Eighty-five years ago today, on April 6, 1926, The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened the "Pompeian Court," a new gallery space for classical art, to the public. Located in the Museum's recently constructed southern wing ("Wing K") designed by McKim, Mead and White, this gallery space was the company's last for the Metropolitan since becoming its official architect in 1904.
Planning for Wing K began in 1912, when the Building Committee of the Museum's Board of Trustees requested that the architects create plans for two contiguous wings (Wings J and K) to extend from the southern end of the Great Hall. The Museum's new director, Edward Robinson, was deeply interested in Wing K because it would eventually house portions of the classical art collection, which he had curated since 1909. In April 1912, Robinson wrote to McKim, Mead and White from Rome requesting that Wing K be a one-story, Pompeian-style court with a central garden. He believed that the new wings offered a unique opportunity to design galleries befitting the collections. Additionally, he felt a Pompeian-style court would create a dramatic vista at the end of Wing J's long corridor of galleries and would serve as a classical foil to the Renaissance and medieval character of Wing H (The Sackler Wing, which mirrors Wing K at the north end of the Great Hall).
In June, architect William Rutherford Mead responded to Robinson's letter, expressing his preference for a two-story court: "Personally I think it would [be] bad to come from the [Richard Morris] Hunt grand hall—through the high gallery—and land in a one story peristyle." He promised, however, to postpone construction until Robinson returned from Europe. But the director held his ground, and construction commenced in July 1914 according to his proposal.
Work proceeded slowly on Wings J and K as a result of World War I, which delayed shipments of limestone from France. By December 1917, sections of Wing J had opened to the public, though construction on Wing K was put on hold until after the war. In the fall of 1922, Robinson resurrected his Pompeian Court design, working out a detailed plan that incorporated the placement of historically and geographically accurate plants. Though Robinson consulted numerous landscape architects and horticulturists on the matter, the difficulties of inadequate drainage and light prevented the inclusion of such plants as Italian cypresses, and Robinson was forced to substitute American red cedars. The American red cedars provided a similar sense of the outdoors but were readily found in the United States and could survive the Museum's conditions. (See McKim, Mead and White's 1923 floor plan and south elevation drawings of the court.)
With the final adjustments to the garden complete, Wing K opened for a private viewing on April 5, 1926, and to the public the following morning. The court, which measured 97 by 129 feet with a 26-foot-high colonnade on all four sides, received overwhelmingly positive reviews and was declared a triumph by the press. In the 1926 Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Robinson predicted that "the whole Wing K will be found the most beautiful part of our building—until the next one is built."
In April 2007, the Museum completed a dramatic renovation of these galleries, which still house the classical art collection (now known as the Department of Greek and Roman Art). With the opening of spaces for Hellenistic, Etruscan, South Italian, and Roman art, the Museum now displays more than 5,300 objects in an area of more than thirty thousand square feet. The focal point of the galleries, as Edward Robinson would be pleased to see, is the Leon Levy and Shelby White Court—a monumental, skylit, peristyle gallery, though now with a soaring two-story atrium.
Anna Bernhard is an intern in the Museum Archives.
Heckscher, Morrison H. "The Metropolitan Museum of Art: An Architectural History." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol. 53, No. 1 (Summer 1995).