Jacqueline Kennedy attended the opening of the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1966. Jack Manning/The New York Times

Whither the Whitney? Yes, it’s got a swell building designed by Renzo Piano under way in the meatpacking district, to be finished in 2015. But what about its structure at 75th and Madison, where Jacqueline Kennedy attended the ribbon-cutting in 1966? Ornery and menacing, it may be New York’s most bellicose work of architecture.

The artist, heiress and collector Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney established the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1931 in back of her studio in some row houses at 10-14 West Eighth Street. In the 1950s the Whitney jumped to a small structure behind the Museum of Modern Art. In 1961 the museum enlarged its board — to include, for instance, Mrs. Kennedy — and began seeking a site for a larger building.

The board found just the spot at the southeast corner of Madison and 75th Street, which was owned by the developer and art collector Ian Woodner. He had cleared it of a lovely little group of houses, including a brick-and-brownstone Queen Anne, an Edwardian limestone and a demure neo-Federal. Mr. Woodner, who had intended to erect an apartment house, agreed to sell the property to the Whitney.

The board, despite a mission to encourage American art, hired the architect Marcel Breuer, who was Hungarian-born and Bauhaus-trained, to design a building


Christopher Gray
New York Times