At Home from Roof to Basement

View from Central Park

Yes, I’m starting to feel at home at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, having started work here this week. On the first day Angela Hall, who looks after everyone’s well being here, gave me a complete tour of the place. She introduced me to more than sixty people and showed me almost every nook and cranny.

Carnegie Mansion Boilers

I was already feeling connected to the roof of the building, as you can just see it from the apartment that we moved into last week on the other side of the park. We’re on the fourteenth floor, just above the top of most of the trees, and as you look east across the reservoir the spiral ramp of the Guggenheim Museum is immediately noticeable. You can just make out the green roof of the Cooper-Hewitt five buildings further north on Museum mile, peeking out from the branches with the curved eyelids of the windows on the top level. It won’t be visible for long as the spring is coming and the leaves will hide it, but from now on I will feel its presence, as I’ve seen the rooms from the inside that house the spectacular collection of drawings and prints.

Nowadays we use the basement for building exhibitions and running the museum’s systems, but there are lots of interesting historical features inherited from the mansion’s origins as the family home of Andrew Carnegie. I immediately fell in love with the façade of the original coal boilers. Fuel was delivered down a shoot from the driveway above, landing in a narrow gauge railcar that was moved across to feed the fires. The boilers are arrayed in a symphony of cast iron covers, four columns of four, each functional but also beautiful, with delectable details for the brass nameplates and a few modest flourishes of decoration. Why is it that this design is so appealing? Perhaps part of it is the massive solidity and lasting quality of the materials. Perhaps it’s the obvious functionality of the infrastructure. I think there is also a very intimate connection between the expressive forms and the craft of manufacture that yield a special satisfaction.