New York Historical Society face-lift falls flat

Given how much pain and suffering the New York Historical Society has been through in recent years (at one point they had to sell off paintings and other assets simply to remain open) one would like to have a more favorable reaction to its much touted three-year, $65 million renovation, which was unveiled two weeks ago. But the results, more often than not, are clumsy and in one case disastrous.

The Historical Society, at 170 Central Park West, between 76th and 77th streets, is such a stuffy institution that the word “stuffy,” you could almost believe, was invented to describe its sober, silent and unchanging corridors and galleries. But like many stuffy institutions, it seems to wish to present itself as something other than stuffy, something more people-friendly and contemporary. Whatever one thinks of this ambition, it is surely understandable that the Historical Society, founded in 1804, should wish to do whatever it can to welcome more visitors.

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In the latest revamping, overseen by Platt Byard Dovell White Architects, there has been little change to the exterior of the building, designed by York and Sawyer and completed in 1908,
with the addition, in 1938, of two lateral pavilions designed by Walker & Gillette. The only detectable change is the glazing of the three doorways on Central Park West, in a way that actually works rather well.

Once inside, however, one notices that the glass structure that serves as a transitional space from the entrance to the lobby itself has been set at an oblique angle, a somewhat pretentious declaration, through this jolt of deconstructivst contemporaneity, that this is no longer your great-great grandfather’s NYHS. Once you enter, this mood is enhanced by the inclusion of a dropped Keith Haring ceiling near the ticketing center, and a clamorous assemblage of objects scattered about the lobby. The results are not especially promising, but they are perhaps defensible on the ground that the Society has to do what it can to look contemporary and in any case these modifications can be easily undone.

What is inexcusable, however, is the violence done to the auditorium. It used to be one of the most beautiful and beautifully preserved auditoriums in the city, a pristine Beaux Arts monument of such dignity that simply to sit in it was to feel ennobled. This was the sort of space that architects have been studiously recreating around the world in recent years. It was the sort of space for whose preservation Landmarks committees were first instituted among men. And
now it has been recklessly laid waste for the sake of an entirely undistinguished, vaguely modernist space. The seating, which was that of a bygone theater, has been replaced by amorphous modern versions, the gilded garlands and grace notes have vanished, and the the walls have been covered over in a pale, bland wood. That transformation, unlike what was done to the lobby, can never be undone.