Monday, January 5, 2015

American Museum of Natural History Plans a $325M Addition

The American Museum of Natural History, a sprawling complex occupying nearly four city blocks, is planning another major transformation: 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 stretch of the museum grounds along Columbus Avenue near West 79th Street that is now part of Theodore Roosevelt Park. The museum hopes to open the new building in 2019 or 2020, marking the institution’s 150th anniversary.

The addition 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.

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. There also would be food and retail areas.

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.

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.

The museum, with its dioramas, castle-like 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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

The museum also has the largest free-standing natural history library in the Western Hemisphere.

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