Johnson Museum

Ithaca, New York | C.1973

Photo Credit: James McDonald

Housed in a striking concrete building overlooking Cayuga Lake, the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art (“The Johnson Museum”) is a site to behold. Located on the crest of Library Slope on the campus of Cornell University, the museum sits where Ezra Cornell supposedly chose the site for his university. Besides the stunning location, the museum itself has quite a collection, with more than 35,000 works.

Cornell’s first art museum opened in 1953, and began with a gift of 3,000 prints by 16th-20th century masters. The success of this museum led to the development of a purpose-built museum for the university. Thus, famed architect I.M. Pei was commissioned for the design. But the unique location of the museum presented some challenges. Building space was limited, the site was fragile, and the structure could not overwhelm the view.

In the end, Pei overcame these obstacles, designing a building that can be characterized by its fifth floor, which cantilevers over an open-air sculpture garden. From there, visitors are treated to panoramic views of the lake, Art Quad, and town of Ithaca. Opened in 1973, the museum is named after its primary benefactor, Herbert Fisk Johnson Jr., a Cornell Class of 1922 graduate and former head of S.C. Johnson & Sons. The building won Pei the American Institute of Architects Honor Award in 1975.

Though the museum is  relatively small, most of its artists are well know. European, American, early contemporary, African, and Asian works are displayed. Notably, the collection includes two windows from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin D. Martin House.  Admission is free.

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