The Museum that Wax Built: An Appreciation of the Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University

The Museum that Wax Built: An Appreciation of the Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University

In I.M. Pei’s Wilson Commons Building: A Contemporary Mastery of Method ,
George Cassidy Payne
looked from all angles at I.M. Pei’s masterpiece at the University of Rochester.

Today, George looks from all angle at Pei’s masterpiece at Cornell University.

The Museum That Wax Built: An Appreciation of the Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University

All photography by George Cassidy Payne

Affectionately called “The Piano Building” and compared to a giant sewing machine, the Johnson Museum of Art is known all over the world for its distinctive concrete façade and other arresting Brutalist features. It is one of I.M. Pei’s most innovative uses of cantilevers.

Constructed in 1973, the building was featured on the cover of Scientific American as an early example of computer graphics. The Museum was awarded the American Institute of Architects Honor Award in 1975.



From the Johnson Museum’s website:

An homage to the late Cornell astronomy professor Carl Sagan, Cosmos is a site-specific installation by New York–based artist Leo Villareal (born 1967), a pioneer in the use of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and computer-driven imagery. His signature pieces explore complex movement and dazzling patterns created by points of light using his own computer software.


The Museum that Wax Built

The museum is named after its most substantial benefactor, Herbert Fisk Johnson, who was a graduate of 1922 and head of S.C. Johnson & Sons.


I.M. Pei and his firm researched local materials in order to produce a unique mix of architectural concrete ideal for this specific building and location. This was mixed with sand and small course stone aggregate, then poured into a framework of boards and panels which created the surface pattern.

The concrete walls tower to 107 feet.

A Narrow tower and a brick.


With a desire to make a dramatic statement while maintaining an optimal amount of scenic views, transparent open spaces and windows beautifully contrast the heaviness and boldness of the rectangular forms of concrete

I.M. Pei


Ithaca was carved out by glaciers that formed gorges millions of years ago. Fall Creek Gorge sits behind the Johnson, providing a dramatic natural landscape.



An outdoor Japanese garden was created outside the exterior of the 1st floor. The Johnson has over 35,000 works including a world class Asian collection. Other works of art include pieces by Goya, Degas, Warhol, Matisse, Manet, windows by Frank L. Wright, and signature paintings by members of the Hudson River School.


It was designed not to block the view of Cayuga Lake and the handsome Arts Quad.

From the museum’s website:

At the opening in 1973, I. M. Pei focused his remarks on the significant role the site played in the design solution, noting he was not certain at the outset whether it was viable to place a building on this site which could balance deference with presence, relating to the dramatic landscape and to the historic buildings on the Arts Quad. He said that he no longer had any doubt as to the appropriateness of the solution. It had engaged the site with its interplay of solid and void, and maintained an architectural relationship with the buildings of the Quad through its basically rectangular form.


Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art

Cornell University
114 Central Avenue
IthacaNY 14853

Tues–Sun, 10AM–5PM
Closed Mondays and
December 25–January 1

Admission is free. 

About The Author

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


Like what you see on our site? We’d appreciate your support. Please donate today.

Featured Posts