New steps not a step up at the Met

By James Gardner | May 07, 2009 03:20PM

This may not sound like much, but they have just finished restoring the steps in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After a full year of complicated renovations, first on the northern half of the steps and then on the southern half, the museum has finally cleared away the ugly and laborious fencing and tarps. 

But the completion of all that work is far more than simply a question of restoring some steps: for the stairs leading up to the Met, at Fifth Avenue and 82nd street, represent one of the grandest urban spaces in New York City and almost certainly the noblest and most popular on the entire Upper East Side.

While undergoing renovations, however, these steps could not serve their essential urban function as a public gathering space, especially since the tourists and locals who would ordinarily sit on them in fair weather were shooed away while work was ongoing. To make matters worse — far worse than was generally understood by most of the locals — Manhattan’s Washington Square Park and the Josie Robertson Plaza in front of Lincoln Center were and remain closed over the past year. Though one hears rumors that Washington Square Park may open any day now, the work at Lincoln Center, which was supposed to end last September, is now scheduled to continue into next year.

Because of all those closures, New York City was, last summer, a decidedly duller place than it would ordinarily have been and than it will be in the coming months.

As for the Met, unfortunately one has to report that the results look exactly like what was there before, since the modifications had largely to do with renovations invisible to the naked eye. This is not the fault of the museum. Though it is responsible for the upkeep of the stairs, the steps themselves are under the jurisdiction of the city, and the federal money that the Met received for the project could address only structural and utilitarian issues, rather than matters of design.

Still there is reason to regret a missed opportunity to redress a grave error in design. When the Met’s original Richard Morris Hunt Fifth Avenue facade was unveiled early in the 20th century, it was furnished with a stairway that very soon came to seem far too small. But when the wise decision was made, some seven decades later, to create a far vaster entrance, the architecture firm Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates conceived the stairs in a pared down style that was appealing to contemporary tastes, but that sorted ill with the Beaux Arts style of the rest of the facade.

Now would have been the time to remedy that error, but we will apparently have to wait longer for that. We can take comfort, at least, in the knowledge that a great urban space has been restored to us.

James Gardner, formerly the architecture critic of the New York Sun, writes on the visual arts for several publications.