Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum Gives NYC Mansion a 21st Century Update

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The institution, billed as “the nation’s only museum devoted exclusively to historic and contemporary design,” has undergone three years of renovations. Gryffindor/Creative Commons

The Andrew Carnegie Mansion, an impressive mélange of Colonial and Georgian revival on Manhattan’s Upper East Side completed in 1902, is a testament to the sometimes beautiful excesses of American industrialists. The manse, for example, boasts an expansive outdoor garden—a rare amenity for New York City, even for that neighborhood, which is one of the most expensive in the city. On the third floor, Andrew Carnegie enjoyed not just a private gym, but also his own putting green, all with a view of Central Park across the street. The steel-magnate-turned-philanthropist, who once insisted that the 64-room structure be “the most modest, plainest and roomiest house in New York,” also enjoyed the first residential elevator and central heating system in the country.

More than a 100 years after it was built, the mansion was closed for renovations in 2011. It was spacious and luxurious for its time, but it was still a turn-of-the-century residence and as such, not an optimal place to display a collection of some 200,000 objects, much less endure tens of thousands of annual visitors.

Soon, however, the mansion’s makeover will be complete—and with high tech amenities for this era, such as a digital, informational pen.

Later this year, on December 12 (“the exact same day that Andrew Carnegie moved into the house in 1902”), the museum will reopen with 60 percent more gallery space Caroline Baumann, Cooper Hewitt director, announced Tuesday. The $91 million project includes extensive architectural repairs, such as the re-creation of teak floors. Also in the announcement is a name change: swapping “National” with “Smithsonian,” removing a hyphen, leaving Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, “simplifying the design,” officials said.

“You have no idea how Herculean the effort has been,” Beth Comstock, museum board of trustees president, said.  “It’s incredibly moving to finally share with you what we’ve been doing all these years. It’s been a long and complex project.”  

In addition to highlighting the permanent collection of drawings, prints and graphic designs, product designs and decorative arts, textiles and wall coverings (the museum’s four departments), tradition will meet modernity in a new “Immersion Room”—there, visitors can make their own designs and project them onto two walls with a digital pen.

Cooper Hewitt will give the Pen (the capital letter is the museum’s) to visitors upon entry. Visitors can wave the digital stylus across object labels in the museum, and the Pen will then store data about the object in its “onboard memory,” according to museum officials. By bringing the Pen to “interactive” tables and screens in museum galleries, officials say, visitors can look at objects in better detail and from different angles, as well as read more about the objects' provenance.

Pen users can also access this data remotely via the web. Museum-goers must return the Pen at the end of the end of their visit, however.

Cooper Hewitt’s reopening also has something for the museum-leery (whoever they might be). The garden and a new cafe will be open to the public in the early morning.

The museum’s new logo, in a typeface designed specifically for its relaunch, a sans serif called “Cooper Hewitt,” is also open to the public. The new font, created by designed Chester Jenkins, can be downloaded for free—as “installable fonts, web font files and open-source code,” museum officials say—at www.cooperhewitt.org/typeface.

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