MoMA vs. Folk Art Museum Inspires A Petition With A History Lesson: Don't Forget Penn Station

04/16/2013 10:16 am ET | Updated Jun 16, 2013
Dan Nguyen / Flickr

Last week, we reported on the Museum of Modern Art's decision to raze the neighboring ex-Folk Art Museum, a narrow building widely considered one of the architectural triumphs of this century. This week brings more hopeful news: people are agitating.

So far two petitions are circulating on, both of which are near their signature goals (but could probably use yours, if you're so inclined).

"The simple goal [of petitioning] is to ask that the MoMA reconsider the demolition and further study the building's incorporation into the MoMA campus," architect Matthew Baird told the Huffington Post over the phone. Baird, who served as the project architect on the Folk Art building (which was designed by architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien), pointed out how "out of step with our time" MoMA's stance seems.

"We're at a moment of thinking about recycling and reuse of materials. When you have an architectural gem like the Folk Art building, you would think that a great deal of effort would be put into reusing it and trying to reposition it within the MoMA's collection of buildings."

Indeed, time is on the side of Folk Art building defenders, not only culturally, but also in terms of lessons learned. As one of the petitions -- headed, "Why don't they destroy 'Starry Night' while they're at it?" -- frames it, demolishing the "seminal" Folk Art building should bring to mind the destruction of another New York City landmark, the original Penn Station.

That historic mistake, perpetrated near where the MoMA and Folk Art buildings shoulder each other in midtown Manhattan today, offers a few striking parallels. The light-filled old station got the ax not only because demand for its service, rail travel, was on the decline, and it stood on valuable ground (both conditions of which apply to the Folk Art building), but because it was out of style, "an ungainly relic [of the Gilded Age] compared to the modern architecture of the 1960s," as Susannah Broyles put it last year, in a post about the rise of historic preservation on the Museum of the City of New York blog.

The MoMA's official line deals with functional incompatibilities that prevent an imminent (arguably poorly conceived) expansion -- those pesky uneven floors. But it's unlikely the museums' aesthetic differences haven't also played some role, one not emphasized by the MoMA because of how petty and indefensible the critique might sound. The MoMA, all glass and light, stands in stark contrast to the tiny Folk Art building, whose dark, hand-tooled exterior is one of the counter-intuitive features that give it the appeal of a "cult classic," as online commenters are calling it.

In a plea to MoMA to reconsider, architecture critic Justin Davidson, writing at Vulture last week, confronted the taste issue, comparing the museum to a homeowner with a militant approach to interior design. "To MoMA, absorbing rather than tossing the Folk Art Museum would be like furnishing a pristine modernist house with an overstuffed floral couch. Its aesthetes can't bear the incongruity."

Davidson offers the counterexample of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose forthcoming expansion into a building deserted by the Whitney will save a "tough and quirky modern landmark," rather than destroy one. In fact, the Met made itself an example decades ago, Davidson points out, when it absorbed a freestanding, distinct structure that today lives on as the American Wing.

This unfolding saga coincides with the Met becoming a true modernist competitor for the first time in history, thanks to its recent Cubist coup. Davidson's is therefore a challenge the MoMA might consider worth taking on: expand your sense of taste, or the task of growing larger with integrity will be the first contest the Met wins.