10 Stunning Museums in North America

Image credit: 
Flickr user Paul Mannix

Last month, we took a look at some of the most beautiful museums in Europe. Now it’s time to hop across the pond and explore some of the loveliest museums in North America.

1. Chapultepec Castle, Mexico City

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Joseph Martinez

This might just be the most beautiful museum in all of North America, if for no other reason than its pure opulence. Throughout its history, Chapultepec Castle has served as a royal palace and home to many of the country’s presidents. In fact, you’ve probably seen the castle before without even recognizing it—it was used as the setting for the Capulet Mansion in 1996’s Romeo and Juliet.

Construction started on the building in 1775, but after the original owner passed away and other legal issues ensued, it didn't have any long-term purpose until it was converted into a Military Academy in 1833. The castle really started to take shape during the Second Mexican Empire when Emperor Maximilian lived there with his wife, Empress Carlota. The Emperor hired top European and Mexican architects to improve the building’s style and to make it more habitable. After the fall of the Empire in 1867, the new president soon decided the site would make a great presidential residence. In 1939, President Lazaro Cardenas established the castle as the home to the National Museum of History and it has remained a museum ever since.

An interesting bit of trivia: Chapultepec Castle is one of only two royal castles in the Americas, and the only one in North America. 

2. Museum of the Revolution, Havana

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Paul Mannix

Speaking of past presidential residences, Cuba’s Museum of the Revolution is also housed in what was once the country’s Presidential Palace. The palace was originally designed by Cuban architect Carlos Maruri and Belgian architect Paul Belau and was first inaugurated in 1920. It features Neo-Classical elements and the luxurious interior was decorated by Tiffany & Co. After the end of the revolution in 1959, it was almost immediately converted into a museum dedicated to the revolutionary war, although some portions also discuss Cuba’s War of Independence against Spain.

3. Renwick Gallery

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Kathleen Tyler Conklin

You can’t have a list of North American museums without including at least one Smithsonian building. The Renwick Gallery—the American craft and decorative arts portion of the Smithsonian collection—might not be the institution's most famous collection, but it is in one of the most impressive buildings, which is also a National Historic Landmark.

The building, designed by James Renwick, Jr., was always meant to be a museum, and when it was originally opened, it housed the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The collection and building were so impressive, it was nicknamed the “American Louvre” when it first opened. The building was almost completed in the 1860s, but it was seized by the U.S. Army in 1861 and used as a warehouse for records and uniforms of the Quarter Master General’s Corps. In 1869, the building was returned to the owner and the museum was finally opened in 1874. After the Corcoran Gallery outgrew the space, it became the federal Court of Claims in 1899. The Court of Claims also ran out of space eventually, and even planned to demolish the building, but Jacqueline Kennedy saw the value of the structure and saved it. In 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson gave the building over to the Smithsonian.

4. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City

Originally opened in 1933, the main building of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City features a classical Beaux-Arts style that was largely based on the Cleveland Museum of Art’s design. But while the main building is quite nice, it’s the 2005 expansion that really sets this museum apart. The expansion, designed by Steven Holl, increased the size of the museum’s space by 55 percent. This unique design features five glass towers Holl calls “lenses” that allow natural light into the underground Bloch Building. While most art museums shy away from the use of natural light because it can harm the items on display, the specialized glass used in the towers filters out most of the harmful UV rays.

5. Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia user Colin M. Burnett

Like the Nelson-Atkins Museum, the Milwaukee Art Museum’s most beautiful architectural achievement is actually relatively new. While the museum was first opened in the Milwaukee County War Memorial in 1957, it’s the Quadracci Pavilion and Reiman Bridge, both designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and completed in 2001, that earned the museum a place on this list.

The white concrete pavilion features a moveable shade structure that can be opened up during the day to let in light and folded over the structure during poor weather and at night. The pavilion is home not only to the temporary exhibits gallery, but also to the museum’s store and its restaurant.

6. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Uncommon Fritillary

Frequently referred to as just “the Met,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the largest museum in the U.S. and one of the ten largest in the world, occupying a total of 2 million square feet of space. The main building, located just outside of Central Park, was opened in 1872, but it has changed drastically since that time.

When the museum first opened, the high Victorian Gothic design by architect Calvert Vaux was already considered dated; only 20 years later, a new plan was developed to engulf the Vaux building. The current Beaux-Arts entrance was completed in 1902 and since then, more wings have been added, modernistic glass sides have been installed, and the rear of the museum was remodeled as well. The changes have led to the building occupying a space more than 20 times its original space. On the roof, you can get a great view of Central Park and Manhattan’s skyline while enjoying the roof garden’s café and statue exhibitions.

7. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York CIty

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia user Jean-Christophe BENOIST

Often referred to as simply “The Guggenheim” (though it is now one of four Guggenheim museums worldwide), this New York City landmark was officially opened by the Guggenheim Foundation in 1959. The museum first occupied a rented space in 1939 and was called the “Museum of Non-Objective Painting." But after Solomon R. Guggenheim passed away in 1952, the name was changed in his honor.

The famous building was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, who spent 15 years working on the design, sketching out 700 prototypes before finalizing on the cylindrical building that is wider at the top than at the bottom. The building ended up being Wright’s last major work and he died six months before the museum was opened to the public.

8. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Jeremy Yoder

If you’ve ever seen Rocky, then you’re already familiar with one of the impressive aspects of this massive museum—the gorgeous stairs, which have since been dubbed the “Rocky Steps.” But unless you’re training for the fight of your life, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has a lot more to offer than just stairs. In fact, the museum is one of the largest museums in the United States, with a collection of more than 227,000 objects.

While the museum itself was originally opened in 1896, the current building wasn’t completed until 1928. In 2006, the museum announced its first major expansion, which was designed by Frank Gehry and built entirely underground below the famous stairway so it would not alter the museum’s façade—though Gehry promised it will still be an amazing feat of architecture that will impress museum goers. While the expansion is not yet complete, when it is, the museum’s display space will be increased by 60 percent.

9. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia user Glogger

This museum was founded in 1900 and moved into its current space in 1910—well, part of its current space, that is.

While the 1817 Gregorian Manor is still part of the Art Gallery of Ontario, the museum itself has expanded at least six times since 1916. The most recent modification to the building was designed by Gehry and required the destruction of the 1992 Post-Modernist wing. One of the challenges faced by the architect was to unite the many wings of the building into one cohesive form. While there was a lot of negative criticism prior to the renovation’s completion, the building received widespread praise by architecture critics when it was finished. In fact, the New York Times wrote, “Rather than a tumultuous creation, this may be one of Mr. Gehry's most gentle and self-possessed designs… a masterly example of how to breathe life into a staid old structure.”

On an interesting note, while Gehry was born in Toronto, this 2005 project was his first work in his homeland of Canada.

10. Museo Soumaya, Mexico City

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia user Freefr

Yes, another Frank Gehry museum masterpiece, although this time he worked as an engineer while Mexican architect Fernando Romero created the original design. The Museo Soumaya was only opened in 2011, though the museum has been collecting work and displaying from famous European artists since 1994 and has already gathered 66,000 pieces of art. The exterior of the building is covered in 16,000 hexagonal aluminum tiles and the floors are made from marble imported from Greece.

I’m sure many of you have favorite museum buildings, so feel free to share your pick for the most beautiful North American museums in the comments.

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September 30, 2013 - 11:00am
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