Bye, Met Fountains! Museum to Excavate; Neighborhood Yowls

When the Metropolitan Museum of Art rolled out its $200 million expansion plan last January, reaction from the museum’s Fifth Avenue neighbors was unequivocal. Fed up with a seemingly endless stream of construction projects sullying their Central Park views, they hired a team of high-priced attorneys to fight the plan.

Despite heavy pressure from these well-heeled Upper East Side residents, however, the Met has moved ahead with its 200,000-square-foot expansion project, which calls for the excavation of its sprawling entrance plaza. Now residents have found a new cause to rally around: the possibility of losing the two oval fountains flanking the museum’s entrance staircase on the plaza.

“The fountains are the catalyst that’s been uniting the whole community,” said Anne Camuto, a Fifth Avenue resident who lives across from the museum. “What the museum is doing is outrageous.”

Met officials say that if they’re able to excavate beneath the plaza, as they hope to do, the fountains will have to go–and by the museum’s own admission, their return is by no means guaranteed.

“From an aesthetic or an efficiency point of view, they are not the greatest fountains around,” Met president David McKinney said. “It would probably not be smart to take the fountains away and put them back just the way they are.” Harold Holzer, vice president for communications at the Met, said that “there’s no geological reason to imagine that the excavation cannot go forward.”

For months now, the Met has doggedly defended its plan, arguing that the expansion is vital to its survival as a world-class cultural institution. But nearby residents have come to view the Met as the Sherman tank of Upper East Side institutions: hulking, unwieldy and seemingly invincible. They have hired attorney Ed Hayes to represent them as they contemplate what comes next.

The twin oblong fountains have become their redoubt. Donated by Lila Acheson Wallace, co-founder of Reader’s Digest , the fountains have occupied a significant part of Manhattan’s physical and mental landscape since the balmy morning in April 1970 when then-Mayor John Lindsay stood before a crowd of several hundred and sent their 200 jets shooting skyward. Designed by Kevin Roche, they were part of a $7.5 million gift to the Met for the creation of the museum’s front plaza and entrance hall. For the last three decades, they have been an urban crossroads for throngs of tourists, busloads of school kids and countless New Yorkers.

At the end of July, a team of engineers for the Met began probing the ground beneath the plaza for bedrock to determine the costs and time frame of the proposed excavation. Results of the borings will be available in the fall, and if the museum’s trustees approve the excavation cost, work could begin as early as next summer. “We need the space, and we are very much hoping that it’s feasible and we can do it,” Mr. McKinney said, adding that the museum already has all city approvals for the excavation in place.

Squaring off with the museum’s neighbors on Fifth Avenue, however, will be a challenge. “Everyone loses sight of the fact that we’re a residential community,” said Ms. Camuto. “We’re doing our best, and because the Met is doing it in the name of art, they’re getting away with it. They’re a menace to the community.”

For developers, finding common ground with preservationist-minded Upper East Siders has never been easy. Just last month, hundreds gathered to oppose a proposal by Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to build a 440-foot research tower on East 68th Street, despite heartfelt pleas from such luminaries as Harold Varmus, Memorial’s Nobel-laureate president. (The coalition fighting the Met plan, headed by Pat Nicholson, has now allied itself with 10021 Community Coalition, the group fighting the Sloan-Kettering plan.) And unlike less-affluent New York neighborhoods, Ms. Nicholson’s coalition has substantial resources with which to fight back: In just seven months, they’ve raised $80,000.

“It’s disgusting, it’s horrible,” said Benjamin Aryeh, a Madison Avenue art dealer who lives across from the Met and often plays ball with his three kids by the fountains. “The plaza and fountains are just a wonderful place to be. You can’t go into the park at nighttime, but you’re safe in front of the museum. Now they want to rip all of that up.”

It hasn’t helped that residents believe the Met has kept them in the dark on the specifics of the expansion, such as construction costs and timetables. “Removing the fountains would be a major architectural decision, and that only happens if they’re going to make two extremely large holes on Fifth Avenue. If that’s the plan, they have an obligation to tell the community sooner rather than later,” said Mr. Hayes, the attorney for the Fifth Avenue coalition.

“When the [Met] brought the application to the community boards and Landmarks [Preservation Commission], no mention of removal of the fountains was made,” said Teri Slater, an Upper East Side resident on the board of the Historic Districts Council.

Mr. McKinney asserted that the Met would get all necessary approvals and community feedback before proceeding with their plan. “I’m afraid somehow our neighbors have got the idea that we’re trying to hide something, when we don’t have our plans in place yet,” Mr. McKinney said. “We’ll talk about it when we do know.” He was, however, uncertain about which city agency has jurisdiction over the fountains. “I’m sure that change to the fountains would require approval, from a scenic point of view, from Parks, but it’s not absolutely clear that they’re landmarked,” he said. He added that the plan’s architects, from Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo and Associates, have already discussed several alternative fountain designs.

Stern Wants Data

“It’s the kind of thing the Landmarks Commission was intended to consider,” said Henry Stern, commissioner of the Parks Department, which serves as the Met’s landlord. Mr. Stern added that if the Met intends to remove the fountains, he wants to hear about it. “I remember when the fountains were put in, and they were sort of jarringly modern to some, but they’ve grown on people in the 30 years they’ve been there, and people would be sorry to see them go.”

The Landmarks Preservation Commission, which approved the Met’s plan in February, agrees. “It’s always been clear that the museum was going to have to excavate to do their expansion plan, but the plan has always shown the fountains remaining. If they plan to remove the fountains, they will have to come through us,” said Terri Rosen Deutsch, a spokeswoman for the L.P.C.

Attorneys for the Fifth Avenue neighborhood coalition are prepared to play hardball, if necessary. “The fountains are symbolic of the greater harm that’s going to happen,” said Elizabeth Shields, an attorney for the coalition. “If they proceed with this attitude which they’ve had, then we’ll have to proceed with other action.”