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
The Transit Museum could rebrand itself as a museum of advertising. Not only have they lovingly preserved subway cars from the past century, they have kept the ads intact as well. Each constitutes a hilarious Madison Avenue time capsule. Remember when wine cost 98c per quart? I sure don’t.
The Transit Museum is one of only a few New York City museums not housed in a building. Instead, the city established it in a disused subway station in downtown Brooklyn.
Along with its satellite location in Grand Central Station, this museum features a series of exhibits covering the construction of the subway system, how the transit system responds to disasters, the construction of the Second Avenue Subway, and above-ground transport in New York, from horse trolleys to modern buses.
But the real heart of the Transit Museum resides downstairs on the subway platform. There, you can visit lovingly restored El and subway cars from every era of the transit system’s evolution. Marvel at these steel boxes, with their incandescent lights, exposed fans, rattan seats, and hanging hold-straps. About the only historic subway feature not documented is the graffiti. I suppose not enough time has passed… The MTA can’t wax nostalgic about tagged trains, at least not yet. And it certainly doesn’t want to encourage anyone.
If you have ever felt curiosity about the history of the turnstile, this museum can scratch that itch. It features examples ranging from the manually operated days through modern, automated, swipe-your-metrocard marvels. Most interesting to me was the large size, un-jump-able rotating cage, affectionately(?) referred to as an “Iron Maiden.” Apparently people sometimes got trapped in those things — horrors!
A history of the subway token half-tells the story of Silvester Dubosz, the city comptroller who in the 1980s surreptitiously had his initials carved into the token design. Unlike City Reliquary, where I first heard that story, the Transit Museum doesn’t mention he got sacked for his ego. They also display a whole board of slugs and counterfeit tokens.
The Downside: Kids Galore
The Transit Museum stands as one of the noisiest museums I’ve visited so far, packed with kids (including a whole birthday party) on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Can’t hold that against it; I’ve never known a kid who doesn’t love trains, and the museum caters to that audience. Though as for modern parents’ inability to keep their kids under control and well-behaved in public…well, that’s a subject for another blog. Still, if you’re kidless, you might consider visiting on a weekday.
More than History
The Transit Museum tells the story of the city’s circulatory system — New York literally could not exist without it. I appreciate that they focus not just on the building of the system and nostalgic old trains, but also on what it will require to keep it functioning in a world of really bad weather and really bad people. The crisis exhibit looked in turn at rebuilding after 9/11, Irene, and Sandy, as well as the blackout of 2003.
Despite the challenges of modern times, the Transit Museum nonetheless also makes me thankful that I live today. While paying 98c for a quart of wine appeals to me, I can’t imagine commuting in one of those incredibly smelly, sweaty, pre-AC subway cars, dressed in a three-piece suit, with only whirring fans to move the muggy air around. I sometimes think the “Greatest Generation” gets overly lauded, but commuters back then were made of sterner stuff than I, for sure.
A Frustrated Reviewer
The Transit Museum fulfills its mission extremely well. It covers the things you’d expect a transit museum to, but holds surprises as well. Although kid-oriented and very kid-friendly, it also presents topics for grown-ups to delve into as well. As I re-read this entry, I feel frustrated because I want to write so much more. Some highlights:
The story of Granville Woods. As the inventor of the “third rail” power system, he birthed a metaphor.
As a trivia buff, I loved learning that on December 23, 1946, 8,872,244 people used the subway and elevated trains– a record that stands to this day.
I also love Mayor Lindsay’s 1972 quote about the Second Avenue Subway line (proposed in 1919, it finally opened at the end of 2016): “We know that whatever is said about this project in the years to come, certainly no one can say that the city acted rashly or without due deliberation.”
And there’s the wall of trolleys at the Dr. George T. F. Rahilly Trolley and Bus Study Center.
Like the treasures of the Fire Museum, the Transit Museum presents and interprets artifacts no other institution can replicate. Anyone with kids in the city should take them. And anyone who cares about New York history, or transportation and transit, should consider this Brooklyn hole in the ground a must-visit museum.
Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Streets, Underground, Brooklyn
In an era when museums (including this one) are full of touch screens, I was happy to see an old-school board game version of the Battle of Brooklyn. Uh-oh, you drew a Hessian card! Except you’re the British, so that’s awesome for you!
The Old Stone House isn’t actually all that old. And it’s not properly a house, though it is at least partially constructed from stone. Today’s Old Stone House replicates the Vechte-Cortelyou House, dating to 1699. The original’s history touches on Brooklyn’s earliest days, the Revolutionary War, and the dawn of the Brooklyn Dodgers. However, the house was demolished in the late 1800s.
That would’ve been that except that in 1934 the omnipresent (and nigh omnipotent) Robert Moses reconstructed it, mainly to serve as restrooms for Washington Park. The reconstruction used at least some of the stones from the original building, but unlike many of the house museums of the city, there’s nothing historic about the interior rooms or furnishings. Rather, the building contains a small museum focused mainly on the Battle of Brooklyn, with a little about the Vechte family.
Audience and Program
Mainly a kids museum, the displays are geared to the interests, attention span, and average height of the younger set. And yet, as a gathering place for the neighborhood, it aims at older people too. They show contemporary art in an upstairs space, and host theater and events with intriguing names like “Gin in June.”
The Battle of Brooklyn took place literally in the front garden, as a teeny but fairly dramatic diorama attests. 400 self-sacrificing Marylanders–like the Spartans only one-third more of them–kept a couple thousand redcoats busy long enough for Washington and his troops to slink away to Upper Manhattan, thence to base himself at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, and eventually abandon New York for the rest of the war.
In museumological terms, the Old Stone House is rather straightforward. Its displays deploy a mix of technologies, culminating in a touchscreen-based day-by-day review of the Battle of Brooklyn, which I found hard to follow.
A family tree shows how the Revolution divided families between loyalists and revolutionaries. It also names some of the slaves who worked for the Vechte family, though of course no one bothered to record how they felt about independence, or anything else about their thoughts and beliefs. Still, I like that they don’t sweep the Vechte’s slaves under the historic rug. Another brief display on slavery observes how surprisingly prevalent it was in revolutionary Brooklyn. One in three Kings County residents was a slave, and half of Dutch households owned them.
There’s little to see about the Dodgers, but the original Old Stone House served as the team’s clubhouse in the late 1800s. Their first ballpark, long since gone, was in Washington Park, before they moved to the legendary (and also long-gone) Ebbets Field.
Moving upstairs, the current contemporary art show, titled “Multilocational,” featured work by two artists touching on themes of migration and acculturation. Sort of a smaller riff on Lehman College’s Alien Nations show.
Who should visit? The Old Stone House is a quintessential local museum. It programs for its community, and that’s sufficient. Coming from Manhattan made me something of an exotic visitor to their parts. You might consider going if you are a huge fan of the Battle of Brooklyn or the history of baseball. Otherwise, plenty of other museums offer a better view of Brooklyn and New York City history.