The curators integrated visual depictions of track and field world records into the exhibition. Bars mark heights of high jumps, lines on the floor show long jumps and shot puts and such. It’s one thing to read a record, a much more viscerally impressive thing to see one in the flesh.
This is my second hall of fame (after the Hall of Fame for Great Americans), and the second museum in one of New York’s antique armory buildings (after the Park Avenue Armory). However, it is my first museum devoted to a sport. New York doesn’t have, say, a museum to baseball or football. Or soccer.
There are sports legends waxified at Madame Tussaud’s. The Jackie Robinson Museum hopefully exists in New York’s future. And the Met has its baseball card collection, which I suspect it keeps mainly to show it’s even more encyclopedic than the Louvre. But in general sports are an underserved museum topic in New York City.
The National Track and Field Hall of Fame resides in the 1909 22nd Core of Engineers Armory in Harlem. The entire building is now a track-and-field complex, with a running track in the vast former drill hall. Like most of New York’s armories the architecture is cool and castle-like.
Barkley L. Hendricks, Lawdy Mama, 1969, from the portraits show. Arresting today, must’ve been even more so when new. To quote the wall text, “Hendricks uses the master’s tools to dismantle his house.”
The Studio Museum in Harlem harbors no small ambitions, despite its smallish space. It prints its mission statement outside its front door:
The Studio Museum in Harlem is the nexus for artists of African descent, locally, nationally and internationally and for work that has been inspired and influenced by black culture. It is a site for the dynamic exchange of ideas about art and society.
As Chief Brody says in Jaws, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
A poster of the famous Esquire Magazine jazz family portrait, taken on the stoop of a Harlem brownstone. The museum doesn’t say much about the creation of the picture, but the 1995 documentary “A Great Day in Harlem” covers it well.
Hey there, daddy-o, if you’re a swingin’ hep cat and you dig the syncopated sounds of America’s native musical form, have I got a museum for you!
Actually, I don’t. I went to the Jazz Museum skeptical but hopeful, and ultimately I can’t recommend it.
Skeptical because how do you put jazz in a museum? Music of any sort is a tricky thing to museum-ify. But jazz in particular, with its energy and improvisation… you could have a Hall of Fame for jazz. But a museum?
Hopeful because, hey, you never know. The right combination of stories, artifacts, and interactive listening kiosks might be able to do justice to the vast sweep of traditions that comprise jazz and its influence across the whole of music.
In the event, the Jazz Museum is at best a proto-museum. An aspirational museum. A sketch or an outline for an institution in the future. It occupies a small ground floor space on a side street in Harlem, and seems largely to exist as a shrine to one of Duke Ellington’s pianos. They have a couple of other instruments from less famous instrumentalists, and a chunk of a living room emphasizing the importance of music in homes in Harlem. But really there wasn’t much to see.
They had Ella playing in the background, but even that proved a mixed blessing. There were a couple of touchscreens where visitors can listen to jazz, but the background music, while good, interfered with listening to the headphones.
On the other hand, their space includes a tiny, informal performance area in the back, and while I was there an older gent stopped in and just started playing the piano. Really well. As a musically untalented person, I hate people who can do that. But deeply appreciated it in that space.
Visiting the National Jazz Museum made me think about the regular reports of the death of jazz, which may even be deader than opera at this point. I wondered if having a museum to it serves as yet another piece of evidence for the demise of the form? They have a display with photos of young jazz musicians, and sorta reach toward hip-hop, kinda. But really nothing I saw there suggests anything innovative or interesting has happened in jazz since the 1970s.
I firmly believe that museums for specific groups or cultures can emphasize the aliveness of the cultures they represent. Both the Museum of Chinese in America and the National Museum of the American Indian do that in different ways and at different scales. But I don’t think the National Jazz Museum succeeds. If jazz isn’t dead yet, maybe the museum will kill it.
If you are in New York City and are curious about or interested in jazz, here are an assortment of things I’d suggest you do rather than visit the Jazz Museum:
Hear a show at Smoke, Jazz Standard, Village Vanguard, Minton’s or any of a dozen or so other clubs.
Go to Jazz at Lincoln Center. A bit more stuffy and formalized — more like a museum for jazz if you will, but Wynton Marsalis is the reigning king of the art form. And the Allen Room has the best view of any music venue in New York City.
Check out art from the Jazz Age–either the exemplary show currently at the Cooper-Hewitt, or any time at the Whitney.
Make a pilgrimage to the final resting places of Duke Ellington and Miles Davis in Woodlawn Cemetery.
The mansion has recently undergone a major wall upgrade, installing recreations of historic wallpaper based on Mme. Jumel’s descriptions. The Octagonal Drawing Room features an amazing pattern of clouds against a blue sky. I must remember that for the next time I renovate MY octagonal drawing room.
The way to the Morris-Jumel Mansion takes you up the gentle slope of Sylvan Terrace, a single block long and one of the most unlikely streets in all of Manhattan. Paved with perfect cobblestones, both sides of the street consist of a matched set of beautiful, seemingly mint condition, wooden townhouses from the 19th century, all period charm and lovingly preserved detail. It’s a miracle that it survived, though the big white house on the hill at the end of the terrace is more miraculous still: the Morris-Jumel Mansion has lasted longer than any other home on the island, dating to 1765. That makes it about 30 years older than the Dyckman farmhouse, just a bit to the north. And instead of the Dyckman’s rustic, humble charm, Colonel Roger Morris built to his “summer villa” to impress.
Three stories (four if you include the basement), the grand house featured a columned portico and the first octagonal room in the country. Col. Morris and his wife, loyal to the British, abandoned the place during the revolution, leading to its moment in the spotlight of history. More on that later. In 1810, Stephen Jumel, an immigrant from France, bought the mansion. His wife, the smart and colorful Eliza Jumel (nee Bowen), has the strongest personality in the house today.
Eliza Bowen came from a poor family in Rhode Island. Not only did she find in M. Jumel a successful businessman to marry, but she turned out to be something of a real estate tycoon herself. The Jumels may not have been welcome in high society (being nouveau riche and from the wrong backgrounds), but they lived well. They spent time in France, and Madame Jumel (always “Madame,” it seems, never “Missus”) returned with (so she claimed) Napoleon’s bedroom set, and strong ideas about decorating her summer villa. No one’s quite sure if it really is Napoleon’s bedroom set, but just the fact that she’d tell people that brings her to life. She lived in the house until she died in 1865, apparently becoming quite eccentric over time.
Hamilton and History
As with all buildings of that vintage, my first question related to my favorite Founding Father. A.Ham indeed spent time there at least twice. Once during the period from September to October 1776 when Washington made the mansion his headquarters, before the British drove him and the Continental Army out of Manhattan. And again in 1790 when Washington held a cabinet dinner meeting there.
Also, the notorious A.Burr actually lived here–Madame Jumel married him in 1832, just a year after M. Jumel’s death. Briefly. It seems she got along with him no better than Hamilton did, though at least he didn’t shoot her. Rather, she divorced him. Practically unthinkable in that time, it confirms that he really must’ve been a colossal jerk.
ALSO also, Lin-Manuel Miranda asked if he could spend some time in the mansion while he wrote “Hamilton,” the better to immerse himself in the period vibe. So some portion of the musical came into the world in Aaron Burr’s bedroom at the Morris-Jumel Mansion.
That’s about as Hamiltonian as it gets.
The House Today
In addition to Napoleon’s alleged bedstead, the house has some original furniture, with about six rooms fully decorated, and another couple currently undergoing restoration. The kitchen space in the basement is open, but without much to see. As a fan of old kitchens, I hope they do something with it eventually. It does contain an odd display of a toaster, a chamberpot, a bedwarmer, and a teacup. Trying to figure out what those things have in common started to give me a headache.
Each room has a rather handsome piece of modern wood furniture–a stand or a railing–designed to cradle an iPad. But no tablets in sight. I asked about that–whether it was an attempt at deploying technology that had failed. Turns out it’s still a work in progress. The tablets, when installed, will provide deep dives on individual pieces of furniture, paintings, and other objects. My skepticism of technology for technology’s sake in this sort of setting remains strong, but I like the idea of using screens to tailor descriptions to the needs and interests of visitors, enabling them to engage more deeply.
Trish, who was working the admission desk/gift shop that day, kindly answered my myriad questions, about technology and about history as well. She told me that it opened to the public in 1906, like the Van Cortlandt House a project of the Colonial Dames of New York. I asked how it survived, and she said Washington gets the credit: although only for a month, the fact that the mansion served as his headquarters earned its preservation. Indeed, when it first opened, the place served as a sort of shrine to Washington and the Revolution.
Only more recently has the story pivoted to focus on Madame Jumel, who after all lived there a lot longer, and about whose occupancy there’s a lot more historical information and documentation. And Napoleon’s bedroom set.
The mansion’s vast land holdings at one point stretched the (albeit pretty narrow that far north) width of Manhattan. All that land is now Washington Heights, of course. And yet, its commanding hilltop location, surrounded by tiny, lovely Roger Morris Park, offers a taste of the country to this day. The grounds burst with rosebushes and even include a small sunken garden. I could easily see going back just to sit there and read a book.
Who should visit the Morris-Jumel Mansion? Hamiltonians, for sure. Fans of old wallpaper, and fans of rich eccentric 19th century madames. Those into colonial architecture and house museums. The three house museums of upper Manhattan (Dyckman Farmhouse, here, and the Hamilton Grange) provide a varied look at life in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Visiting all three of them would make for a highly edifying afternoon.
Jacob Dyckman was the first in his family to go to college, earning a degree from Columbia in 1806. They have his diploma on display in the parlor. Always nice to meet a fellow Columbia man.
The Dyckman Farmhouse is the least fancy historic home I’ve been to so far on this project. Owned by the Dyckman family, who had a large farm at the northern tip of Manhattan, the house is reckoned to have been built around 1783, so it’s also the oldest historic house I’ve been to yet.
The Dyckmans owned it for over 100 years, though they didn’t always live there; for a while they rented it, and it served as an inn for a bit too. As the subway was rolling north and Inwood was urbanizing, descendants of the Dyckmans decided the house should be preserved as a museum. It opened to the public in 1916.
It’s totally different from the fancy, symmetrical, Federal style of the other historic houses I’ve seen so far. Rather it is very basic, 2 stories plus a cellar, simple, small, cozy, and a little threadbare. And like all old houses, seemingly quite crowded and uncomfortable back in the day.
It’s hard to imagine the original surroundings of the house. They built it deliberately close to what was then the Kingsbridge Road (now Broadway). But mentally erasing the apartment buildings, cars, and buses and putting in rolling fields and outbuildings is hard. There’s a tiny plot of green in back and on the sides of the house, with a reconstructed Hessian hut, but it barely begins to evoke the original agrarian setting.
This would be a great opportunity for some augmented reality, though I get the sense that the Dyckman Farmhouse budget probably wouldn’t allow for anything that high tech.
I didn’t go on a tour, just walked around the house on my own, and I definitely missed the value of a good guide, who I think would’ve conveyed a better sense of the people who lived there than I got from the room descriptions alone.
I asked about Hamilton, of course, and to my surprise the answer was they’re not aware of any connections with the great man. However, George Washington likely visited the farm at some point. That said, it would be easy and instructive to combine a visit to Dyckman Farm with the Hamilton Grange, providing a contrast of styles between a working farm and a stately country retreat.
Schomburg’s Media Center was showing a selection of Blaxploitation films as a complement to the Black Power exhibition. I stopped for longer than I expected to to watch Pam Grier refuse to take crap from anybody. I feel a little guilty, as the history of Black Power is incredibly important, now more than ever. But Pam Grier was the best thing I saw there.
The Schomburg Center is the New York Public Library’s research branch focused on the African American experience. It’s a complex of three buildings in Harlem, hosting a ton of talks, events, and exhibitions. Much of the Schomburg Center is currently undergoing a thorough renovation, so I couldn’t visit anything beyond the exhibition space.
This is the first of at least three library branches that I’ll be visiting and writing about in the course of this project. If there’s one thing the NYPL does really well, it’s bring documents to life.
The current show at the Schomburg Center is on the Black Power movement of the late 60s and 70s. (2016 marked its fiftieth anniversary) Well chosen quotes highlighted the establishment reaction to the Black Power movement, actual newspapers, magazines, flyers, photographs, pins and other key documents made an exhibit that involved a great deal of reading much more immediate and interesting. Music from the era helped convey the emotion of the time. And some well chosen videos on a couple of screens added variety.
The show covers a large amount of ground, reflecting on the political and organizational tactics of the Black Power leadership, as well as on the movement’s impact on fashion, the arts, and popular culture. I confess I always wondered about the berets that were such a signature part of the Black Power look. The show suggests they came from the influence of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.
The Schomburg’s exhibition space itself is beautiful, light and airy, with big windows. It’s not large, but it was the right size for the show it contained.
Should you go? For both the Schomburg in general and this show in particular, I’d say yes. The NYPL knows how to pull off focused exhibits leveraging documents as the main things that tell the story. I’m not sure everything they program there will be as relevant or important as Black Power!, but I feel confident it’ll be interesting.
Hamilton placed a marble bust of himself styled as a slightly smirking, handsome, Roman senator, in the entryway of the Grange. Looking at it now it’s like he’s thinking, “Hey, Jefferson, you may get to be president, but see if anyone composes the biggest musical in Broadway history about YOU someday.”
How do you kick off a project like this? I decided to stick fairly close to home, and what better way to start in this Hamiltonian era than with the Harlem summer, country home of Alexander, Eliza, and family? Hamilton went into serious debt to buy the land (32 acres) and have the Grange designed and built. It’s a beautiful, Federal style home dating to 1802. Lots of symmetry, including two faux chimneys just to create balance.