Hertog, DiMenna Aid Historical Society’s $70 Million Facelift

Frederick Douglass Statue
A statue of abolitionist and author Frederick Douglass stands in front of the newly-renovated New York Historical Society. New York's oldest museum reopens on Friday after undergoing a $70 million renovation over the past three years. Source: New York Historical Society via Bloomberg

The New York Historical Society, the city’s first museum, is ready to show off a much-needed facelift.

The fortress-like structure has stood since 1908 at Central Park West and 77th Street. Built by bank architects, it offered little of the visitor magnets other museums have acquired in recent years, like grand entrances, cafes and high-tech exhibits.

“It was constructed as if it were a vault,” said Louise Mirrer, the society’s president and chief executive officer. “It hid the treasures within so that they would be safe.”

When the Historical Society hosts its reopening party tonight, after a three-year, $70 million renovation, guests will walk up a widened staircase to reach the new airy, glass-enclosed entrance on Central Park West.

Visitors are greeted by the 3,400-square-foot Robert H. and Clarice Smith New York Gallery, visible from the street, where touch screens and museum artifacts illuminate the city’s history.

“We wanted a building that made our treasures transparent so that passers-by on Central Park West could look through our glass doors and see history,” Mirrer said.

Other highlights on the first floor are two high-tech kiosks detailing the organization’s mission, an elegant theater for films and lectures, plus an Italian restaurant specializing in small plates from the Veneto region.

Pride of place goes to two new statues of Abraham Lincoln and black abolitionist and author Frederick Douglass. Lincoln made the famous speech at Cooper Union that helped launch his presidential bid, while Douglass came to the city by boat after escaping from slavery, becoming a good friend of Lincoln’s.

‘Made in New York’

“Most people don’t think of them as New York figures,” Mirrer said. “We argue that Lincoln was made in New York. Douglass became a free man in New York and writes about walking down Broadway with throngs of people and feeling like another human being.”

The nonprofit hired the New York-based architectural firm of Platt Byard Dovell White to modernize and open up the museum. The cost grew from $65 million to about $70 million, Mirrer said, but donors stepped forward despite the economic downturn. Board members, including chairman Roger Hertog, vice chairman emeritus of AllianceBernstein, and brokerage firm founder Richard Gilder, made gifts of $10 million or more, she added.

Hedge-fund manager Joe DiMenna and his wife, Diana, gave $5 million to create the 4,000-square-foot DiMenna Children’s History Museum in the building’s subterranean level.

“We raised all the money, and we have no debt,” Mirrer noted. “That’s a marvelous thing to be able to say.”

Tonight’s party will kick off with a dedication ceremony and a screening of the film “New York Story,” narrated by actor Liev Schreiber.

(The New York Historical Society opens to the public on Nov. 11. Information: +1-212-485-9262; http://www.nyhistory.org.)

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