Though the Metropolitan Museum of Art has often been accused of elitism, the landmark institution’s granite front steps numbered among New York City’s most democratic public spaces. On any given day tourists, panhandlers, patrician Upper East Side locals, and New Yorkers of all variety would meet, sit, linger, people-watch, or perhaps read a book on the Met’s front steps or in the tree-lined plaza they overlook. That is, until 2012, when the museum boarded up its front courtyard and plaza for a renovation — a first since the steps and courtyard landscaping were added to the Met’s frontal façade in 1968, as part of an expansion designed by Kevin Roche and John Dinkledoo.
The much-beloved public space reopened last week after a thorough, if subtle, overhaul by Philadelphia-based landscape architects OLIN. The redesign leaves much about the plaza and stairs unchanged — the designers’ most successful interventions preserve and accentuate those features that gave the space its reputation in the first place.
One hundred and six trees have been planted and parasols have been added to the alley of trees now lining the 1,021-foot-long street-level plaza, providing 17,600-square-feet of shade. New square fountains, articulated in black granite, flank the grand entry staircase, replacing the original, deteriorating fountains that had been in use since the 1970s. Both permanent and temporary seating has been expanded along the plaza. The effect makes the Met plaza an even more pleasant place to linger, and museum visitors and passersby will surely respond to these changes with great enthusiasm.
One detail of the renovation, however, has already been met with outright hostility. Along the side of the two new fountains, gilded letters spell out “David H. Koch Plaza.” The renovation’s billionaire funder, who gave $65 million for the project, has also donated money to right-wing causes that include the Tea Party and climate-change denial.