Inside Rockefeller’s Medieval Fantasy

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George Grey Barnard was, in the words of historian Matthew Baigell, “the most original American sculptor of his generation.” Barnard’s most famous commission was the extensive embellishment of the State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. In New York we see his work in the far north and south pediments of the Fifth Avenue facade of the 42nd Street New York Public Library. Barnard adorned New York in another, unexpected way, when in 1914 he opened for public viewing an unusual collection of French medieval art and whole architectural settings.

“Barnard’s Cloisters,” as the collection was known, was located at Fort Washington Avenue and 190th Street, just south of where Fort Tryon Park is today.Another great enthusiast of medieval antiquities (as well as a great patron of the late Gothic revival in architecture) was John D. Rockefeller Jr. His friend, the architect Welles Bosworth, introduced Rockefeller to Barnard, who was looking to sell his collection. In 1925, Rockefeller funded the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s acquisition of the Cloisters.

He then began augmenting the collection, which opened as a branch of the Met in 1926, though still at its Fort Washington Avenue location. Around this time, Rockefeller purchased the land for Fort Tryon Park, and in 1931 made of it a gift to New York City. His dream was to establish a new home for the Cloisters at the summit of Fort Tryon Park’s hill. He worked closely with the Met’s curator of medieval art (and later the Met’s director), James Rorimer, and the Boston architect Charles Collens in creating the new setting, which was pretty much as we know it today.

The Cloisters opened to the public in 1938. Meanwhile, the rest of Fort Tryon Park was laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., who was, in my opinion, a better landscape architect than his father. In one of those only-ifyou’re-a-Rockefeller gestures, Rockefeller purchased several miles of the Palisades along the New Jersey shore opposite the Cloisters, so that the view and the medieval enchantment would never be spoiled. In addition, he bestowed upon the Cloisters his beloved “Hunt of the Unicorn” tapestries.

The year before Barnard opened his Cloisters, St. Thomas Church opened on Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street, just around the corner from Rockefeller’s 54th Street townhouse. In 1918, Rockefeller commissioned St. Thomas’s architect, Bertram Goodhue, to design the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago. Rockefeller’s father had been instrumental in building that university’s “Collegiate Gothic” campus designed by Henry Ives Cobb; perhaps that was a source of Rockefeller Jr.’s love of Gothic. Twice he commissioned Charles Collens to design churches: Park Avenue Baptist (1920-22, now Central Presbyterian) at 64th Street, and Riverside Church (1926-30), on Riverside Drive and 120th Street. With all his churches, the Cloisters, and the tapestries he spent long hours gazing lovingly upon, America’s richest man lived in a beautiful medieval fantasy.

The Met has been making some noteworthy improvements to the Cloisters, which promises soon to be a more exciting place than ever to experience the “Hunt of the Unicorn,” the Cuxa Cloister, illuminated manuscripts, the Early Gothic Hall, and other enchantments of the Middle Ages, as well as Manhattan’s best Hudson River vista.

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