I liked three bumper cars on display, dating from (from left to right) the 1950s, the 1930s, and the 1980s. They demonstrate that if a technology is sufficiently perfect, it won’t change much over time.
It often goes overlooked, but New York, like Venice, is a city of islands. And not just the obvious Manhattan, Staten, and Long. This project has taken me to many of the city’s lesser islands, including City, Governor’s, Liberty, and Ellis. There’s no museum on Roosevelt Island, I note. But now, near the end of my journey, I’ve gone to Coney.
Coney Island. Iconic playland for New York City, and thanks to twentieth century mass media, for the entire country. Maybe the world. Slightly tawdry, slightly tacky, entirely fun and open to one and all, the very name evokes the image of hot summer days, boardwalks, hot dogs, and a thousand and one sticky, sunburned delights. Continue reading “Coney Island Museum”
In 1997, Aldo Mancusi presided over a gala event honoring Enrico Caruso. In 2018, in the dining-room-turned-tiny-theater of the Caruso Museum, we watched selected bits on a (literal) videotape. It was downright weird to see then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani deliver a thoughtful, erudite, witty speech unveiling a proclamation in honor of Caruso and Aldo’s museum.
And it made me wonder, what made late ’90s Giuliani transform into today’s Giuliani? They seem so different from one another.
Of all the random museums I’ve visited during this project, the Enrico Caruso Museum is surely, surely the randomest. Sorry, Mossman Lock Collection, you’re now #2. The Caruso Museum has been on my list from the very start, but I’ve kind of been saving it. I understood that it was the project of an obsessive collector, an elderly Italian gent, who kept it in his apartment, which he opened to the public on Sundays by appointment.
That’s a little disconcerting, in the way that all obsessions–and obsessives–can be. “I’m gonna call you before I go in,” I joked to a friend. “If you don’t hear from me in an hour, alert the authorities!” Continue reading “Enrico Caruso Museum”
I have a fascination with kitchens. I loved the 1930s kitchen in the Williams House. Full of obsolete appliances and a pantry stocked with canned good brands that no longer exist.
In 1838, about a decade after New York State abolished slavery, James Weeks bought some land in central Brooklyn with the aim of creating a community of free, landowning, African Americans.
Weeksville thrived for about a century, before changing times and demographics conspired to end it as a distinct neighborhood. While local people never quite forgot Weeksville, the larger city did, as Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant absorbed and paved over it. Continue reading “Weeksville Heritage Center”
Terrance Lindall’s “Carried Away by Night” typifies his fantastical, surreal, Bosch-ish work.
Close to the Brooklyn side of the Williamsburg Bridge, though somewhat far from the trendier parts of Williamsburg, stands the impressive, imposing Kings County Savings Bank building, which dates to 1867.Since 1996, the building, in a charmingly shabby state today, has served as the home of the Williamsburg Art and Historical Center (or “WAH Center”), a moderately sized gallery space on its second floor. Continue reading “Williamsburg Art and Historical Center”
Leffert’s House has a scraggly little wormwood plant growing in its garden. Artisanal Brooklyn absinthe, anyone?
Leffert Pieterson, a Dutch farmer, obtained a tract of land in the village of Flatbush in 1687, and built himself a house there. That original Lefferts homestead was burned by the Americans just before the Battle of Brooklyn, to prevent the British from seizing and using it. However, Pieter Lefferts, in the fourth generation of a family that as some point reversed names, rebuilt a fine farmhouse for himself and his family in 1783. Continue reading “Lefferts Historic House”
Wyckoff family members lived in the Wyckoff House right through the start of the 1900s. 250 years of family history in a single domicile boggles my mind.
Before starting my project, I never realized how many historic houses exist in modern New York. Some surprisingly old. Manhattan’s oldest, the Morris-Jumel Mansion, dates from the 1760s. The Van Cortlandt House in the Bronx was built in 1748. Bowne House in Queens dates to the 1660s. But in any city, there can be only one oldest house. In New York that is the Wyckoff House, located in the prosaically named Flatlands, a nondescript part of Brooklyn far from any subway line.
And so, on the first snowy day of the year, I made my trek, over the river and through the woods, half-metaphorically and half-literally, to the Wyckoffs’ ancestral home. Continue reading “Wyckoff House Museum”
75 minutes, including time spent walking around in Fort Hamilton
Best thing I saw or learned
The Pattern 1844, 24-Pounder Flank Howitzer. In 1864, the Army deployed eight of these to defend Fort Hamilton. The base installed two in the caponier, ready to mow down any unfortunate infantry that tried to attack it.
Getting to the Harbor Defense Museum requires a bit of doing and determination. First because it sometimes keeps odd hours–definitely call before you go and make sure someone’s manning the fort (literally).
Second, because it is located in Brooklyn in the shadow of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. By subway, it’s at the farthest end of the R train. Its sister fort, Fort Wadsworth, situated across the Narrows in Staten Island, is run by the National Park Service.
And third, because uniquely among New York City museums, the Harbor Defense Museum stands within Fort Hamilton, New York City’s sole remaining active army base.
I perused an article on the Waterfront Museum in “Hidden Places Magazine.” A bit of googling suggests it only published a single issue, consisting of the glossiest, most fashionable Red Hook promotional material ever created.
David Sharps is an adventurer, circus performer, and raconteur and seems like a very nice man. He’s certainly brave. He and his family have lived in a wooden barge, currently docked in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, since the 1980s.
It’s a life I find hard to imagine, and one that definitely affords a unique perspective on New York Harbor.
The barge itself is adorable — painted red, emblazoned with its name, “Lehigh Valley No. 79.” It dates to 1914, when longshoremen used thousands of craft like it to ferry cargo from large, deep-water ships in the harbor to railroad cars on the shallow New Jersey side of the Hudson.
Sharps discovered the dilapidated barge mired in the mud in New Jersey. Reportedly the very last of its kind, he got the Lehigh Valley floating again, and he’s been fixing it up ever since, docking in various places around the harbor. He launched the museum in 1986. Continue reading “Waterfront Museum”
You never know who you’ll meet at Green-Wood. For example, Do-Hum-Me, an Indian princess who came east with some of her tribe and died in New York.
I feel like I’m on thin ice with this one. There’s a fairly strong argument to be made that cemeteries are not museums. Start with the fact that they are called “cemeteries” and not “museums.” But bear with me here.
First off this isn’t the first cemetery I’ve visited on this project. A significant part of what makes Trinity Church important is its graveyard, and Trinity’s is relatively tiny. Grant’s Tomb offers a lone voice trying to rehabilitate the General’s somewhat tattered reputation. And the African Burial Ground seeks to recall those whom history has forgotten.
New York’s two great cemeteries, Green-Wood in Brooklyn and Woodlawn in the Bronx, represent an amazing convergence of art and architecture, landscape design, nature, and the people, famous, infamous, and not-famous-at-all, who over centuries have made New York City what it is. A stroll through a one of these vast and amazing places can be almost as edifying, and at least as entertaining, as going to a gallery or historic house (or certainly a botanical garden).
The great cemeteries were parks before the City had parks. They provide a visceral a tie to the past that dusty displays at historical societies can’t match. Continue reading “Green-Wood Cemetery”
A quote from Truman Capote, Brooklyn Heights resident in 1958: “Often a week passes without my ‘going into town,’ or ‘crossing the bridge,’ as neighbors call a trip to Manhattan. Mystified friends, suspecting provincial stagnation, inquire, ‘But what do you DO over there?'”
The Brooklyn Historical Society started its life as the Long Island Historical Society back in 1863, as Brooklyn was booming. Today it still resides in the LIHS’s absolutely beautiful, landmarked, red brick building in Brooklyn Heights, opened in 1881. For a large building, the two floors of exhibit spaces are surprisingly intimate, making it easy to visit the whole thing in an hour or so.
Potential visitors should know that the society does not tell the whole Brooklyn story. You’d get a better sense of Brooklyn’s timeline at BLDG 92. When I went the Historical Society offered three exhibits: Brooklyn abolitionists, Jackie Robinson’s career, and recently rediscovered photos of late 1950s Brooklyn.
The abolition show was beautifully designed and laid out, with projections and suspended floating pictures dividing up the space. These and some interactive elements helped make it engaging even though it was comprised mainly of wall texts and reproduced historic images rather than artifacts. The exhibit started by reinforcing the surprising fact of how widespread slave ownership was in revolutionary-era Brooklyn, which I learned at the Old Stone House. It then pivots to celebrate the 19th century religious and intellectual Brooklynites who argued for abolition.
The Jackie Robinson exhibit, too, consisted largely of wall texts and a timeline, although it did feature a case of Robinsoniana in the middle of the room. I found it educational, but dry. City Reliquary‘s shrine to Jackie Robinson conveyed the heartfelt relationship between the man and the borough much better.
Finally, “Truman Capote’s Brooklyn: The Lost Photographs of David Attie,” was a terrific small exhibit. David Attie, a young photographer, received a commission to take pictures of Brooklyn to accompany a magazine piece Truman Capote was writing about his life there. He spent a day or two wandering around the borough with Capote as his guide and interpreter. Assignment done, years passed, and everyone assumed the unused pictures long gone until Attie’s son stumbled upon the negatives and even some prints. They constitute a splendid snapshot of a Brooklyn long, long gone, from a pair of very distinctive perspectives. And they’re all the better for being so fresh — many not seen since Attie took them.
David Attie, by the way, was the husband of Dotty Attie, one of the co-founders of A.I.R. Gallery— eventually all museums connect!
The Brooklyn Historical Society’s gorgeousness struck me throughout — a very loving restoration must have happened here in the not-too-distant past. The light fixtures! The woodwork! The stained glass skylight! And each floor had different humorously old-timey logos indicating where the gents and ladies rooms were. A small thing, but I appreciated it.
In addition to the exhibit spaces, the Society houses the yet-again stunningly beautiful Othmer Library. When I visited, it contained significant amounts of dark, polished woodwork, a studious hush, and lots and lots of historical documents. One of the librarians told me that many people use it for genealogical research. And for the first time in my life, I was sad I have no Brooklyn ancestry.
In addition to exhibits, the Brooklyn Historical Society programs talks ranging from real estate to fishing to hip hop. And has a suitably beautiful space for that, too. It also just opened a small branch in DUMBO, so there’s more to see beyond the Pierrepont Street mother ship.
Worth the Trip?
The Brooklyn Historical Society has one of the loveliest spaces of any museum I’ve visited. And I trust its curators to organize excellent exhibitions. That said, two of the three shows were mainly wall-text-and-pictures exhibits–albeit well done examples of the style. If you’re a Brooklynite of any stripe (birth, residence, aspiration, or just in your heart), go for sure. Otherwise check what they’re showing beforehand, and decide based on your interest level.
128 Pierrepont Street (corner of Clinton Street), Brooklyn