The American Museum of Natural History is one of New York City’s most beloved institutions, and one of the largest, most celebrated museums in the world. Since 1869, generations of New Yorkers and tourists of all ages have been educated and entertained here. Located across from Central Park, the sprawling structure, spanning four city blocks, is a fascinating conglomeration of many buildings of diverse architectural styles built over a period of 150 years. The first book to tell the history of the museum from the point of view of these buildings, including the planned Gilder Center, The American Museum of Natural History and How It Got That Way contextualizes them within New York and American history and the history of science.
Part II, “The Heavens in the Attic,” is the first detailed history of the Hayden Planetarium, from the museum’s earliest astronomy exhibits, to Clyde Fisher and the original planetarium, to Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Rose Center for Earth and Space, and it features a photographic tour through the original Hayden Planetarium.
Author Colin Davey spent much of his childhood literally and figuratively lost in the museum’s labyrinthine hallways. The museum grew in fits and starts according to the vicissitudes of backroom deals, personal agendas, two world wars, the Great Depression, and the Cold War. Chronicling its evolution―from the selection of a desolate, rocky, hilly, swampy site, known as Manhattan Square to the present day―the book includes some of the most important and colorful characters in the city’s history, including the notoriously corrupt and powerful “Boss” Tweed, “Father of New York City” Andrew Haswell Green, and twentieth-century powerbroker and master builder Robert Moses; museum presidents Morris K. Jesup, Henry Fairfield Osborn, and Ellen Futter; and American presidents, polar and African explorers, dinosaur hunters, and German rocket scientists.
Richly illustrated with period photos, The American Museum of Natural History and How It Got That Way is based on deep archival research and interviews.
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About the Author
Colin Davey’s life was shaped by frequent visits to the American Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium as a child. He is a scientist, software engineer, martial artist, and author of Learn Boogie Woogie Piano (Boogie Woogie Press, 1998).
Thomas A. Lesser (With)
Thomas A. Lesser was Scientific Assistant and Intern Astronomer (1974–76) and Senior Lecturer (1975–82) at the Hayden Planetarium. He has also held several positions at the American Museum of Natural History, including Manager of Development.
Read an Excerpt
Let's start by looking at what life was like in New York City in 1872, the year the museum was given its home on Eighth Avenue (now Central Park West) opposite Central Park, on a site then known as Manhattan Square (renamed Theodore Roosevelt Park in 1958).
The United States comprised only thirty-seven states. Ulysses S. Grant, the eighteenth president, sat in the White House just six years after the end of the Civil War, the excruciating conflict that had made the former general a household name.
New York City consisted only of Manhattan. The boroughs beyond would not become part of the larger metropolis until 1898. Although construction had begun on the Brooklyn Bridge, it would not open for more than a decade. And even after thirteen years of construction, Central Park itself was still not quite complete. According to the New York historians Robert A. M. Stern, Thomas Mellins, and David Fishman, "though by 1865 New York was the nation's largest city, it was still provincial by international standards."
Nor did Manhattan Square seem an ideal site for such an ambitious project. In his autobiography, Albert S. Bickmore, the museum's founder, wrote, "The first time I visited the square it seemed an almost hopeless task that we were undertaking" because the terrain was so forbidding, dotted with high rocky hills, and the location so desolate. To someone familiar with the flat, manicured grounds on which the museum sits today, the square would hardly be recognizable. The museum geologist Louis Gratacap described "a rugged, disconsolate tract of ground ... where the gneiss ledges protruded their weathered shapes ... filled with stagnant pools."
And the site was also far from the masses that Bickmore hoped to attract. The adjoining neighborhoods of the Upper East and West Sides were largely undeveloped and unpopulated, with most of the city's residents living below Fifty-Ninth Street, Central Park's southern boundary. During Bickmore's first visit, he recalled, his "only companions were scores of goats," adding, "Only the temporary shanties of squatters could be seen on the north, except two or three small and cheap houses half way between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. On the west were only shanties perched on the rough rocks, and south of us there was no building near." Even a decade later, when the famous Dakota was rising nearby, it was suggested that the apartment building was so named because Manhattan's Upper West Side seemed as remote as America's Dakota Territory, soon to become the states of North and South Dakota.
The Growth of Manhattan and the Creation of Central Park
Nonetheless, the early history of New York City was one of relentless northward expansion. From the time of the original Dutch settlement in 1624 to the Revolutionary War in 1776, the streets of New York occupied the southernmost sliver of Manhattan Island, scarcely stretching above Wall Street. The following decades would witness a steady northward expansion, and by 1811 the streets extended roughly to Greenwich Village, covering about a fifth of the island. Because expansion was haphazard, the resulting street organization was chaotic, and it remains so to this day in Lower Manhattan.
To rectify this, the city commissioners developed a plan, adopted in 1811, intended to guide the city's inevitable northward growth. The plan organized the undeveloped portion of the island into an orderly grid of rectangular blocks reaching north all the way to 155th Street. Over the next century, Manhattan developed largely as envisioned by the 1811 plan, with one major exception — the addition of Central Park.
The commissioners saw no need for a major public park, and more than four decades would pass before Central Park would be added to the cityscape. However, the plan did include several small "squares," including Manhattan Square, and as a result, the future home of the American Museum existed long before the idea of Central Park was conceived.
One of the earliest calls for a major public park for the city came in 1844 from William Cullen Bryant, the lawyer, poet, and editor of the New York Evening Post: "Commerce is devouring inch by inch the coast of the island," Bryant wrote in an editorial, "and if we would rescue any part of it for health and recreation it must be done now. All large cities have their extensive public ground and gardens, Madrid, and Mexico their Alamedas, London its Regent's Park, Paris its Champs Elysées, and Vienna its Prater." As the New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger would point out a century and a half later, "New York, it was said in the 1840s ... had nothing in the way of public open space to compare with the great cities of Europe, and if the city was truly to become the international metropolis it took pleasure in seeing itself as, something had to be done."
The movement gathered steam, and on July 21, 1853, the New York State Legislature passed the Central Park Act, authorizing the city to buy the 778 acres bounded by Fifty-Ninth Street on the south, 106th Street on the north (later extended to 110th Street), Eighth Avenue on the west, and Fifth Avenue on the east.
Andrew Haswell Green and the Board of Commissioners of Central Park
Nearly four years later, on April 17, 1857, the State Legislature established the Board of Commissioners of Central Park and appointed eleven men to the board, among them an exceptionally civic-minded New Yorker named Andrew Haswell Green.
Green, a lawyer, was a protégé of the prominent Democratic politician Samuel J. Tilden. Green's career in public office began in November 1854, when he was elected to New York City's Board of Education, serving from 1855 to 1860, a period that overlapped with his time as a commissioner of Central Park. In 1856, he was elected president of the Board of Education and was reelected the following year. In 1858, he declined to seek or accept the presidency again.
Although Green had accepted the position of Central Park commissioner reluctantly, he quickly became the group's most active member. Within two months of joining the body, he became its first treasurer, and on May 10, 1858, while also serving as treasurer, he became president.
One of the commission's first acts was to hold a design competition for the park. There were thirty-three submissions, and on April 28, 1858, the commission chose as the winner the "Greensward plan" of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Both men already had history with Central Park. Olmsted had become the park's superintendent the previous autumn, and Vaux had been instrumental in the decision to hold a design competition in the first place.
On September 15, 1859, the Central Park Commission created the position of comptroller/treasurer, the group's only paid position and one earmarked specifically for Green. At that point, he gave up his law practice to focus on the park, in the process taking control over every aspect of its construction and day-to-day operations. As Green rose through the ranks, he developed a reputation as an austere, incorruptible, and persuasive public servant. He maintained an active interest in education for the rest of his life, and it showed in his vision for Central Park.
Early Plans for Museums and Educational Institutions in the Park
Park planners had intended to include museums and other educational institutions in the new park even before the park's location was selected. In fact, one factor in the selection of Central Park's location was the possibility that it could house institutions of this type.
On January 2, 1852, a special committee released a report comparing the merits of two sites for a public park: Central Park and an area near the East River known as Jones Park. One point in Central Park's favor, the committee concluded, was that the "grounds admit numerous adaptations for ornamental or scientific purposes (as the erection of observatories, or museums, or the formation of a botanic garden, and various other objects), for which 'Jones' Wood' would be too small, and, by reason of its proximity to the river, ill adapted."
The specifications for the Central Park design competition had required "at least one institution of cultural uplift or practical knowledge." Four of the submissions had included a museum in the park, and two had featured a zoo. The winning Greensward plan included a museum but no zoo.
The Greensward plan was among several submissions that identified the Arsenal, located at Sixty-Fourth Street facing Fifth Avenue and one of the few structures that predated the park, as a potential home for a museum or zoo. Built by the state between 1847 and 1851 to store munitions, the Arsenal still stands today, serving as headquarters for the New York City Department of Parks and where, until recently, the original Greensward plan was on display.
On April 15, 1859, the State Legislature passed an act that provided for the establishment of "museums, zoological or other gardens, collections of natural history, observatories, or works of art" in the park. The Central Park Commission's third annual report, published in January 1860, reflected this intent, noting the public's desire for such institutions. The report, however, "deemed it proper that the means for their establishment, maintenance and arrangement should be derived from private sources." The legend to the map that accompanied the report suggested that the Arsenal be altered to accommodate a museum.
Throughout the 1860s, Green and his fellow commissioners focused on bringing to the park both America's first zoo and a museum in which the New-York Historical Society, one of the city's venerable cultural institutions, could display its collections.
The Central Park Zoo
The modern zoo emerged in the early nineteenth century in London, Paris, and Dublin. But by 1859 America still had no such institutions. The Philadelphia Zoo, considered by some to be America's first zoo, was chartered in 1859, but its opening was delayed until 1874 because of the Civil War. Through the early 1860s, Green, along with the park commissioners and the newly formed American Zoological and Botanical Society, strove to create the first American zoo and locate it in Central Park.
In 1860, Olmsted recommended setting aside an area for this purpose on the east side of the park between Seventy-Third and Eighty-Sixth Streets. This site was selected because structures there would not encroach on Vaux and Olmsted's pastoral vision for the park, being isolated from the park proper by two reservoirs. (At the time, it was bounded on the west by the Lower Reservoir, which was located where the Great Lawn now sits. The reservoir was converted to the Great Lawn in the 1930s, with the American Museum controversially involved in the process.) But by 1864, Olmsted and Vaux had become deeply opposed to locating a zoo in the main body of the park.
On April 23, 1864, the State Legislature passed an act annexing Manhattan Square to Central Park and giving the park commissioners the power to establish a botanical and zoological garden. Olmsted and Vaux promptly started drawing up plans for locating a zoo on the site,31 and in 1868 work began on the foundation and enclosing walls.32 But even as officials argued about where and how to create the zoo, an ad hoc zoo started forming under their noses, thanks to donated animals. In 1865, the park commissioners placed the menagerie by the Arsenal, where the Central Park Zoo has remained in various incarnations to this day.
The New-York Historical Society
Throughout the 1860s, it appeared that there would be a New-York Historical Society museum in Central Park. The Historical Society, founded in 1804, housed the city's only public art museum, but it no longer had room for its collections. In 1860, the society expressed interest in establishing a museum of antiquities and science in the park, along with an art gallery.
In 1862, the park commissioners indicated in their fifth annual report that the Historical Society's organization, reputation, and collections "would add greatly to the attractions and utility of the park ... perhaps on a plan somewhat similar to that of the British Museum." On March 25 of that year, the State Legislature passed an act authorizing the Historical Society to use the Arsenal and adjoining grounds as deemed necessary by the park commissioners, with any building expense to be paid by the society.
By 1868, the park commissioners and the Historical Society had thought better of the Arsenal as a location for the society's museum. Instead they selected the eastern portion of Central Park between Eighty-First and Eighty-Fourth Streets facing Fifth Avenue, the site of today's Metropolitan Museum of Art. This was part of the site that Olmsted had nominated for a zoo in 1860. Originally a playground in the Greensward plan, the area was now fenced in for a deer park. The new site was approved by the State Legislature on April 29 of that year.
In 1869, partly for reasons of cost, the Historical Society's project fell through. According to the Central Park Commission's 1869 annual report, "The Board has not been advised of any progress by the New York Historical Society toward establishing a Museum of Natural History and Gallery of Art, as authorized several years since by an Act of the Legislature."
On May 5 of that year, the State Legislature passed an act authorizing the park commissioners to erect in the park a "Meteorological and Astronomical Observatory, and a Museum of Natural History and a Gallery of Art." The act did not name any specific location or institution. And unlike the earlier acts, which had required the Historical Society to pay building expenses, this one allowed the Central Park Commission to cover these costs.
The map that accompanied the commission's 1869 annual report showed a large complex, designed by Calvert Vaux and assistant Central Park architect Jacob Wrey Mould, on the site previously reserved for the Historical Society and generically labeled "Proposed Art Museum and Hall."
The Historical Society bought its permanent site on Central Park West across Seventy-Seventh Street from the American Museum in 1891. Construction began in 1902, and the opening took place in 1908.
The Paleozoic Museum
As debate over the Historical Society was going on, Green and his fellow commissioners took on a new educational project for Central Park: the Paleozoic Museum, a set of life-size models of dinosaurs from the American continent, similar to those developed for the Sydenham Crystal Palace in London by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins and Richard Owen, the superintendent of the natural history department of the British Museum, who first coined the word "dinosaur." By this time, Hawkins and his models had developed an international reputation, and he had become a prominent lecturer and illustrator. In March 1868, he arrived in New York City for a lecture circuit that included the Lyceum of Natural History and Cooper Union.
On May 2 of that year, Green wrote to Hawkins on behalf of the Central Park Commission, asking him to help with the project. Hawkins promptly replied that he was ready to start immediately.
Over the next seven months, Hawkins threw himself fully into the task. He began by making a thorough study of the available fossils found in America. He traveled to Washington, New Brunswick, Albany, New Haven, Philadelphia, and Chicago before settling down to work at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. There he found two of the nation's preeminent paleontologists — Joseph Leidy and Edward Drinker Cope — along with the first nearly complete dinosaur skeleton ever found, a Hadrosaurus ("powerful lizard"). The Hadrosaurus had been discovered in Haddonfield, New Jersey, in 1858, several years after the opening of the Sydenham Crystal Palace, and it was Leidy who both supervised its excavation and named the beast.
While at Philadelphia, Hawkins created the world's first dinosaur mount, a dinosaur skeleton assembled into a lifelike posture for public display (a technique later perfected at the American Museum), with the Hadrosaurus as the subject. The result was three stories tall. This Process included drawing and describing every bone fragment, scrubbing off rock debris that was still clinging to many of them, modeling missing bones, devising a way to make molds and create casts of the bones, mounting the actual bones and casts of the modeled missing bones, and shipping the molds to Central Park for his work there — all at his own expense. He also did substantial work with other fossilized specimens. As Edwin Colbert, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the American Museum for forty years, summed up Hawkins's achievements: "He must truly have been a Victorian Hercules performing prodigious labors with fossils, plaster, and clay."
On December 4, Hawkins returned to New York, and three days later he took possession of the upper floor of the Arsenal as a temporary studio. By the following March, he had created a large model of a Had-rosaurus in a recumbent position.50 As Hawkins was starting work in the Arsenal building, the nascent stirrings of the American Museum were taking place.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The American Museum of Natural History and How It Got that Way"
Copyright © 2019 Colin Davey.
Excerpted by permission of Fordham University Press.
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Table of ContentsForeword | vii
Kermit Roosevelt III
How This Book Came to Be Written | xi
Preface | xv
Thomas A. Lesser
Introduction | 1
Part I: The American Museum of Natural History and How It Got That Way
1 Manhattan Square | 13
2 The Master Plan and the Bickmore Wing | 35
3 The Jesup Years (1881–1908) and the Seventy-Seventh Street Façade | 43
4 Robert Peary, the Journey to the North Pole, and the Cape York Meteorites | 56
5 The Osborn Years (1908–1933) | 77
6 The Akeley African Hall: From the Elephant in the Room to the Seven-Hundred- Pound Gorilla | 97
7 The Evolution of the Dinosaur Exhibits | 110
8 The Years 1936 to 1999 | 125
Part II: The Heavens in the Attic
9 From the Beginning of Time to October 2, 1935 | 133
10 Robert Moses and the Norman Bel Geddes Report | 152
11 The Golden Age of Spaceflight and the Hayden Planetarium | 159
12 A Visit to the Original Hayden Planetarium | 170
13 The Rose Center for Earth and Space | 188
Epilogue: The Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation | 197
Acknowledgments | 203
Notes | 207
Bibliography | 245
Index | 257