Going Once, Going Twice

No doubt it’s a finer fate than the place becoming an Apple Store.

The Breuer Building Thomas Colligan

Sold! For a reported $100 million—rather under estimate—to the Sotheby’s auction house: the former home of the Whitney Museum. That building is the so modest yet so grand, and thus so urbane, 1966 Brutalist masterpiece by Marcel Breuer that was also the greatest artifact—due respect to Edward Hopper—in the museum’s collection. After the Whitney decamped to its current dog’s breakfast of a building in the Meatpacking District in 2015, the Breuer was borrowed, and sensitively and expensively refurbished, by the Metropolitan Museum during the rehabilitation of its own aging contemporary art galleries, then used similarly since 2021 by the Frick Museum during its similar renovations.

No doubt it’s a finer fate than the place becoming an Apple Store. Sotheby’s, while not an art museum is at least art-worldly; and in 2025 will poetically return from the Siberia of York Avenue to just opposite its original home on Madison, now a flagship Gagosian gallery, and adjacent to an actual Apple Store. The difficulty is that, architecturally speaking, what makes for a good contemporary art museum for the people of New York doesn’t exactly—for all the civic-ish stature of the big old auction houses—make a good private gallery and event space and commercial salesroom. While in a historic preservation district the Breuer building surprisingly lacks landmark protection, inside and out. Speaking to the New York Times, Sotheby’s chief executive Charles F. Stewart promised a renovation that would be “committed to preserving the integrity of what’s loved about the building.” Is preserving the “integrity” the same as preserving the building? What’s integral to the Breuer building is that it isn’t especially lovable, ingratiating, or winsome: it’s as tough as its city and its welcome is gruff, measured, yet progressively more genuine and generous as its spaces unfold and the visitor eventually arrives downstairs at the café, bathed by a seemingly impossibly stolen and gifted patch of sky. Like a true New Yorker, as the saying goes, it is kind but not nice. To make the place more commercially appealing, you’d need the surgically skillful and reverentially radical Diller, Scofidio + Renfro of Lincoln Center, who showed us in that complex’s 2003–2010 renovations and additions, their own defining masterwork, how to utterly change a place by making it ever more like itself. And not the Diller, Scofidio + Renfro of the 2014–2019 renovations and additions to the Museum of Modern Art, who for all their brilliance were rather quick with the wrecking ball.

What should really happen is a game of musical chairs: The Frick retires its collection, alas, to the velvety shadows of its old mansion; Sotheby’s moves into the downtown Whitney building, a very swanky late-work greatest-hits self-tribute medley that’s a notably poor public art museum—paralytic in circulation, antic in composition—but a rich tribute to wealth and taste; the Whitney moves back uptown and commissions a far more intelligent addition than the ponderous proposals of Michael Graves and Rem Koolhaas (perhaps by reviving the competent enough 2004 scheme by Renzo Piano); the patrons and matrons of the Upper East Side could, chastened by their loss, also allow something new to be built along Madison Avenue as long as it is as good as, though necessarily greener than, the Breuer building. Unlike on auction day, everybody goes home happy.