When the Whitney Museum of American Art came into view, it, quite literally, took my breath away. Designed by the world-famous architect Renzo Piano, the museum -- all steel and glass, all light and air-- is a beauty. With its welcoming plaza and terraces extending from the fifth and sixth floors over the High Line, the Whitney climbs and soars above a lively neighborhood scene on Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking district. What a welcome change for what's widely-regarded to be an unsurpassed collection of modern and contemporary art. And what a fitting tribute.
Downtown has become the place to be! When some 50 years ago, Robert Moses unveiled plans for the Lower Manhattan Expressway, plans that would have demolished swaths of downtown New York, Greenwich Village resident Jane Jacobs spearheaded a grassroots effort to defeat the project. Her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities spoke of the need to keep urban areas vibrant and the neighborhoods connected.
As did Renzo Piano, who declared from the outset that he wanted a museum that would create a social life combining technology, poetry, and light—“an immense rich bouillabaisse.” Jane Jacobs must be smiling today. And while recognizing the genius that Robert Moses was, isn't this a far more pleasant way to spend an hour or two than stuck in traffic on the Lower Manhattan Expressway?
Until this year, the Whitney’s collection had been housed in the Brutalist gem designed by Marcel Breuer. A building with a ziggurat facade, it was set back from the street with what resembled a moat and a drawbridge. Towering, anything but welcoming.
When asked what she thought about this building, my friend and neighbor, the late Ada Louise Huxtable, the longtime architectural critic at The New York Times and later The Wall Street Journal, had said: It grows on you.
And so it did! Rather than sell the Breuer building at Madison and 75th, the Whitney has leased it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art that intends to use it to showcase its burgeoning collection of modern and contemporary art.
Fortuitously for New Yorkers, Mr Piano conceived a more welcoming approach for a museum that hugs the Hudson River to the west and connects with the High Line to the east. In short order, the new Whitney has become a gathering place, a conduit of art and culture, a gateway to lower Manhattan. But let's step inside, shall we, to meet the founder: Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney by John Singer Sargent. The lady certainly had style!
There are many treasures, see for yourself: Georges Bellows "Dempsey and Firpo. " Arshile Gorky's "The Couple." And below that ..do you recognize the artist?
Yes, it's "Poker Night" by Thomas Hart Benton. By the time we've worked our way from floor to floor, the ground floor restaurant operated by Danny Meyer is jammed. So, my friend and I cross over to the light and lovely Bagatelle on Little West 12th Street at Ninth Avenue.
Should you, too, be having lunch with a friend and don't care to be rushed or don't want to contend with the crowd, artsy Bagatelle is the place to remember.
Be sure to do what we did and spark your visit with a glass of Sancerre and a delicious croque monsieur or omelet. Then, too, there is the secret pleasure of the crisp white napkins and tablecloths, and the server at the ready.
What's better than a day spent with a friend exploring the stunning new Whitney and enjoying the ambiance of the très chic Bagatelle? Hurry on down.