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Looking for Key to the Tweed, Museum Turns to the People

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Facing a proposed 15 percent cut in the cultural-affairs budget, museums across the city are bracing for the delay or derailment of pricey capital projects that depend on city support. While the budget-slashing Mayor weighs the wisdom of going through with a four-year-old plan to move the Museum of the City of New York from East Harlem to the newly renovated Tweed Courthouse-which could cost as much as $21.5 million-the museum is appealing directly to New Yorkers.

Amidst the controversy surrounding the Mayor’s reconsideration of the plan, museum representatives showed up at Community Board 1’s Feb. 19 meeting to drum up community support for the move. They said the museum could be a “keystone” of reconstruction, drawing more visitors to the area and stimulating other downtown investment.

They told the board that the newly restored 19th-century courthouse has double the exhibition space of the museum’s current digs. Additionally, they pointed out, since it’s located on Chambers Street behind City Hall, the museum would be more centralized and accessible than it currently is in its building at Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street.

With over 1.5 million objects-from the gilt gowns of haute couture founder Charles Frederick Worth to John D. Rockefeller Sr.’s entire bedroom-the museum will have no problem filling the expansive four-story courthouse. In addition to the exhibition space, plans for the Tweed include a restaurant, museum shop, research library and auditorium. The firms Cooper, Robertson & Partners, which designed the new Museum of Modern Art in Queens, and Ralph Appelbaum Associates, award-winning creators of the Fossils Hall at the American Museum of Natural History, are designing the interior spaces, which they say will not alter the Tweed’s original structure or compromise the recent multimillion-dollar renovations.

The museum will sponsor lectures, concerts, walking tours and children’s learning programs, said Dr. Sarah Henry, vice president of museum programs. She told the board that the museum would partner with local schools and universities, as well as with other cultural institutions in lower Manhattan, such as the South Street Seaport Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian, which have lately been hurting for visitors.

“We want to be a part of the community,” said Linda Lange, vice president of museum operations. “We hope to jump-start a renaissance downtown.”

Not only did the board offer its full support for the museum’s relocation, but members also said they would like to see it happen sooner than the planned 2004 move-in date. As transportation committee chairman Richard Kennedy noted, “‘Jump-starting’ is not 2004.”

Although an earlier relocation to the Tweed is improbable-the interior design is not yet complete, and the move itself would take several months-the museum is planning to set up a temporary exhibit there this spring. The exhibit would feature works from Project September 11, including Joel Meyerowitz’s exclusive photographs from Ground Zero.

“It would give people a lift, knowing that the museum’s on its way down here,” district manager Paul Goldstein told The Observer.

If Mayor Bloomberg decides to forgo the move, the Tweed may instead be used for municipal office space, as it was in the late 1920’s. (The Mayor’s office, which has been keeping mum on the subject, did not return calls for comment.) That doesn’t make much sense, said Mr. Goldstein, since there’s plenty of other available office space downtown. He said a museum of New York City would be much better suited to one of the most historic buildings in the metropolis’ oldest district.

“After all, the city spent over $80 million renovating it,” said Mr. Goldstein. “It should be used for a public purpose.”

-Megan Costello

March 6: Board 4, Hudson Guild Fulton Center, 119 Ninth Avenue, 6 p.m., 736-4536; Board 10, 163 West 125th Street, second floor, 6 p.m., 749-3105.

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