Along MoMA’s upper border sits a rare reminder of midtown’s past. Six mansions stare down MoMA’s immaculate white slabs across the way, making for a peculiarly polar stroll through West 54th Street. The museum that last week acquired the @ symbol, hailed as a breakthrough in conceptual curation, also has an enduring affection for acquisitions of a more tangible quality—namely, real estate. Its latest expansion plan, the Tower Verre, entails a spindly building that crescendos to an inverted icicle of luxury apartments. Since the first sketches in 2007, economic realities have melted several stories off its stalagmitic tip.
The block’s original impresario of acquisition was John D. Rockefeller, who planted his family there in 1884. In a tangled muddle of life-becomes-art-becomes-life, much of the block is now in museums. The old Rockefeller house, full of ornate rooms (now at the Museum of the City of New York) and Unicorn Tapestries (at the Cloisters), is now MoMA’s Sculpture Garden. Down the street, Lehman Brothers’ Philip Lehman was partial to Goyas and Rembrandts (the Met). Most notably, Abby Rockefeller, whose husband, John D. Jr., considered modern art “disturbing,” founded MoMA in 1929.