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”

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”

Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue and Museum

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Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  2/5
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 32 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned In addition to the historic photos and artifacts the museum has a series of odd, delicate, contemporary wire sculptures hanging below the skylight.  

Kehila Kedosha Jenina Synagogue and Museum

I couldn’t find any explanation for who made them or why they were there.  Google solves the mini-mystery: they’re by Judy Moonelis.

Almost all Jewish people in the U.S. are either Ashkenazi or Sephardic.  Ashkenazi Jews trace their ancestry to central or eastern Europe, while Sephardic people lived in the Iberian peninsula, until they were expelled by Ferdinand and Isabella.  However, they are not the only European Judaic traditions.  Tucked away on Broome Street in the Lower East Side is the only synagogue in the Western Hemisphere serving Romaniote Jews, a distinct, ancient, Greek community.

Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagoge and Museum, Lower East Side

The congregation of Kehila Kedosha Janina occupies a modest 1927 building, currently one of the last active synagogues on the Lower East Side.  And since 1997 the building has also housed a museum on its upstairs floor– open only on Sundays as of this review– presenting photographs and artifacts describing the community and its traditions. Continue reading “Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue and Museum”

Staten Island Museum

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 94 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned I had completely forgotten about New York’s state fossil, until the Staten Island Museum reminded me.  It’s a sea scorpion or eurypterid, which I would absolutely not want to meet on a Jurassic beach.

Staten Island Museum
The State Fossil!

The Staten Island Museum started as a private pooling of personal natural history collections in 1881, opening to the public in 1908.  Currently it claims to be New York’s only truly encyclopedic museum, embracing science, history, and art.  And so it does, albeit in small doses of each.

The museum formerly resided in a classical building in St. George, near the Staten Island Ferry, until last year, when it moved to Snug Harbor.  It’s a bus or car ride from the ferry terminal, but at least the architecture is still appropriately museum-y.

Staten Island Museum

The Snug Harbor Cultural Center is Staten Island’s Mall of Enlightenment.  A Chinese Scholar’s Garden, a Children’s Museum, the fantastic Noble Maritime Collection, the hit-or-miss Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art, and the Staten Island Museum all reside within its more-or-less renovated, beautiful, Greek revival grounds and buildings. Continue reading “Staten Island Museum”

United Nations Headquarters

Edification value  
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 138 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Octavio Roth’s depiction of the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as cheerful, colorful lithographs.  I particularly like the one about the right to leisure, which uses sailing as its visual.

United Nations
Octavio Roth, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UN

As I was walking toward the East River on 42nd Street to meet a friend for my 11:30 tour of the United Nations, I realized that this institution breaks one of the rules of my museum project.  I set out to visit every museum in New York City.  Technically, in a legalistic, treaty sense of the world, the 17-ish acres of Manhattan occupied by the UN are not part of New York, or even of the United States.  The UN is its own extranational entity.  So from that perspective it isn’t  a “New York museum.”

Then again, I should be less pedantic.

United Nations

Continue reading “United Nations Headquarters”

National September 11 Museum

Edification value  4/5
Entertainment value  
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 133 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned A special exhibition of New Yorker covers that featured the Twin Towers both before and after Sept. 11. My favorite of all is probably this one from 2003, showing New York’s iconic buildings twinned.

National September 11 Memorial and Museum

Particularly timely exhibition now that Condé Nast’s headquarters are in One World Trade Center.

The National September 11 Memorial & Museum bills itself as a single, unified whole.  And indeed, the museum is integrally part of the plaza, a cavernous underground space that extends all around– and under– the footprints of the World Trade Center towers.  However, for my purposes I’m thinking about them separately.  

National September 11 Memorial and Museum
The WTC Memorial

The September 11 Memorial, with its somber square fountains and all the names, is one thing:  well worth a visit even as the Trade Center has gone from being a giant hole in the ground to being a thriving center for commerce and commuting once again.

The September 11 Museum I don’t recommend so heartily.

National September 11 Memorial and Museum
Eerie architecture evokes a knocked over tower

Continue reading “National September 11 Museum”

Weeksville Heritage Center

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  2/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 89 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned  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 Heritage Center

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”