The Mansion

a close-up photo of round flower forms carved into dark wood in a repeating pattern

A home for innovation

The Museum is housed in the former home of industrial magnate Andrew Carnegie. The sixty-four-room mansion, built from 1899 to 1902, is an impressive testament to the desire of Carnegie and his wife, Louise Whitfield Carnegie, to build a spacious, comfortable, and light-filled home in which to raise their young daughter, Margaret. The house was also planned as a place where Carnegie, after his retirement in 1901, could oversee the philanthropic projects to which he would dedicate the final decades of his life. From his private office in the mansion, Carnegie donated money to build free public libraries in communities across the country and to the improvement of cultural and educational facilities in Scotland and the United States. The mansion was designed by the architectural firm of Babb, Cook & Willard in the solidly comfortable style of a Georgian country house. When Carnegie purchased the land for the house, in 1898, he purposely bought property far north of where his peers were living. The relatively open space allowed him to build a large private garden—one of the only ones in Manhattan—that is still a beautiful, restful oasis today.

The house is a fascinating study in innovative design. Completed in 1901, it was the first private residence in the United States to have a structural steel frame and one of the first in New York to have a residential Otis passenger elevator (now in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC). Another innovation was the inclusion of both central heating and a precursor to air-conditioning. In the cellar a pair of enormous twin boilers ran by coal transferred from storage bin to furnace by a coal car that traveled over a miniature railroad track.

The building received landmark status in 1974, and in 1976 reopened as Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution. It was renamed Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in 2014.

LEED Silver certification

In 2015, the mansion and Cooper Hewitt campus earned LEED Silver certification from the United States Green Building Council. The LEED rating system is the foremost program for buildings, homes and communities that are designed, constructed, maintained and operated for improved environmental and human health performance. The project to attain certification for Cooper Hewitt, which first began with the renovation planning stage in 2006, involved optimizing the mansion’s energy performance, purchasing green-e certified electrical supply, water use reduction, community connectivity, and many other green enhancements of the museum campus.

Transforming the Mansion

The transformation of the Carnegie Mansion into a 21st-century museum respects the spirit and character of the landmark building (the former residence of Andrew Carnegie), restoring key elements to their original grandeur while providing much-needed upgrades to lighting and signage, more flexibility to reduce installation time and better accommodate object handling and above all enhanced public access on every level.

The multiphase project has also provided for the creation of the new Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Library (completed in 2011), which includes the Arthur Ross Reading Room, an additional study room, the Fred and Rae S. Friedman Rare Book Room, reference spaces, a workroom, open stacks and offices, as well as the development of the museum’s website, the collection move to expanded off-site facilities and the growth of the endowment.

A team of leading design firms have joined forces to realize the project. Gluckman Mayner Architects developed the overarching vision for the interior renovation of the mansion, in collaboration with executive architect Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners LLP, which oversaw the engineering, architectural and historic-preservation aspects of the project. Hood Design is evolving the original Richard Schermerhorn Jr. design from 1901, using durable local New York schist as terrace pavers, garden pathways and in the reimagined rockery, tying the garden to its larger context of Central Park. Diller Scofidio + Renfro designed the casework and the first layout of the movable display cases for the exhibitions in the first- and second-floor galleries, as well as the new SHOP Cooper Hewitt retail space; Thinc Design conceived the Tools exhibition design; Local Projects focused on the design and production of the interactive media concept; and Ideum developed the interactive table hardware. Goppion engineered and fabricated the casework on the ground-, first-, and second-floor galleries.

Through reprogramming of portions of the mansion and the adjacent townhouses, as well as reconfiguring conservation and collection-storage facilities, the project will increase the museum’s total exhibition space from approximately 10,000 square feet to 17,000 square feet, including the 6,000-square-foot gallery on the third floor, which has never before been used for public exhibitions.

Featured Image: Carnegie Mansion Woodwork Detail Carving. Photograph by Jimmy Rudnick