Federal Reserve Bank of New York Museum


Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 108 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned The tantalizing glimpse into the gold vault.  I’m not awed by wealth, generally, but there’s wealth and there’s WEALTH.

Federal Reserve Bank of New YorkThe Federal Reserve Bank of New York occupies a huge (full city block) beautiful Italian palazzo of a building constructed for it in 1924.  Its classical grandeur meant to evoke the stability of many centuries of tradition. Solid and rich, like a Medici. Which was important, because the Fed was then still a fairly young institution created to stabilize the financial system and steer the economy in the right direction.

Security at the New York Fed exceeds even that of the United Nations. And frankly, in terms of relative institutional importance, that might be appropriate.

However, mere mortals can in fact visit. Limited free tours introduce visitors to the history and role of the Federal Reserve System, explain what the New York Fed does in particular, and, best of all, permit them to ogle one of the largest accumulations of gold in the world. Continue reading “Federal Reserve Bank of New York Museum”

Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration

Edification value  
Entertainment value 4/5
Should you go?  
Time spent 213 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Ellis Island National Immigration Museum, New York

Ellis Island’s mental health tests were simple puzzles designed to be as culturally and linguistically neutral as possible. In theory, they quickly weeded out anyone who needed a closer cognitive look.

The classic twofer of New York Harbor is typically viewed as nerdy little brother Ellis overshadowed by big sister Liberty, who enlightens the world.  But from a museum perspective it is the reverse.  Ellis Island’s outstanding National Museum of Immigration tells the story of a unique era in American history, in the space where that era unfolded.  Twelve million people got their starts in the United States right here.

Ellis Island National Immigration Museum, New York Continue reading “Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration”

Conference House


Edification value  
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 65 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned As is very often the case with historic houses, I was enamored of the Conference House kitchen, which includes the original open hearth stove. I wouldn’t want to have to cook there, especially not in the summer. But it’s neat to look at.

Conference House, Staten Island

Far, far away, on the southern shore of Staten Island, is an old farmhouse.  And I mean, pretty darn old.  The Billopp House, better known as Conference House, dates to around 1675.  Wyckoff House in Brooklyn and Bowne House in Queens are older. And there are four houses in Staten Island that are older, too.  I suppose Staten Islanders don’t tear stuff down as aggressively as they do in other boroughs.

Conference House, Staten Island

Anyway, Billopp House survives not through an accident of fate or because the Billopps themselves did anything particularly great or notorious.  Rather, it survives because of a single afternoon there in 1776. Continue reading “Conference House”

The Museum Emoji Guessing Game

An offhand remark I made in my review of the The Statue of Liberty Museum got me thinking about emoji and museums and museum emoji.  I have mixed feelings about emoji, especially as the character set nears hanzi/kanji numbers. They’re complex, and just as open to misinterpretation as any form of communication. Sometimes an eggplant is just an eggplant. On the other hand, adding a visual component to dry text communication can enrich it.  And they’re fun.

Anyway, I started pondering what some of my favorite New York City museums would be called in emoji.  And I decided, why not make a game of it?  Here’s some museums rendered emojically.  Most are pretty famous, though a couple are obscure.  

See how many you can decode! 🤔🏆 Continue reading “The Museum Emoji Guessing Game”

Roosevelt House


Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 88 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned
Roosevelt House, Hunter College
Happy Days Are Here Again Set

This 1934 pitcher and mug set featuring caricatures of FDR and other Democrats, created by the Stangl Pottery Company following the repeal of prohibition. Cheers!Roosevelt House, Hunter College

Roosevelt House on East 65th Street is Hunter College’s public policy institute.  Lots of schools name places after people who gave them money or famous alums (or both!) so you might just think, “Oh the Roosevelts bought naming rights back in the day.”  Or, I mean, it’s Roosevelt, why not name something policy-related after any or all of them?  But all those hypotheses are wrong!

Roosevelt House, Hunter CollegeFor nearly a quarter of a century FDR and Eleanor lived there as their place in New York City.  Actually it’s two houses designed to look like one from the outside. Franklin and Eleanor lived to the right, while FDR’s mom lived to the left.  While few historic furnishings remain, the house’s internal fabric is similar enough that you can get a sense of the space the Roosevelts occupied. And it’s open for public tours on Saturdays.  

For some reason, Hunter keeps this quiet. I stumbled on to the place late; it was not on my initial list of museums.  I think this is the most under-the-radar historic house museum in Manhattan.  And I’ve been to all of them.  At least, I think I have.

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in New York City

When Franklin and Eleanor married in 1905, Sara Delano Roosevelt, FDR’s mom, gave them a drawing of a townhouse as a wedding gift.  It took a while to deliver on the real-world equivalent, and it’s unclear whether she specified she’d be their extremely close neighbor.  But still, pretty neat wedding present.

The Roosevelts moved into the Charles Platt-designed house in 1908.  They already had Anna and James, and had a further three surviving children while living there.  The house feels big by New York standards, though small by modern McMansion ones.  And maybe not so big for a family of 7 plus assorted staff.

Each of the paired houses featured a teensy elevator, installed mainly for staff use initially. They turned out to be extremely important once FDR contracted polio in 1921.  His wheelchair, designed to be as small and discreet as possible, could fit.

Roosevelt House, Hunter College

The Roosevelts’ library is still a library today, and contains an array of interesting Rooseveltiana, including a complete set of travel guides published by a Works Progress Administration program to provide work for unemployed writers.  Today, I guess, the government would just give ’em a blog.

Roosevelt House, Hunter College
WPA Guides

Among other historic events, the Roosevelts were living in the house when FDR won the presidency in 1932.  FDR’s first radio address to the nation (also recorded for newsreel distribution by Fox Movietone News, which I can’t help but find ironic) was broadcast from the drawing room.

The House and Hunter

Roosevelt House, Hunter College
Sara over the fireplace, flanked by FDR and Eleanor

Franklin and Eleanor were living in the White House when Sara Delano Roosevelt died in 1941. By that point, it seemed unlikely that their path would take them back to NYC, and so they decided to put the house/houses on the market.  Hunter approached the family with an offer, and, generously, the Roosevelts both cut their asking price and donated some money to the school.  In exchange, the house was named the “Sara Delano Roosevelt Memorial House for Religious and Racial Tolerance.”

Hunter used the house primarily as a student center,  filling a vital need to build community in what was then an all-girl school that specialized in training teachers.

As a part of a not-very-wealthy academic institution, the house was hard used and ill repaired.  Eventually in the 1990s the school had to close it; conditions inside were becoming downright dangerous.

Fortunately, Hunter admins and donors realized the importance of the house to the college, the city, and the country. The school raised nearly $20 million for a lengthy rehab.  The restoration was bad in terms of the historicity of the place, permanently merging the two houses into a single space.  But it was good in the sense that we might otherwise have lost the house entirely. As happened with Teddy Roosevelt’s torn down then rebuilt birthplace.

Roosevelt House, Hunter College
Sara Roosevelt’s Former Bedroom, now Seminar Room.

Should You Visit Roosevelt House?

Roosevelt House, Hunter CollegeToday if anyone thinks of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s residence at all, they likely think of Hyde Park, the estate north of New York that houses FDR’s presidential library.  That’s absolutely worth a visit; Roosevelt House in Manhattan pales by comparison.

But Hunter’s public policy institute was the Roosevelts’ city home as they were growing their family; as Franklin suffered and recovered from polio; and as FDR and Eleanor plotted out the beginnings of a political career that would lead to arguably America’s greatest presidency.

So what if they don’t have the sofas or the lamps or the bric-a-brac.  They have the place, and places matter.  The guided tour was terrific, too.  Rachel, a doctoral student when not guiding people around Roosevelt House,  told the story with wit, warmth, and intellect, augmented by photos and videos in the various rooms to help bring the Roosevelts back to life.

If you’re at all interested in 20th century American history, presidential lives and times, or how wealthy New Yorkers lived in the early 1900s, Roosevelt House is well worth a visit.

For Reference:

Address  47-49 East 65th Street, Manhattan
Website  roosevelthouse.hunter.cuny.edu
Cost  General Admission:  $10 suggested donation


Statue of Liberty Museum

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 123 minutes (not counting time going through security, waiting for the ferry, or on the ferry)
Best thing I saw or learned I’d never given much thought to the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. So the story of its design — and the near failure of the effort to raise the money to build it — fascinated me. Yes, it’s like choosing frame over the painting, but still.
Statue of Liberty, New York HarborThink how different she’d look if they’d gone with a stepped, Aztec-looking pyramid as her base.  Or something Egyptian revival.

There aren’t all that many museums built to honor a single work of art. Right? I assert that and now suddenly I’m unsure of myself. In New York, there’s Walter de Maria’s Earth Room. And I think of the Hall of Fame for Great Americans as a single, unified whole, even though many busts of great men (and a few women) comprise it. And the Statue of Liberty Museum makes three.

Statue of Liberty, New York Harbor
Lady Liberty

The Statue of Liberty Museum occupies a substantial space in Liberty’s pedestal. It tells the story of the genesis, engineering, construction, and gifting of the statue, as well as her absolutely iconic role as a symbol of freedom, democracy, New York, and the United States. Among other treasures, it includes the statue’s original torch, glass and lit from inside. Continue reading “Statue of Liberty Museum”

The Museum of Defunct and Departed Museums

I was passing through the 5th Avenue E/M subway station the other day when some of the signage caught my attention.  My project has attuned me to museum names, especially ones that aren’t on my list.  So I stopped dead in my tracks at the sight of a map directing me to the American Craft Museum.

5th Avenue "Art Stop" Subway Art

For a moment I was worried. A new museum?  On the same block as MoMA? That I don’t know about?  

Then I was confused.  I knew full well that the American Craft Museum morphed into the Museum of Arts and Design and decamped for Columbus Circle years ago.  What gives?

It turns out, I wasn’t looking at an ad, but a piece of subway art.  The New York City subway system is in terrible disrepair, but over the years the Metropolitan Transit Authority has commissioned some really terrific art to entertain passengers during their interminable waits for unreliable service.

For the Fifth Avenue/53rd Street station, back in 2000 designers Drenttel Doyle and Partners decided that rather than art per se, they’d turn the station platform into a guide to all the great art in the neighborhood.

In hindsight, that wasn’t so smart, or at least not so prescient.  The “ArtStop” spotlights six nearby institutions on a series of 73 lemon-yellow, porcelain enamel panels.

5th Avenue "ArtStop" Subway Art
And but one of six remain…

Eighteen years later, only a single one of the six, the unstoppable juggernaut that is the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), is still there.  Let’s run down the list:

  • American Craft Museum:  Transformed into Museum of Arts and Design, and moved north to 59th Street.
  • New York Public Library Donnell Library Center:  There’s still a branch library there; in fact a rather spiffy one in a brand new building.  But it’s no longer named, nor is it especially arty. The original Winnie-the-Pooh stuffed animals, which the ArtStop installation specifically calls out, now reside at the 42nd Street, main branch of the NYPL. (They were my favorite thing there, in fact.)
  • Museum of American Folk Art:  Oy, it wasn’t even moved into its building yet (“Coming to 53rd Street soon”) in 2000, and already it’s gone, to much smaller quarters near Lincoln Center. 
  • 5th Avenue "Art Stop" Subway Art
    RIP, Museum of Television and Radio

    Museum of Television and Radio:  Its building even resembles an old fashioned radio. Nowadays it’s the Paley Center for Media.  It puts on good events, and has a library of old TV shows visitors can watch.  But no museum there for a long time now.

  • MoMA:  Still there, and what’s more currently building an expansion into the old (not very old!) American Folk Art Museum space.
  • Municipal Art Society:  moved to new offices some years back and no longer has public exhibition space.

A Museum or a Memorial?

At the ArtStop, each institution gets at least one full panel highlighting its mission statement and some of its notable art or attractions.  

5th Avenue "Art Stop" Subway Art
It’s a memorial now.

At first I found it funny, but on further reflection I find it a little sad, too.  Eighteen years is kind of a long time, especially in this ever-changing city.  But it’s not that long a time, and museums are supposed to endure against the vicissitudes of real estate and fashion. The MTA should probably decommission the ArtStop at this point, and think twice about embedding permanent attraction guides on station walls. 

That said, the other notably museum-influenced subway art installation I can think of is the 81st Street B/C train station near the American Museum of Natural History. That station features a fantastic riot of mosaic and relief fossils, reefs, birds, beasts, and bugs.  I expect it will continue to be relevant for as long as the city stands, but who knows?  Maybe someday there’ll be condos there, and the mosaics will be all that remain to remind us of the natural wonders once found aboveground.5th Avenue "Art Stop" Subway Art

Museum of Food and Drink

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 37 minutes (excluding time attending a talk)
Best thing I saw or learned I most appreciated this evolutionary family tree (or is it a periodic table?) of the sauces in American Chinese food.  Succinct and illuminating, a good example of a great visual.

Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) Lab, Brooklyn

Museum of Food and Drink (MoFAD) Brooklyn

The Museum of Food and Drink is a very young institution. Its founder Dave Arnold had the initial idea back in 2004, but the museum only held its first fundraiser in 2011. Currently it occupies a space it calls its “Lab” in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Before I go any further, yes, it’s MoFAD for short. I find myself wishing Arnold had called it the Museum of Food and Tasting.

The Lab is a decent size, probably about 5,000 square feet. It occupies a ground-floor, open floor plan space near McCarren Park that used to be…a garage maybe? It boasts super high ceilings,  a roll-up front window, and, appropriately enough, both a demo kitchen and a bigger, more capable commercial kitchen tucked away to one side.

Museum of Food and Drink (MoFAD) Brooklyn
MoFAD Demo Kitchen

Continue reading “Museum of Food and Drink”

Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning

Edification value  2/5
Entertainment value  2/5
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 21 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Joseph S. Bell-Bey’s abstract acrylics were pretty cool.  I particularly liked his deep blue one.

Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, Queens
Joseph S. Bell-Bey, “Bye Bye Bluebird”

In the late 1960s a group of business and community leaders in Jamaica, Queens decided to do something to try to arrest the decline of the Jamaica Avenue shopping district.  Among other strategies, they decided their neighborhood needed a new arts institution.

The City abandoning its beautiful, Italian Renaissance-style Queens Register of Titles & Deeds building around the same time created an opportunity for some adaptive reuse, and the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning was born in 1972.

Jamaica Center for Arts and LearningProgramming at JCAL heavily emphasizes the performing arts, film screenings and lectures.  JCAL’s main building has a theater, and it manages a nearby church building as a converted performing arts space. Classes are also a big part of the mission, including workshops and after-school programs for kids.

The JCAL building also houses a pair of gallery spaces, where it puts on several art exhibitions each year.  It’s in that capacity that I paid a visit. Continue reading “Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning”

American Museum of Natural History

Edification value  
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  
Time spent 168 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Who am I kidding.  I’m pondering, “What’s my favorite thing at AMNH?” when there’s no way I would pick anything besides the dinosaurs.  Triceratops was my favorite as a kid. Undoubtedly were I cooler I would’ve picked a carnivore.  But whatever.  Triceratops it is.

American Museum of Natural History, New York

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has this to say about space. 

‘Space,’ it says, “is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.

I quote that not because the American Museum of Natural History is home to the Hayden Planetarium, a great place to learn about space.  Although it is. Instead I quote it because at 111,000 square meters (1.2 million square feet), the American Museum of Natural History is big.  Really big.  You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is.

American Museum of Natural History, New York
Hayden Planetarium

And yet, whereas space is mostly utterly empty, so empty that stars and galaxies and planets and museums and all lesser matter is basically a rounding error on the emptiness of the vacuum, the American Museum of Natural History is almost always totally full.  Of kids and harried parents.

Mindbogglingly full.  All sucked in by the vast gravity of its impressive, unparalleled displays of taxidermied animals, dinosaur fossils, the wonders of space, gems, minerals and meteorites, artifacts and every other thing scientific-type people have sorted, classified and analyzed over the past century and change. Continue reading “American Museum of Natural History”