This 1897 drawing by H.M. Pettit conceptualized the completed Museum complex with four enclosed courtyards.
In 1910, American Museum of Natural History President Henry F. Osborn proposed the construction of a large building in the Museum's southeast courtyard to house a new Hall of Ocean Life in which "models and skeletons of whales" would be exhibited. This proposal to build in the courtyard marked a major reappraisal of the Museum's original architectural plan. Calvert Vaux, a prolific New York architect who, along with Frederick Law Olmsted, helped create the Greensward plan for Central Park, had designed the Museum complex to include four open courtyards in order to maximize the amount of natural light entering the surrounding buildings. But by the early 20th Century, natural light in exhibition spaces was no longer necessary or even desirable since galleries were now lit by electricity and sunlight contributed to the deterioration of many natural objects. Thus, the Museum began a process of building in all four proposed courtyards.
Planning for the construction of the southeast wing and court began with great enthusiasm. Osborn and the Museum's trustees regarded this project as the first step toward the completion of the entire southern half of the Museum in time for its fiftieth anniversary in 1919. However, this enthusiasm was short lived due to a municipal financial crisis in 1913 which brought into question the city's ability to pay for new buildings to house the Museum's collections. Next, the outbreak of World War I in 1914 compelled the trustees to stop the planning process altogether. By 1915 the Museum was acquiring new objects so rapidly that the construction of the southeast wing was becoming an urgent matter. Finally, in 1921 the city agreed to renew funding for the southeast wing and court and construction began in October, 1922. The original exhibition space, including its expansive skylights, was designed by Trowbridge & Livingston in a style inspired by Victorian exposition halls, such as the Crystal Palace in London. The new building was completed 2 years later on October 28, 1924.
This 1933 view of the Hall of Ocean Life shows hanging displays of whale skeletons, models of various porpoise species, and, along the balcony, cases of shells. © American Museum of Natural History
From 1924 to 1933, progress was made in the completion of many of the Hall of Ocean Life's marine life dioramas. By 1927, various shell and mollusk collections had been installed on the upper level of the Hall for visitors to view on a limited basis. However, the Hall was not completely opened to the public until May 2, 1933. By this time, most of the marine group dioramas were in place and various whale skeletons and models had been suspended from the ceiling. The original hall reflected the 19th-century concept that nature existed to serve humanity, and many of the early exhibits, such as artist John Prentice Benson's murals of American sperm whaling that ornamented the Hall, served to emphasize this viewpoint.
The "Tingmissartoq" and the bathysphere inside the Hall of Ocean Life. © American Museum of Natural History
Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, work continued on finishing the dioramas and updating older groups with newer specimens. During this time, various exhibitions and objects were also featured in the Hall, including Charles Lindbergh's marine plane "Tingmissartoq" and the bathysphere in which William Beebe achieved a record depth of 3,028 ft. in 1934. The flurry of building openings in 1934 and 1935celebrating the completion of the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial, the Hayden Planetarium, and the Akeley African Wingwas followed by a long period when no new construction occurred at the Museum. Funding had become tight by the late 1930s and, with America's entry into World War II, all non-military construction came to a halt.