Now and Then: Preserving the Jewish Museum’s... Read More
If you’ve visited the Jewish Museum recently, you’ve seen the scaffolding that currently surrounds our building.
Built in 1908 to be the family home of Felix and Frieda Warburg, the building was commissioned from architect Charles Pierrepont Henry Gilbert in his popular François I style — an ornate melding of French form and Italian ornamentation. The Museum’s Indiana limestone facade and intricate details are an homage to the French chateau, adapted for New York City. Several other local examples of C.P.H. Gilbert’s François I facades survive: the Isaac D. and Mary Fletcher House on 72nd Street (now the Ukrainian Institute), and the Joseph Raphael De Lamar House, at 37th and Madison (now the Polish Consulate General) bear the closest resemblance to the Jewish Museum.
Our building is an example of the grand homes that once adorned “millionaire’s row” on Fifth Avenue during the Gilded Age. Next to the extravagant mansions of Andrew Carnegie (now the Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum) and William K. Vanderbilt (whose triple palace once occupied an entire city block), the Warburg home was relatively modest by comparison. Still, family members reputedly cautioned Felix and Frieda that the building’s lavish appearance might provoke anti-Semitism. In addition to raising five children here, the Warburgs also made their home the center of activities of vital importance to them: philanthropy, the collection and care of art, and the stewardship of Jewish culture. As a fitting embodiment of these concerns, the family later donated the building to the Jewish Theological Seminary for use as a museum. Its doors opened to the public as the Jewish Museum in 1947.
Since then, the Jewish Museum has undergone a series of building projects, including two expansions: one in 1963, and a second in 1993, that doubled its gallery space. The Museum plays a proactive role in the care and preservation of its home; every few years, the facade is thoroughly examined to ensure that the landmark building is in good condition.https://medium.com/media/d41c3c9f18d6cec0fca9da6644dd450c/href
Thanks to grants from American Express, New York State Assembly, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the Thompson Family Foundation, and the Starr Foundation, the latest round of restoration is now underway to protect Charles. P.H. Gilbert’s original design details of the building’s landmark limestone facade. The project resonated in particular with American Express, which has a long-standing commitment to historic preservation.
Here and there you can still see reflections of the building’s former life as the home of a prominent American Jewish family at the turn of the last century. The most apparent are those on the first and second floors of the Museum.
Board meetings for the Warburgs’ various charitable involvements were held on the first floor, in an adorned room to the left of the main entrance that contained Felix Warburg’s collection of prints and etchings, which were later donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The ornate ceiling can still be seen in what is now the Jewish Museum Shop.
Family concerts were held on the second floor, in the Music Room, where musician friends played the grand piano, pipe organ, and a quartet of Stradivarius instruments. Now called the Joseph & Fanya Heller Gallery, the room’s original beamed ceiling is still visible.
The second floor also included a conservatory, now the Robert J. Hurst Family Gallery, and a formal dining room, now the Rita & Stanley H. Kaplan Gallery.
The third floor — where the Museum’s new exhibition Scenes from the Collection will soon be on view — was less formal and included Felix and Frieda’s quarters and a breakfast room where the family ate together. There was also a sitting room with couches, family portraits, and a reservoir view.
The fourth floor, now home to our children’s exhibition and art studios, was where the Warburg children — Edward, Carola, Frederic, Gerald, and Paul Felix — slept, studied, and played.
The fifth and sixth floors, now office space for the Museum staff, once housed servants’ quarters and laundry, along with one of the home’s most surprising features: a squash court, where members of the family exercised every morning.
The Museum is grateful to be able to continue preserving the legacy of this impressive building and to safeguard its future use for our dynamic exhibitions and events.
— Yael Miller, Associate Director of Marketing, The Jewish Museum
Now and Then: Preserving the Jewish Museum’s Landmark Warburg Mansion was originally published in The Jewish Museum on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.