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Demolition Decision: American Folk Art Museum’s Former Building Gets MoMA-ized

Building site for the MoMA Monster Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Building site for the growing MoMA Monster, as it appeared two days ago
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

There was a lot of late-night handwringing (some of which you may have caught on my Twitter feed) bemoaning yesterday’s announcement of the imminent demolition by the Museum of Modern Art of the 12-year-young former flagship facility of the American Folk Art Museum. I regard its failed interior as unworthy of saving, although its distinctive (if somewhat forbidding) sculptural bronze façade (with its almost hidden recessed entrance) might have merited preservation:

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MoMA bought this building (which adjoins it) from AFAM in 2011 for $31.2 million, after the Folk Art Museum defaulted on the bonds that had bankrolled the construction of this building. AFAM then decamped to what had been its small satellite facility, located near Lincoln Center.

Two years ago, I had predicted this outcome, describing AFAM’s building as “a sliver museum, wedged into a tight space, with dark, narrow galleries.” I criticized the interior’s “inhospitability” and also mentioned my astonishing discovery, during an earlier visit, of a condensation leak that was creating a growing puddle directly beneath one of the museum’s most celebrated treasures:

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Ammi Phillips, “Girl in a Red Dress with Cat and Dog,” 1830-35, American Folk Art Museum, gift of the Siegman Trust, Ralph Esmerian, trustee
Photo by John Parnell

Paul Goldberger, the distinguished architecture critic, last night blasted MoMA for its demolition decision in this tweet:

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My rejoinder was this:

AFAMTweet

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American Folk Art Museum (with red banner) on the last day that its Williams/Tsien-designed 53rd Street building was open to the public
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

At the press preview, almost a year ago, for the Barnes Foundation’s new facility in Philadelphia, Tod Williams (co-architect, along with his wife, Billie Tsien, for both AFAM and the Philly Barnes) expressed fears over AFAM’s uncertain fate in a conversation with a small group of reporters. Here’s what I wrote about his remarks:

[Williams has] been trying to learn the likely fate (alteration? gut renovation? demolition?) of his ex-American Folk Art building, purchased last summer by the adjoining, land-grabbing Museum of Modern Art.

Williams said that he had contacted Hines, the developer for the planned Jean Nouvel-designed tower, which is to rise on the vacant lot to the left of AFAM… and would contain a new MoMA addition at its base. “The developer said it would just as soon tear it [AFAM] down, but MoMA hasn’t told them yet [what it wants to do],” Williams told us.

Responding to my query about this, a MoMA spokesperson said that the fate of the folk art museum’s former building “is still TBD [to be determined].”

I got that same response just two days ago at a MoMA press preview, when I again asked the museum’s spokesperson whether any decision had been made regarding the building’s future. As it turned out, a decision had indeed been made. But Robin Pogrebin apparently had the “Times First” prerogative to publish ahead of the rest of us.

Here’s the official statement that MoMA released to me shortly after Robin’s piece hit the Times’ website. (As far as I can tell, MoMA’s statement is not posted on the museum’s website.):

The Museum of Modern Art has thoughtfully considered the ways in which the property can best be used to provide additional space for the Museum’s exhibitions and programs. After an extensive review [or at least a decent cooling-off period], the Museum has determined that it is not feasible to incorporate the building into its development plans. Therefore, the building will be demolished later this year.

This will allow the Museum to seamlessly integrate the property with the current Museum and with the new gallery space that will be contained in a new tower designed by Jean Nouvel and developed by Hines. While a time frame for construction of that building has not yet been determined, the Museum is now in the process of selecting an architect for this project.

Actually, Robin had already reported on the supposedly “not yet…determined” timeframe for the new building:

Construction of the Nouvel project is expected to start in 2014, with both new buildings being completed simultaneously in 2017 or 2018, Mr. [Glenn] Lowry [MoMA's director] said.

As CultureGrrl readers well know, I’m no fan of what I’ve repeatedly called the MoMA Monster—Nouvel’s overbearingly incongruous 1,050-foot high skyscraper, looming over residential 54th Street. But although I had mourned the downsizing of AFAM (and urged that the then endangered museum be rescued), I was never a fan of its ill-fated building, as you can hear in this narrated CultureGrrl Slideshow (previously posted here) of my visit to AFAM’s moribund headquarters on the last day it was open to the public:

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