuer had deprecated to Newsweek. The landmark designation caught up good and bad alike, and Mr. Graves’s proposal was not the only one that failed on the grounds of either the loss of the brownstones, or the changes to the Whitney.
It is easy to imagine the conniption fits the Whitney of 1966 would meet if it were being built today; its threatening character spears every tenet of people-friendly cities now held dear. In comparison the reviled white brick apartment houses of the 1960s are absolutely benign.
Even in an age where traditionalism has triumphed, Breuer’s granite bunker is still aesthetically bombproof. If its architecture is like a horror movie, it is like a Stephen King horror movie, unimpeachably literate.
The Whitney hasn’t said what it intends to do with the old museum after it completes its downtown structure, and perhaps it will operate the two in tandem.
If it decides to sell, it will be offering a monument that is probably unexpandable, even unchangeable, and unmistakably the brand of a single famous institution. Even if Breuer’s building comes into other hands, the name Whitney will never be far removed from this singular edifice.