Saturday, December 13, 2014

American Museum of Natural History Hopes To Seize Parkland To Build $ 325 Mil. Addition

The American Museum of Natural History hopes to seize part of Theodore Roosevelt Park in order to build a $ 325 million dollar six-story addition.  Details regarding how much parkland they hope to use have not yet been released. Any use of the park for this non-park purpose would require NY State alienation approval. The new addtion would be named after Richard Gilder, who is also a large Central Park Conservancy donor as well.  (Photo: Credit Karsten Moran for The New York Times.

NYC Park Advocates with the westside-based Committee for Environmentally Sound Development are currently in litigation over the alienation of Damrosch Park by Lincoln Center.

The American Museum of Natural History, a sprawling hodgepodge of a complex occupying nearly four city blocks, is planning another major transformation, this time along Columbus Avenue: a $325 million, six-story addition designed to foster the institution’s expanding role as a center for scientific research and education.

The new Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation would stand on a back stretch of the museum grounds near West 79th Street that is now open space.  The addition, to be completed as early as 2019 — the museum’s 150th anniversary — would be the most significant change to the museum’s historic campus since the Art Deco Hayden Planetarium building became the glass-enclosed Rose Center for Earth and Space 14 years ago.

The addition, not yet designed, would feature exhibitions showcasing scientific topics, as well as labs and theaters for scientific presentations. Since 2008, the museum, through its Richard Gilder Graduate School, has bestowed a Ph.D. in comparative biology, something rare for a museum.

In 2011, the museum also established a separate master’s program in teaching science.

“We have a real gap in the public understanding of science at the same time when many of the most important issues have science as their foundation — human health, biology, environment, biodiversity, climate change, mass extinction,” said Ellen V. Futter, the museum’s president, during an interview at her office.

“This museum has a role to play in society in terms of enhancing the role of science.”

The museum, with its dioramas, castlelike turrets, cavernous hallways and giant whale, is one of the best-known buildings in the city, partly because school trips there are such an integral part of a New York City childhood.

Many others have come to know a version of it through the film “Night at the Museum.”

The expansion will probably face close scrutiny from residents of the Upper West Side. That neighborhood is known for its fierce development battles, such as the 1956 fight over the Adventure Playground at West 67th Street in Central Park, which the city’s “master builder,” Robert Moses, had wanted to turn into a new parking lot for Tavern on the Green. More recently, there were conflicts over renovation of the New-York Historical Society’s museum. 

Though Central Park is only a block from the museum, proposals to reduce any open space in the city can be particularly contentious. Museum officials said that while there were no drawings yet defining the addition’s footprint, they recognize the interest in preserving city parkland, which the museum sits on.

“The vast majority of the open space on the west side of the museum, between 77th and 81st Streets, will remain open space when the project is completed,” said Ann Siegel, the museum’s senior vice president for operations and capital programs.

The museum is a veteran of such debates, having successfully weathered protests over its Rose Center, which some neighbors had argued would ruin the neighborhood.

Ms. Futter sounded prepared. “We take it very seriously, and I’m sure it will be an important discussion,” she said, adding, “We want it to be sensitive to being a museum in a park in a historically designated area and in the West Side community.”

Because the museum is a landmark owned by the city and on Theodore Roosevelt Park, its addition must be approved by various city agencies, including the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the Cultural Affairs Department and the parks department.

“We’ve been informed about their proposed addition and will be reviewing it with the board in the future,” William T. Castro, the parks department’s Manhattan borough commissioner, replied in a statement when asked about the museum’s plan.

But the city’s preliminary support is already reflected in $15 million included in the city’s capital budget for the addition.  Richard Gilder, a stockbroker and longtime donor to the museum, is contributing another $50 million; a third of the cost has already been raised from these and other sources.  For its architect, the museum has selected Jeanne Gang, a MacArthur Fellow and founder and principal of Studio Gang, whose projects include Aqua Tower and the Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo — both in Chicago, where the firm is based.

Ms. Gang said it was too early to discuss how the addition would interact with the existing complex, which encompasses about 25 buildings constructed at different times in styles including Romanesque, Victorian Gothic and modern glass and steel.  The museum chose Ms. Gang, Ms. Futter said, because she designs “on a human scale” and has demonstrated “an acute sensitivity and sensibility about the relationship of nature to the built environment in an urban setting.”

The new center’s permanent exhibits would be created by Ralph Appelbaum, who has designed several areas in the American Museum of Natural History — including the Dinosaur Halls and the Hall of Biodiversity — as well as projects like the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Clinton Presidential Center.

Over all, the addition would total 218,000 square feet, roughly the size of the new Whitney Museum of American Art downtown. Of that, 180,000 square feet would be new; the rest would incorporate existing space.

The addition would improve visitor circulation throughout the entire museum, Ms. Futter said, and create spaces targeted to different age groups. There also would be food and retail areas. 

Connecting to the existing museum on its western side, where there is now an entrance, the addition would be the same height as the current main building, Ms. Futter said.  With the expansion, the museum also wants to better accommodate its swelling visitor numbers — attendance has increased to five million visitors a year from three million in the 1990s — and a collection that has grown to include more than 33 million specimens and artifacts.  In addition to the expansion of its degree-granting programs, the museum has developed a more formal relationship with the city’s Education Department, training teachers and, along with other cultural institutions, supporting middle school science investigations through the Urban Advantage program.

Founded in 1869 and chartered by New York State as a museum and library, the institution today employs 200 research scientists who each year conduct more than 100 expeditions around the world.

And the museum has “the largest free-standing natural history library in the Western Hemisphere,” Ms. Futter said.

“We have always been something of a hybrid,” she said. “It’s long been a scientific institute.”

The museum is also responding to a digital imperative, Ms. Futter said, to present information about “invisible worlds” like the human brain, the depths of the ocean, the outer reaches of the atmosphere or the composition of a grain of sand.

Mr. Gilder has been involved in every major initiative of the museum’s during the last 20 years, Ms. Futter said, having spearheaded the Rose Center, for example. His gift will put his total contributions to the museum at more than $125 million during that period, making him the single largest donor in the institution’s history.

Referring to Ms. Futter and Lewis W. Bernard, the museum’s chairman, Mr. Gilder said, “When you have leaders like that, you want to give them all the ammunition they need.” 

On a larger level, the expansion represents the changing nature of museums, Ms. Futter said, and a departure from their role as “cabinets of curiosity.”

“They were about collecting things and cataloging things,” she said.

“Now what we’re interested in is what the connections are among the different things that we have. It’s a much more interdisciplinary world.”  “This facility is going to transform what it means to be a museum in the 21st century,” she added, “what we do, how we do it and whom we reach.”

Read More:

American Museum of Natural History Plans an Addition
New York Times - December 10, 2014 - By Robin Pogrebin 

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