The under appreciated South Street Seaport Museum has always had a daunting mission to fulfill — preserving a piece of New York City history on the edge of a volatile and ever-changing waterway. Established fifty years ago this year, the museum has been the guiding presence to this remaining vestige of New York’s 19th century waterfront.
But while the mighty vessels maintained by the museum and the collection inside old Schermerhorn Row provide a true flavor of the past, the present has oftentimes disrupted their objective.
Construction on the waterfront — and the uncertainty of its use — has made the area rather unpleasant to visit in past years. And natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy have gravely endangered the neighborhood’s repertoire of classic structures.
So consider this our official request to you — go down to the Seaport! The ships are now open for tours, the rusticBowne Print Shopsare still a treasure to visit, and a scaled-back version of the museum is open on Schermerhorn Row. And some decent shops and restaurants have returns to the area. (The Paris Cafe, one of our favorite places in all of New York City, has remained a reliable stalwart through all of it.)
And at the museum an interesting surprise awaits you. A small second-floor gallery presents the curious work of one of America’s greatest tattoo artists — Gus Wagner.
Tattooing has long been a part of seaport life — and a critical rite of passage for many 19th century seamen. The Original Gus Wagner: The Maritime Roots of Modern Tattoo presents the art of the tattoo in this larger context, following Wagner, a well-traveled sailor, around the world, his body like a passport, stamped with mementos of his various journeys.
Tattoo artists were often called professors, and indeed Wagner’s own devotion to the art form, lecturing about his work and travels during his life time, helped develop its prominence among mainstream audiences. The exhibit also contains a look at some pages from his scrapbook of tattoo designs.
Take a trip down to the Seaport and visit this small but pleasurable exhibit. And my pre-emptive thanks to the South Street Seaport for inspiring the next episode of the Bowery Boys spin-off The First: Stories of Inventions and their Consequences. It comes out tomorrow and its all about the tattooing life in New York City in the late 19th century. (The show is available wherever you find podcasts. Just search for The First Stories. More information here.)
Bryant Park is a rather remarkable physical space. During the winter it becomes a skating rink and outdoor market, while in the summer, its lawn host hundreds of movie buffs every Monday for the park’s popular outdoor film festival. Its neighbor — the main branch of the New York Public Library — keeps millions of volumes within rooms below the park. And once, long ago, Americans came to this spot to witness the technological marvels of the age.
The Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations was the first major industrial fair in the United States, showcasing the rising manufacturing prowess of the young country. It was housed in a jewel box of an exhibition center, the extraordinary Crystal Palace, a wonder of glass and steel, modeled after a similar structure in London. When fire eventually took the building in 1858, New York City lost its most valued tourist attraction.
A new show at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery(18 West 86th Street, just steps from Central Park) reanimates a bit of the Crystal Palace Exhibition, bringing the wonder of visiting this wondrous place to life with displays of original artifacts and an absolutely sensational interactive component.
The gallery features a selection of items both displayed at the fair and used to promote it. Americans were so enthralled by the exhibition that they decorated their homes with promotional items include one example featured in the gallery of an ornate parlor clock affixed with an image of the Crystal Palace. High end tchotchkes, indeed!
The fair displayed fine art and experimental technologies alongside examples of American craftsmanship. Featured in the gallery are samples of American-made items from the 1850s proudly shown at the fair — porcelain, glassware, furniture, pottery and sculpture.
You’re perhaps used to seeing such items in a museum; the things you’re seeing here, however, weren’t originally displayed for their historical worth. At the opening of the Crystal Palace in 1853, they were literally the embodiment of a growing country.
And here, in this intimate space, there are little delights behind tiny thick curtains — daguerreotypes and photographic salt prints from the fair itself, so delicate that they must be protected from even the gallery’s gentle light.
In fact, I would highly suggest getting lost in their digital resourcesbefore heading over to see the physical objects. (You’ll be able to play around with them at interactive displays at the exhibit as well.) There are also some engaging audio ‘walking tours’ from three different perspectives of people visiting the fair.
Up in one of those difficult-to-find rooms at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — so difficult that perhaps it simply vanishes after you leave it — is a series of 27 small oil paintings that one must view with a magnifying glass.
The subjects of the paintings all reside in the same universe — a somber day and evening in New York City, sometime in 1808. These are not meticulous recreations of city streets and resident life. These are the memories of a man at the end of his life recalling the city of his childhood.
The artist’s name is William P. Chappel, a tinsmith of Huguenot lineage who dabbled in painting and shared its joys with his children. His son Alonzo Chappel would become a renown painter and illustrator.
This is why you need the magnifying glass. Chappel’s paintings have a unique, almost 3-D quality when viewed close up (unable to be duplicated in the images in this blog post, I should add). Staring at them closely brings out affecting, sweet, even troubling details of normal New York affairs.
Chappel visualizes people in their every day routines — chimney sweeps, lamplighters, watchmen. People gather at the waterfront for some light bathing or a revenant baptism. Firemen gamely eject water from city hoses at rivals. Two paintings depict funerals. Several note places that will be familiar to students of New York City history — the shipyards of Corlears Hook, the Fly Market, the Bull’s Head Tavern.
The Met has done a brilliant job contextualizing these paintings. You can literally stroll through old New York by viewing the images based on their location on a map.
City of Memory is an exceptionally charming and all too brief visit to New York’s past. The room is next to the Met’s grand visible storage section — officially the Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art — and once you’re in there, among the overwhelming cabinets of history, you may wonder if you had just seen any paintings at all. But they’re worth searching out.
Seventy-five years ago, in 1942, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses convinced Mayor Fiorello La Guardia to move his family from their home in East Harlem (Fifth Avenue and 109th Street) to an old mansion in Carl Schurz Park. It was the former home to merchant Archibald Gracie, built in 1799, to look out at the ships of the East River and the turbulent waters of Hell Gate.
Below: Gracie Mansion in 1945. Needless to say, that chainlink fence has been replaced!
Gracie Mansion is known as ‘the little White House’. In truth, it’s yellow now, not white, but it was indeed small and perhaps a bit unsuited for its expanded new purposes. In 1966, thanks to Susan Wagner (Mayor Robert Wagner’s wife), the house was suitably enlarged with a ballroom and two reception rooms. It’s largely because of her and subsequent custodians that the mansion has now struck a perfect balance — an historical home that can vividly represent the City of New York and still comfortably keep a family.
Only one mayor has excused himself from his tradition — Michael Bloomberg — who turned the residence into a house museum, opening up Gracie Mansion to tours and even public events. After all, Bloomberg has a little change in his pocket, shall we say, and his actual home on East 79th Street was close by.
But Mayor Bill De Blasio has chosen to adhere to tradition and move his family into Gracie Mansion. In honor of that revived tradition, Gracie Mansion Conservancy is presenting a series of art installations in the house, celebrating its unique place in American history.
The latest installation New York 1942presents a wide range of artifacts (59 in all) reflecting life in the city during World War II, a time-warping decor quietly expressing the house’s many historical layers. (An exhibition last year displayed relics from 1799, the year Gracie completed his mansion.)
In the entranceway, you’re met with prints of Norman Rockwell’s striking Four Freedoms, illustrating the accompanying freedoms of speech, worship, want and fear as outlined in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s now-iconic 1941 speech. They seem perfectly at home here and they should consider permanently installing a set here.
Throughout the house are paintings and photographs of every day life from the 1940s — Gordon Parks photographs, landmarks in watercolors and paints, pictures of skyscrapers and housing projects alike. An old early ’40s television sits in one room; in the next, a modern widescreen presents a jazz band playing Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night In Tunisia.” Perhaps the most delectable artifact is its smallest — a little baseball, signed by the World Champion 1941 New York Yankees.
New York 1942 is curated with a modern eye, bringing out the diverse life of the city in the 40s, a perspective that some might have overlooked then. In particular, don’t overlook the somewhat strange Contoured Playground by Isamu Noguchi, a model for a children’s playground the artist wanted to build when he arrived at an Arizona internment camp in May 1942.
Gracie Mansion had an open house this past Sunday, presenting the installation to hundreds of visitors. You can check out the installation yourself by booking a free tour to the historic home. Just visit their website to directly book a spot on the next tour — Tuesdays only for the general public, select Wednesdays for schools — or call 212-676-3060.
I couldn’t take any pictures of the installation inside but I did snag a few from the front lawn!
The Museum of the City of New York finally delivers the ultimate history of New York City in its dazzling new permanent exhibit on the ground floor — New York At Its Core.
And yet it feels very strange to classify this as a mere survey of history as though it were a row of dusty display cases. Although it indeed covers over 400 years of history in the New York City area, there’s nothing predictable or stagnant about it.
In a way it reflects what the New-York Historical Society did a few years ago with their own permanent collection in their main hallway. Finally both great museums now have signature statements, expressing their personalities, their unique viewpoints. They are both worthy of the greatest city in the world.
Below: The scrap of paper from which New York’s iconic marketing phrase from the 1970s first developed.
New York At Its Core resides — permanently — in three rooms on the ground floor of the museum. (Rotating exhibits, such as Gay Gotham, will now be housed in the two floors above it.) The Core’s first room (Port City) explores New York history until 1898, a natural breaking point due to consolidation and the formation of Greater New York. The second room (World City) picks up the story to present day. And the third room? We’ll get to that.
At first sight, it seems the Core is arranged in a very recognizable fashion — by era, anchored with 8 to 10 key artifacts in each era. But the curators have managed a delicate balance of the familiar and the obscure. Every time one tells the history of New York, you hit a series of recognizable notes that plays almost like a melody. New Amsterdam becomes New York. The Revolutionary War happens. Mass immigration, the Croton Aqueduct, the Gilded Age.
The Core makes a considerable effort to tell the story of the unfamiliar, of those outside the mainstream historical threads, balancing major events with small movements and creating a textured New York landscape. Or, to put it bluntly, the Core brings a bit of diversity to common stories typically told without it.
Below: Wong Chin Foo, a Chinese political activist and journalist who spent years in New York actively challenging American attitudes about immigration.
The artifacts on display are fascinating, eclectic and often weird — Louis Armstrong’s housekeys (pictured below), Boss Tweed’s cane, an 18th century circumcision kit, Al Smith’s derby, a towel from the Continental Baths, a guest list from Studio 54. It’s like an elegant thrift store filled with common, yet invaluable, treasures.
The Core’s technical interfaces are true show-stoppers, allowing visitors to learn about specific individuals throughout history via stand-alone panel displays. Elaborate digital displays at the start of the exhibit present a trove of information about the city and its citizens. I’ve been to the Core three times now, and have not had the same experience twice. The general sensation is of something constantly active. It appears the Core will never grow inert.
Indeed there’s an entire room to the future of New York — the Future City Lab, an interactive space where visitors can design their own cityscape and present it for the whole room to see. For instance, you can fill Jackson Heights with street performers and elevated highways. Or put nine bus lanes in Midtown Manhattan!
I’ll be interested to see how the Core evolves over the next few years. It’s certainly exciting to see something meant to be a permanent fixture with the ability to grow, reflecting the stories and circumstances of all New Yorkers.
Tomorrow (Thursday, December 15), we are joining the Museum of the City of New York to discuss the future of the history of New York! Please join us at the Greene Space at 7pm. More information here. Details below and you can get your tickets here.
Tickets: $10 Venue: The Greene Space 44 Charlton Street, New York, NY (corner of Varick Street)
Pictured at top: Tom explores a city that he just created — an environmental wonderland that’s hellish to get around in!
For those in the New York City area, here’s the list of participating museums and one exhibit from each museum that we recommend you plan on seeing. According to the extended forecast, it’s going to be a beautiful day. So why not spend it running around town checking these out?
Queens Historical Society
Located in the historic Kingsland Homestead, built in the late 18th century, in Flushing, Queens. Go see: Kingsland Past and Present, “an exhibit on the history of the Kingsland Homestead and the family that made it their home for over 100 years.”
Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum (Hell’s Kitchen)
Go see: On The Line — Intrepid and the Vietnam War“The legendary aircraft carrier Intrepid served three tours of duty in Vietnam between 1966 and 1969. Set within the very spaces where men lived and served, the exhibition focuses on the experiences of Intrepid and its crew “on the line”—the periods when the ship was active in the Gulf of Tonkin, launching aircraft for missions over mainland Vietnam. “
Museum of the City of New York (Upper East Side)
Go see: Roz Chast — Cartoon Memoirs “Since the 1970s, Brooklyn-born Chast has chronicled the anxieties, pleasures, and perils of contemporary life in a body of work that includes over 1,200 cartoons published in The New Yorker and other magazines, several illustrated children’s books, and her award-winning 2014 visual memoir, Can’t We talk About Something More Pleasant?”
New York City Fire Museum (Hudson Square, just west of SoHo)
Go see: Chief the Fire Dog, featured in our book, who helped out a fire company in Red Hook, Brooklyn, during the 1930s.
The Cathedral of St. John the Divine (Morningside Heights)
Go see: Channels of Grace, on display in the Cathedral Crossing, “is an exhibition of icons from our collection of treasures. These devotional images, spanning across centuries, are hand-crafted from a wide variety of mediums.”
The Hispanic Society of America (Washington Heights)
Go see:The entire collection of works from Spain, Portugal, Latin America, the Philippines and Portuguese India.
The Jewish Museum of America (Upper East Side)
Go see: One of the hottest new exhibitions in town — Take Me (I’m Yours),“featuring works by more than forty artists from different generations and from all over the world, the exhibition asks you not only to get into close contact with the artworks, but to take them away and keep them for good.”
The Morgan Library & Museum (Murray Hill)
Go see: Another lovely brand-new show Charlotte Bronte: An Independent Will. “The centerpiece of the exhibition is a portion of the original manuscript of Jane Eyre, on loan from the British Library and being shown in the U.S. for the first time, open to the page on which Jane asserts her “independent will.” Also shown for the first time in America will be the only two life portraits of Brontë, on loan from London’s National Portrait Gallery.”
One hundred years ago, the American Museum of Natural History received a massive visitor, one so mighty that the doors of the museum’s delivery room “had to be removed and [the] partition openings enlarged” in order to accommodate it.
Was it a dinosaur? A meteorite? Perhaps the remains of a great whale?
No, the new visitor was a bush chrysanthemum, with over 1,500 blooms, 17 feet in diameter, wider, the New York Times notes, than the largest meteorite on the property.
The massive plant, grown north of the city at Ardsley-on-Hudson, was the star of an impressive plant and flower show at the museum with thousands of chrysanthemums and a so-called ‘rose gorgeous’ which “changes color as it opens.”
What is it about old museum pictures that I find so interesting? Most of the exhibits would today be considered politically incorrect, and modern advances have improved our knowledge about many of the objects being pictures. But the faces filled with wonder and imagination could be taken from museum images today.
So enjoy these pictures and visit the archives to view more:
School children viewing Indian canoe exhibit, 1911:
Students and teacher at a mammal display, October 1911
Young ladies in Forestry Hall, October 1911
Schoolgirls from Public School 94 drawing items on display in Southwest Indian Hall, May 1916
Blind children studying the hippopotamus, May 1914
Kids in Dinosaur Hall, July 1927
More students in Dinosaur Hall, this time in December 1929
Saturday, September 26, is Smithsonian Magazine’s annual MUSEUM DAY with free admission to participating museums across the country.
The only catch is that you need to visit the Smithsonian website and print out your ticket (good for two admissions) first before you go. It’s not free for everyone. You’re special!
Here’s a list of participating museums and venues in the New York City area. It will be perfect weather day in the area so go have a beautiful day in the city!
Simply find the museum you would like to visit tomorrow then go to the Smithsonian websiteto grab your ticket. NOTE: It’s one ticket per email sign-up. Since a ticket admits two, grab a friend and go to a couple!
The Hispanic Society of America
613 W 155th Street, Upper East Side
Exhibit to see: Check out the entire collection, “unparalleled in their scope and quality outside the Iberian Peninsula, addressing nearly every aspect of culture in Spain,as well as a large part of Portugal and Latin America.”
From inside Frank Lloyd Wright’s inverted ziggurat (Photo courtesy Thais)
It’s ancient mysteries week on the Bowery Boys! What, you ask, I thought you only did New York City history? In fact, at least two great Manhattan landmarks evoke the great mysteries of ancient times, meant to bring mystical energy and revelation to one of the world’s greatest cities.
Here’s a replay of a podcast we recorded back in October 2008 on the history of the Guggenheim Museum, a space-age upside-down ziggurat originally designed to hold only the most unfathomable non-objective art in the world.
The spiral-ramped wonder that is the Guggenheim began as the dream of three colorful characters — a weathy art collector, a severe German artist and her rich patron art-lover. So how did they convince the most famous architect in the world to sign on to their dream for a modern art “museum temple”? Come meander with us through the Guggenheim’s quirky history. Co-starring Robert Moses!
Photographed by Walter Sanders, Life Magazine
PODCAST REWINDA special illustrated version of the podcast on the Guggenheim Museum (Episode #67) is now available on our NYC History Archive feed. Chapter headings with images have been embedded in this show, so if your listening device is compatible, just hit play and a variety of pictures should pop up. The audio is superior than the original as well. So dive into this weird, wild history of one of New York’s great museums!
When we recorded this, George W. Bush was still president of the United States, and the Guggenheim was just reopening after a major renovation. So even this podcast is a bit of history in itself!
Happy Easter! Audubon’s Golden Eagle with its bizarrely depicted bunny prize. Notice the small man in the background. That’s Audubon himself as ‘an American woodsman’, the only appearance he makes in this series of watercolors.
The gallery, painted sky blue, is filled with them, most in studied, formal poses, trapped in elaborate picture frames, a static zoo for slightly unusual animals. You’ve certainly seen the work of John James Audubon and might be familiar with his style. His creatures are sometimes arched and twisted around a frame in a way that seems otherworldly.
But take your focus off the individual subjects and look around. You’re basically standing in the middle of one of the greatest publishing achievements in history. The Birds of America is an ambitious book of wondrous art, published in sections between 1827 and 1838 and collected in a double-elephant-folio (almost 40 inches tall). The watercolors here are studies for the original edition of Birds, one of the most treasured books of the 19th century, a landmark of publishing and a charmingly dated approach to animal preservation.
This is the Historical Society’s second Audubon show, this time mostly featuring images of water fowl. (Part three will come next year.) The individual birds themselves may either bewitch or repel you — depending on your tolerance for 19th century scientific formality — but the overall display is surprisingly moving. You’re standing here in an age where the published tome itself has become an endangered species.
Audubon was one of the most esteemed New Yorkers of the early 19th century, although as the era’s greatest naturalist, he was rarely in one place for long. (His family roots in France frequently took him back overseas where he was widely hailed.) He owned an upper Manhattan estate Minniesland where his descendants lived for decades. The watercolors you see in this exhibit were stored at Minniesland for decades; his wife Lucy often bringing them out to the delight of dinner guests.
Audubon Terrace sits on most of that land today. Audubon is buried nearby at Trinity Cemetery.
A vista of Audubon’s home and the Hudson River. You can see this particular print in NYHS’s exhibit:
Hardly any of The Birds of America depicts any creature he would have seen from his porch. The exhibit takes you along on his travels, constantly on the move over the Atlantic Ocean on the search for specimens. And we get to meet some of his collaborators, including his sister-in-law Maria Martin, who contributes some of watercolors in the collection.
His drive to preserve seems especially prescient today. In 1829 he wrote “When I see that . . . the vast herds of elks, deer and buffaloes which once pastured . . . in these valleys . . . have ceased to exist; that the woods are fast disappearing under the axe by day, and the fire by night . . . when I remember that these extraordinary changes have all taken place in the short period of twenty years, I pause, wonder, and, although I know all to be fact, can scarcely believe its reality.”
Little did he know that it would be the book itself — not just the birds within his own great masterpiece — that would now seem to be similarly imperiled.
You may the most transfixed with the bound edition of The Birds of America in the middle of the gallery. Behind glass, its dimensions give it the appearance of something you might find at the Cloisters museum.
Audubon’s Aviary: Parts Unknown (Part II of the Complete Flock) on display at the New-York Historical Society, until May 26, 2014. Visit their website for more information.