By Tara Kyle
MEATPACKING DISTRICT — The Whitney Museum broke ground on its downtown home Tuesday, with a little help from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a performance art troupe and celebrity architect Renzo Piano.
The city hopes the new venue, slated to open in 2015 at Gansevoort and Washington Streets, will contribute to the area's cultural revitalization, already kickstarted by the High Line elevated park.
"To bring an institution like the Whitney into a neighborhood like the Meatpacking District a few years ago would have been, I think it's fair to say, unthinkable," said Bloomberg.
"This is going to establish this neighborhood as one of the most dynamic, exciting parts of the city, and in fact even the world."
Piano showed off a conceptual model of his nine-story design after Bloomberg spoke, but before performers from the STREB Extreme Action Company dumped a symbolic canister of dirt on the future museum site.
"It's a flying meteor coming down from the sky," Piano said of his 200,000 square foot building. "It's something that makes sense in this part of the city."
Structural highlights of the new museum will include the city's largest column-free gallery space and rooftop outdoor exhibition areas.
The building will cost $720 million, of which over $500 million has been raised so far through the museum's capital campaign, Board of Trustees co-chair Robert J. Hurst said.
This is the fourth home for the Whitney, founded on W. 8th Street in 1930 by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a woman who wanted to create a center for contemporary American art at a time when the genre held little cache in highbrow cultural circles.
In 1954, the museum began a stint on West 54th Street, and in 1966, it moved to its present home at 945 Madison Avenue. The Metropolitan Museum of Art will ultimately take over the current building, designed by Marcel Breuer.
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's granddaughter, Flora Miller Biddle, was on hand for Tuesday's ceremony.
"Great institutions are more than places, they are ideas," Biddle said, expressing her love for Whitney's soul and air of intimacy.
"The idea of the Whitney will prevail in a new setting, alongside the High Line and the Hudson River."