The Steinberg Family Sculpture Garden, formerly the Frieda Schiff Warburg Memorial Sculpture Garden, was created in 1966 as a space to display objects from our pioneering collection of architectural sculptures rescued from New York City demolition sites. This remarkable collection, largely composed of works by anonymous craftsmen dating to the period between 1880 and 1910, presents a sampling of architectural ornament characteristic of buildings still standing in the older parts of New York City. Some of the objects are carved limestone, brownstone, granite, or marble; some are metal. Many others are cast terracotta, a hard-fired clay that was widely used for urban architectural ornament, especially after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 caused builders to embrace inexpensive fireproof materials.
The collection offers varied examples of the forms created to enrich the facades of residential and commercial buildings. Scrolls and garlands, fruit and flowers, cornucopias and shells, and geometric and foliate patterns abound, as do human and animal forms and fantastic creatures. This exuberant imagery was drawn from nature but often abstracted into patterns for ease of duplication and then further simplified into architectural units such as keystones, friezes, moldings, lunettes, and plaques.
Much of the work was executed by anonymous stone carvers, mostly immigrant workers from the United Kingdom and, later, Italy who traveled from building site to building site. By the turn of the century, however, a large portion of this work would no longer be done by hand, as factory-produced terracotta tiles replaced most of the hand-carved stonework on New York buildings. A number of the objects in the collection were also designed by well-known artists and architects, including Louis Sullivan; McKim, Mead & White; Irwin S. Chanin; and Gutzon Borglum.
The Sculpture Garden was changed significantly in 2000 at the time of major relandscaping around the south entrance of the building. It was rededicated as the Steinberg Family Sculpture Garden in 2004, with the addition of the Replica of the Statue of Liberty. More objects from the collection will be added to the installation at a later date. In 2003, our Eastern Parkway entrance and the Eastern Parkway/Brooklyn Museum subway stop were renovated, and sixty terracotta keystones, lunettes, tiles, and plaques formerly in our collection were installed on the walls of the subway station with beautiful mosaic borders. The redesign, overseen by the MTA’s Arts for Transit program, provided an excellent opportunity to display historic New York architectural ornament outside the Museum’s boundaries.