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Upper-Class Warfare at the Met

The Met’s expansion plan has touched off a rebellion among the museum’s well-heeled neighbors—and set its current director, Philippe de Montebello, against his raging predecessor, Thomas Hoving.

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Coalition member Sam Peabody in his co-op across Fifth Avenue from the Met.   

Sam Peabody, scion of an old New England family and husband of the socialite Judy Peabody, lives in a duplex at 990 Fifth, as desirable an address as there is in New York City, decorated in impeccable East Side style. Childe Hassam paintings hang on the walls, and side tables sparkle with collections of pink jade, antique porcelain, and Russian lacquered boxes. It’s a glorious cocoon, one in which the shades are often drawn—Peabody would prefer not to have to think about the Metropolitan Museum, directly across the street.

“They haven’t been direct with us,” the soft-spoken Peabody says while sitting in his high-ceilinged library. “I know there are some people who feel very strongly about how the Met is handling this, and do not want to be hearing dynamite and traffic.”

The Met has long been the jewel in the crown of the Upper East Side, a sprawling wedding cake of a building celebrating the marriage of art and money. It’s arguably the greatest museum in the world, with the most comprehensive collections, and the most illustrious board in the city, the preferred clubhouse of Astors and Dillons and Lehmans. The museum’s vast troves cast their glow over the whole neighborhood. “We felt it a privilege to be living so close to this treasure house,” says Peabody.

In the past few years, however, some of the museum’s neighbors have begun to see the Metropolitan less as a refined repository of priceless cultural artifacts than as a tacky tourist attraction of idling school- and sightseeing buses, souvenir sellers, and street performers—far more democratic than Fifth Avenue has ever considered desirable. Then, in 2000, the Met threw down the gauntlet, pushing a plan through the Parks Department that called for a 200,000-square-foot expansion (over 300,000 if you believe the opponents) including digging out the fountains to build new storage vaults. The renovation was to be the capstone of Met president Philippe de Montebello’s tenure, his response to the relentless modernizing that his predecessor, Thomas Hoving (he installed the fountains, and the Temple of Dendur, and much else), had done in the sixties and seventies.

The neighbors formed the Metropolitan Museum Historical District Coalition, to attempt to have a voice in the renovation. “In the beginning, I thought when we spoke to the Met, they would be cooperative,” says Anne Cumito of 1001 Fifth Avenue, a coalition member. “They’ve been very patronizing and condescending—‘We’re the Met, and who are you? You just live here.’ ” Peabody concurs. “I do think they handled this quite arbitrarily,” he says. “It’s too bad we couldn’t have sat down together.”

“What, did they wake up one day and just find a museum across the street?” wonders Barry Schneider, a member of Community Board 8, where much of the dispute has played out.

The coalition filed suit to stop the project in its tracks. A ruling went against it in May, but the judge suggested that the case had merit, and that gave it maneuvering room for an appeal. The coalition is optimistic.

Henry Stern, the Parks commissioner who signed off on the project in 2000, asserts the fight is less about governmental due diligence than social envy. “People set themselves up against the trustees, against Kissinger and all these famous names,” he says, referring to the Met’s board of directors. “They want to beat the A-list. If you can’t join the A-list, beat them.”

But if the museum’s opponents suffered any self-doubt about the righteousness of their cause, that vanished when Thomas Hoving volunteered to lobby on their behalf. “I was riled,” Hoving says, when he heard of the Met’s plans for his fountains. “I built the fountains and the grand staircase. That got me dorked off.”

“I was riled,” admits Thomas Hoving, when he heard of the Met’s plans for his fountains. “That got me dorked off.”

Hoving, of course, is the man who woke up the museum from its upper-crust slumber, transforming it into that cultural tourist attraction. Hoving, who quit his post as John Lindsay’s Parks commissioner in 1967 to head the Metropolitan, was a sixties culture hero, Fifth Avenue’s answer to the yippies, a brash impresario with a virtuoso gift for publicity—and self-publicity. It was Hoving who hung the banners, brought the buses, enlarged the shops, beefed up the collections. Now, ever the provocateur, he’s trying to make De Montebello move in the opposite direction.

Hoving is accusing De Montebello and the Met of mismanaging his legacy by violating a master plan—to hear him tell it, the master plan literally to end all master plans—that he hammered out with the city back in 1971. Its salient feature was that the Met would cease to mushroom, which it has clearly failed to do. Hoving himself was an eager mushroomer, shifting course only when he was forced to. “We wanted to expand further,” Hoving says of his negotiations with then–Parks Commissioner August Heckscher. “We were thinking of building a luxury hotel on top of the museum. He said, ‘Screw it.’ ”

“We had to slow down collecting and had to loan quite a bunch of stuff out to the boroughs and other museums,” he goes on, ticking off other parts of his plan he claims the current Met has failed to honor, such as opening the museum to Central Park. Furthermore, the museum would “only acquire those things that were better than what we had. We felt it was getting too big, and now it definitely is. Plus, the traffic situation out there on Fifth Avenue has gotten to be Buenos Aires, and the steam coming out of the air-conditioning units—enormous clouds.”

How did Philippe de Montebello react when told about Hoving’s charges? “I laughed,” he says, in his Anglo-French-accented baritone familiar to anyone who’s taken an Acousti-tour of the Met—it’s his voice that is on the recording. “Preposterous!”

It must be infuriating for a man like Philippe de Montebello to have his predecessor buzzing in his ear. His pedigree is illustrious (in fact, he’s a count). On his mother’s side, De Montebello is related to the Marquis de Sade. A great-grandmother was a model for the Duchesse de Guermantes in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. De Montebello worked under Hoving as the Met’s vice-director for curatorial and educational affairs. In 1977, he replaced his mentor as head of the Met, in the hope that he would inaugurate an era of peace after a decade of Hoving’s endless public controversies. At the time, many questioned whether he had the academic background and activist personality necessary to lead an institution of the Met’s complexity. Instead of Hoving’s mad creativity, De Montebello brought management skills, a conservative approach wrapped in an imperious old-world package and an occasionally theatrical manner—which, some have said, he learned partly from Hoving.

A seventeenth-century desk, laden with ormolu, features a sign that says LE CHEF TOUJOURS A RAISON. The desk faces a large Arcadian Claude Lorrain landscape—the more perfect world that might exist without, say, a certain former director. Now De Montebello is in a box, though admittedly a splendid one. He has to change the museum, modernize it, move it forward, without changing its footprint. And meanwhile, the neighbors—and Hoving—are fighting him over every detail.

“Obviously, a museum cannot remain static or it loses its cachet,” says De Montebello. “The sustained interest of the public is based on collections that are not static, that continually change, on programs that are different. We live in a society and a world where the notion of a completely fixed site doesn’t capture the imagination. Lying down and playing dead is not a good policy.”

De Montebello’s light-filled office opens onto an immense patio and beyond it the Met’s spreading wings, atriums, courtyards, and crystalline add-ons. The overall impression is reminiscent of being on the captain’s deck of a great ocean liner, with Central Park off in the distance. De Montebello jokes that a photographer has placed the park behind him in a portrait to suggest his land-grabbing designs on Frederick Law Olmsted’s masterpiece.


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