Much of the cruciform-shaped public space at Two Lincoln Square has undergone a remarkable transformation from its inauspicious start more than 25 years ago to the current accomplished incarnation. Authorized by the Special Lincoln Square District zoning regulations, whose purpose, among other things, was to “preserve, protect and promote” the area’s character as a “unique cultural and architectural complex” and to “improve circulation patterns,” the original covered plaza lacked anything remotely cultural or architectural and would have been unlikely to divert pedestrians from their path along Columbus Avenue or the side streets. Indeed, entered from the east side of Columbus Avenue between West 65th and 66th Streets in the mid-1980s, a visitor would travel down a covered arcade, past a solitary trash can and empty retail windows, traverse a north-south passageway, and conclude several feet beyond and five steps above at an open-to-the-sky terrace with three straggly trees, a step ladder, and nothing else.
In the 1980s, the City commenced enforcement proceedings to revoke the building’s certificate of occupancy, citing issues relating to retail frontage, access, height, entrances, public seating, and landscaping violations. The action ultimately resulted in an accommodation with the owner, and the space today fulfills many aspects of the Special District’s original mission. Behind glass doors, the Museum of American Folk Art now occupies the entire enclosed covered plaza as a fully indoor space and exhibits several centuries of American paintings, sculptures, and furniture. The formerly outdoor terrace recently exhibited Edward Hicks’ dramatic The Peaceable Kingdom, a painting depicting images of animals, people, landscaping, and river from the Book of Isaiah, and a series of chairs rising heavenward toward a skylight.
In addition to the art, the space provides two wooden benches near the Columbus Avenue entrance, several chairs, an information desk, and restrooms in the southern wing that are on the opposite side of the hallway from the location indicated on the City-approved plans. The challenge here is to make sure that members of the public understand that this is, indeed, a public space that also happens to be used by a private non-profit museum. Were someone to complain that this use has usurped a public space, it would be certain that such person had never visited the covered plaza in its previous incarnation. The Museum of American Folk Art has recently announced plans to build a new facility for itself, so questions will be raised once more about the future of this space.
A mandatory arcade required by the Special Lincoln Square District is located along Columbus Avenue, and the café near West 65th Street is a permitted use. A tiny patch of special permit plaza is found at the southeast corner of West 66th Street and Broadway. An outdoor but covered section of the covered plaza, located on West 66th Street east of Columbus Avenue, is completely unusable and looks like a loading dock, a pointed reminder of what the space used to be. Members of the public may not access the museum from here or vice versa.