After three years of renovation, the Cooper Hewitt, at 2 East 91st Street, has reopened to the public. The Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of Design has undergone a major overhaul of its home in the former Carnegie Mansion, located in the Carnegie Hill neighborhood on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
The mansion was designed by Babb, Cook & Willard and completed in 1902, with Andrew Carnegie and his family moving in on December 12. No doubt the museum has chosen its reopening date of December 12 for that significance. On the south side of the block lies the Carnegie Mansion Garden, designed by Guy Lowell and Richard Schermerhorn Jr. in 1901.
Andrew Carnegie's story is quintessentially American. He emigrated to the U.S. from Scotland with his parents in 1848, at the age of 12, after his father's job as hand loom weaver was displaced by the steam loom technology born of the Industrial Revolution. Ironically, Andrew would eventually find wealth investing in other technologies of the Industrial Revolution, including railroads, bridges, and oil derricks. In 1901, Carnegie would become the richest man in the world with the sale of his company, Carnegie Steel, to J.P. Morgan. This resulted in the founding of the nation's first billion dollar company, U.S. Steel. Carnegie would spend his later years devoted to giving away his fortune through philanthropic endeavors and managed by his Carnegie Corporation of New York, established in 1911. Some of the current generation of tech titans have followed a similar path with their fortunes, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Carnegie died in 1919, but his wife lived on in the mansion till her death in 1946. With the family gone, the mansion transitioned into an institutional role. Initially home to the Columbia School of Social Work in 1949, the mansion would eventually be donated to the Smithsonian Institute to become the home of the Cooper Hewitt in 1972. The landmarked structure was renovated by Hardy Holzman & Pfieffer Associates and opened its doors to the public on October 7, 1976. A subsequent renovation of the fourth floor spaces and the linking of the two adjacent townhouses to the musuem followed in 1998 by Polshek & Partners (now Ennead Architects).
The museum's newly opened renovation began in the planning stages in 2006, but construction didn't begin until 2011 with the closing of the museum. Gluckman Mayner Architects with Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners were brought in to helm the extensive renovations, with additional design support from Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Pentagram. The three year construction project has resulted in five times the amount of space previously available for the permanent exhibition and sixty percent more space for special exhibitions.
Though the renovation project has been long, it has proven to be well worth it. The public has been given an engaging museum that connects with our society's fascination with technology and history. Like a Wes Anderson movie, the visitor inhabits a place from one bygone era while perusing objects from many others. Exhibits are well integrated into this unique context for a museum. Rather than residing in the typical white walled box, objects often reside within the mansion's details, such as the Process Lab's exhibits located within the shelving of Carnegie's beloved library. There is a wonderful contrast between the mansion's 19th century details and the new, contemporary interventions like the information desk, new circulation stair, or the 4K touch screen tables throughout the building. As for the technology that has been infused throughout the renovated museum, visitors of all ages seemed thoroughly engaged. Technology can sometimes come across as a gimmick in its implementation in a museum, but the Cooper Hewitt seems to have avoided such pitfalls.
New York has been given a fantastic, revitalized museum to celebrate design and inspire a new generation to create the technology of the future.
Architects: Gluckman Mayner Architects, Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners, Diller Scofidio + Renfro; Landscape Architects: Hood Design; Engineering: Goppion S.P.A.; Exhibition Design: THINC; Visitor Experience: Local Projects, GE, Sistelnetworks, Undercurrent, Ideum; Graphic Identity: Pentagram, Village; Location: Carnegie Hill, New York, NY; Completion: December 12, 2014.