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Former American Folk Art Museum site will be razed
By Susan Emerson Nutter

NEW YORK CITY, N.Y. — Less than 12 years ago a new home for the American Folk Art Museum opened on West 53rd Street in Manhattan. The timing seemed appropriate enough. The beleaguered city needed something to celebrate with the Sept. 11 attacks still fresh in everyone’s mind.

What better mood-lifter than the unveiling of a beautiful architectural masterpiece that would house the most American of art – folk art. Now, little more than a decade since its unveiling, the former home of the American Folk Art museum is slated to be demolished before the year is out.

Irony seems evident with this bit of news on several levels. The folk museum building was the creation of architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien – artists whose work was initially questioned because the American Folk Art Museum building they designed and built was decidedly modern. Angular and geometric in its presentation, the building also has a bronze, opaque façade; not quite what one would associate with folk art.

With the new museum in place, financial problems became an issue. Having been vacated by the American Folk Art Museum as it needed to sell the property to pay off the $32 million it had borrowed to finance the structure; the buyer of the building was none other than the Museum of Modern Art, whose own building is adjacent to the Williams/Tsien American Folk Art Museum structure.

So MoMa purchased one of the more celebrated modern architectural structures recently erected in the city, and they plan to tear it down to expand.

The building, it seems, is in the way of their planned expansion which will connect a new tower with floors for the MoMa on the other side of the former museum. The American Folk Art Museum now operates out of a smaller site on Lincoln Square at West 66th Street. With its demolishing, the folk museum building will take a dubious place in history as having had one of the shortest lives of an architecturally ambitious project in Manhattan.

As reported in The New York Times, “It’s very rare that a building that recent comes down, especially a building that was such a major design and that got so much publicity when it opened for its design – mostly very positive,” said Andrew S. Dolkart, the director of Columbia University’s historic preservation program.

“The building is so solid looking on the street, and then it becomes a disposable artifact. It’s unusual and it’s tragic because it’s a notable work of 21st century architecture by noteworthy architects who haven’t done that much work in the city, and it’s a beautiful work with the look of a handcrafted facade.”

The decision makers at the Museum of Modern Art have nothing against the building. It’s just a matter of logistics. “MoMA officials said the building’s design did not fit their plans because the opaque facade is not in keeping with the glass aesthetic of the rest of the museum. The former folk museum is also set back farther than MoMA’s other properties, and the floors would not line up,” according to The New York Times.

“It’s not a comment on the quality of the building or Tod and Billie’s architecture,” Glenn D. Lowry, MoMA’s director said.

When the Museum of Modern Art’s expansion is finished the MoMa campus will consist of five buildings, four of them on West 53rd Street between Fifth Avenue and the Avenue of the Americas.

Contact: (212) 708-9400

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