American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog

Museum of the Dog
Edification value 3/5
Entertainment value 3/5
Should you go? 2/5
Time spent 52 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned There’s only one actual dog at the Museum of the Dog — or a former one, anyway. Belgrave Joe died in 1888, and is the prototype Fox Terrier. And the mascot of the AKC Library.Museum of the Dog He reminded me of the nameless canine taxidermied and memorialized at the Fire Museum.

Museum of the Dog

A Museum That’s Gone to the Dogs

The American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog is one of the newest museums in New York City, having opened in an office building lobby space near Grand Central in May of 2019. The Museum’s prior incarnation was located in St. Louis, but its move back to the Big Apple represents a homecoming for an institution based here from  its founding in 1982 until 1987.

The museum is split over two airy, brightly lit floors with large windows looking onto East 40th Street.  The design cleverly maximizes the limited floorspace, with temporary walls for paintings standing at a diagonal to the floorplan, and a series of library-style archival storage racks upstairs that visitors can look through.

Museum of the Dog

Ironically, dogs are not allowed.

The museum unsurprisingly collects caniniana (I just made that word up). What’s on display is mainly art — paintings and a multistory vitrine of small knicknacks and sculptures. It also includes a very few artifacts, like a charming carousel animal carved like a parakeet. Okay, carved like a dog.

Museum of the Dog
Looff Factory, “Queen” Carousel Piece, from 1890, mastiff breed.

If I had to characterize the paintings, I’d say they were mostly fairly mediocre, and in most other museums would be relegated to study collections or dusty back rooms (indeed, I speculate dusty back rooms of other museums may even be the source of some of the collection). But, hey, they’ve got a dog in them, so here they are stars of the show. One particular favorite of mine featured what I declare to be the world’s most windswept poodle, out on the moors somewhere.

Museum of the Dog
Maud Earl. Ch. Nunsoe Duc de la Terrace of Blakeen. 1935. I assume that’s the dog’s name but who knows? Poodle.

Who’s a Good Museum? Who’s a Good Museum?

The Museum of the Dog, like the AKC, is devoted to dogs, and their raising, training and breeding. Actually, almost exclusively the latter. Rather than dogs as companions, or dogs as living creatures, much of what’s on display speaks to dogs as objects that humans have shaped and molded over generations to create an astonishing array of variously lovable, weird, practical, and unlikely breeds.

One interactive element consists of a tabletop screen that with little dogs walking along it. Drag one to a doghouse and the table gives you all sorts of facts and lore about the breed.

Museum of the Dog

There’s other interactivity as well. A kiosk snaps a visitor’s selfie and then identifies a breed of dog they resemble. I got tagged as a German Pinscher, which I suppose I’ll take. At least I’m not a pug in its machine vision eyes. Though my ears are definitely not that pointy.

The museum also contains the AKC’s modest library, including everything from children’s literature to a book on the art of Beagling (I did not make that word up).

Museum of the Dog
The Dog Library

Speaking of beagling, I was grateful that in a rare moment of showing a dog as an exemplar of popular culture, rather than an object, the curators had a single Peanuts comic on display.

Museum of the Dog

Should You Visit the Museum of the Dog?

The AKC Museum of the Dog is a perfectly nice little museum. It’s very well designed, makes great use of its space, and doesn’t overwhelm the visitor. It’s a fun tribute to dogs, albeit one that’s very heavy on forgettable (except for that poodle) paintings and curios as the expression of dog.

Museum of the Dog
Museum design that outshines the collection

The emphasis on dogs as breeds, as objects that humans create and curate, took some of the joy out of the subject for me. I hope future exhibits look more at dogs in other lights, but given what the AKC does for a living, I’m not optimistic about that.

I’m not sure who the Museum of the Dog wants as its audience. It’s a natural topic for a kid-focused institution, but aside from a rather boring interactive dog training simulator and an activity area in the library there’s not much here that would appeal to kids.

Fundamentally, if you’re an AKC member you should absolutely go — you’re self-selected (I’d almost say bred) to love it. If you deeply love dogs, deeply, you might like it, too. For everyone else, $15 feels steep for what they have on display and what you learn.

Museum of the Dog
J. Alden Weir, “Words of Comfort,” 1887. Bloodhound and French bulldog

For Reference:

Address 101 Park Avenue, Manhattan (entrance on East 40th Street)
Website museumofthedog.org
Cost  General Admission:  $15

 

Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling

Sugar Hill Children's Museum of Art and Storytelling
Edification value 3/5
Entertainment value 4/5
Should you go? 3/5
Time spent 79 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Yuken Teruya’s complex, captivating, thought-provoking constructions made from and contained within shopping bags. My very favorite were “Constellation,” a series of intricate night skies — a universe in a discarded Barney’s bag.

Even before you get to it, the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling makes a strong and unexpected impression. It occupies an airy, light-filled, below-ground space in a distinctive building — an utterly modern, 2014 low-income apartment house that looks like anything but low-income housing. The building was designed by Sir David Adjaye, who also designed Washington, DC’s National Museum of African American History.

Sugar Hill Children's Museum of Art and Storytelling

The Sugar Hill Museum, which refreshingly does not have a “SHCMo…” acronym, was a key programmatic element of the building, along with a preschool and a community art gallery.

The place knows its audience. I appreciated its kid’s-eye-level sign that explains not a list of “don’ts,” but “rules for being cool” while visiting.  I don’t know if that works, but I appreciate the gesture.

Sugar Hill Children's Museum of Art and Storytelling

 

Art To Make

Sugar Hill Children's Museum of Art and StorytellingThe Sugar Hill Museum, knowing its audience, splits its programming very evenly between art to look at (in several gallery spaces and a studio) and art to make in a main multipurpose space and what I’ll call a sort of art lab.  There’s blocks to stack, a wall you can paint (with water — it’s kind of fun to watch your graffiti disappear slowly as it dries), leaves to color and other things to make.

Sugar Hill Children's Museum of Art and Storytelling

The museum also has an artist-in-residence program.  Currently the artist is Damian Davis, who makes layered collages bolted together out of shapes cut from plastic. Playing off his work, a group activity during my visit involved letting young visitors assemble their own layered creations with a variety of precut shapes, in soft foam. It was clever, and when we visited Mr. Davis in the studio the kids I was with were excited to talk with him about their creations.

Sugar Hill Children's Museum of Art and Storytelling

Art to See

Sugar Hill Children's Museum of Art and Storytelling
Fernando Tamburini, “The Flying Town,” 2016

The first piece of art a visitor sees at the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling is a charming array of floating houses that animates the light well that makes the subterranean space feel, well, above ground.

In addition to the artist-in-residence’s studio, two rooms hold temporary exhibitions. The museum curates those to reflect themes of the neighborhood, as well as subject matter suited to the target audience. When I visited one gallery hosted the works of Faith Ringgold, an activist, but also a children’s book author and illustrator. Her work does a great job of raising issues of cultural and political history in a kid-friendly way. 

Sugar Hill Children's Museum of Art and Storytelling
Faith Ringgold at the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum

The other gallery, a narrow space well suited to small shows and short attention spans, is where the museum showed Yuken Teruya’s work. Obsessively, beautifully cut and folded trees made from paper bags comment eloquently on consumerism and the environment, while being beautiful at the same time. The kids I was with were as fascinated by these pieces as I was.

Sugar Hill Children's Museum of Art and Storytelling
Yuken Teruya at the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum

Should You Visit the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling?

The Sugar Hill Museum designs its programming primarily for children ages 3-8. But I think even a slightly older kid, if they like art, would enjoy it, at least for a while. It’s not overwhelming, which is great. You can go, spend an hour or two, make something neat, see some art, talk to an artist, hear a fortuitous jazz concert, and be done.

It’s an unexpected space, in a noteworthy building. And the curators do a good job keeping grown-ups engaged along with the young ones.

Most importantly, I think the museum is — rarity in today’s New York — something of a hidden gem as well. My borrowed kids and their mom and I went for the museum’s free third-Sunday day and yet while there were a healthy number of kids and caregivers there, it was not at all overrun.

Sugar Hill Children's Museum of Art and Storytelling
Unexpected Jazz Concert

I came away completely impressed at how well the museum executes its mandate. It could just be a smaller clone of the Children’s Museum of the Arts, but instead it’s distinctive, vibrant, and really, just a lovely, welcoming space in which to see and create art.  I recommend it for anyone with kids.

For Reference:

Address 898 St. Nicholas Avenue (at 155th Street), Manhattan
Website sugarhillmuseum.org
Cost  General Admission:  $7
Other Relevant Links

 

Mmuseumm

Edification value 4/5
Entertainment value 3/5
Should you go? 4/5
Time spent 23 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Occlupanids. That’s the word for those little plastic whatsits that keep the bags store-bought bread comes in closed. How many of those have you seen in your life? Used? Thrown out? Have you ever thought about them?  And yet, each got made somewhere, and each serves a purpose. Mmuseumm devoted an exhibition in its tiny space to making me see these quotidian things for the first time.

Of the institutions I’ve defined as “museums” for my purposes, New York’s largest (in area not breadth) is the 478-acre Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.  I’ve now, at the eleventh hour of my museum-visiting project, visited the smallest museum in New York, the simply named if imaginatively spelled Mmuseumm.  Located in a converted freight elevator down a narrow street just south of Canal Street in the non-neighborhood between Tribeca and Chinatown, I’ve seen walk-in closets larger than this quirky institution.

Mmuseumm. The whole shebang.

But what a density of eccentricity it achieves in its petite space!

Mmuseumm describes itself as devoted to now.  “Now,” reads the Mmuseumm brochure, “is always weird.” It goes on to claim that the Neanderthals probably found their “now” weird, as did people in the Middle Ages.  Mmuseumm dissects some of that weirdness, putting it on display in an analytical, humorous, thoughtful way.

Mmuseumm opens each spring with a new collection — of small exhibitions related to the weirdness of now. Last year was “season 7.” As it’s essentially outdoors, it makes sense that it shuts down over the colder months. 

The Collection

How do I describe the Mmuseumm’s collection philosophy?  I come back to my designated best thing: occlupanids.  As I mentioned before, occlupanid is the fancy name for the plastic clip that holds a bread bag closed.  Most of us, I wager, have never given them much thought, outside of checking if the rye on the shelf at Fairway is likely to still be good in a week. But occlupanids are a thing. You can organize them, analyze them, create a Holotypic Occlupanid Research Group (HORG) if you want to. It’s weird that these humble things are given a shelf in a museum. But no more weird than their existence in the first place.

Other exhibitions in the “Season 6, 2018” set included:

  • A study of standard consumer objects that were somehow deformed – the brochure description for “Nothing is Perfect” starts out “Humanity exists in a state of eror.”
  • Strange counterfeit brands that have sprung up in post-economic-collapse Venezuela.
  • Unexpected common items that have saved lives, and ones that were causes of death.
  • An array of devices people have deployed to fight snoring.
  • The security patterns that get printed inside envelopes so you can’t see the checks in them.

In sum, the fall 2018 roster included a mind-boggling fourteen exhibitions. On a thoughts-provoked-per-square-meter basis, Mmuseumm’s little space is quite possibly the densest of any museum in New York.

Among the 150-ish objects on view at the Mmuseumm during my visit was a small shelf space labelled “Nothing.” I appreciate an institution that defies the standard museum philosophy of being full of stuff, in favor of devoting a space (especially one in such a small space to begin with) to emptiness.

Should You Visit the Mmuseumm?

This place confounded me.  I was all set to be put off by its archness, its twee, self-satisfied cleverness. And to dismiss Mmuseumm as not really a museum. I did leave pondering whether I’d had a museum experience, or just seen a clever piece of conceptual art, a wry commentary on museum-ology, quite possibly the first meta-museum I’ve visited.

Meta- or not, though, Mmuseumm is a museum. It tries to edify and entertain, and whether it is actually earnest or not, it comes across as on the level.  In collecting ephemera, it reminds me of City Reliquery, though with a broader mandate and a much smaller space. I spoke a bit with the docent who was standing by to answer questions (there is also a phone-based audioguide and an awesome, exhaustive brochure), and she was super enthused about the place and its mission.

Also, two-or-so doors down the alley from the Mmuseumm is the even tinier Mmuseumm Rest Stop. I wouldn’t do my Christmas shopping there, but it featured funny and well-curated gifts, souvenirs, and snacks in counterpoint to the items on display.

I strongly recommend a visit to the Mmuseumm, particularly after you’ve been to many (like a couple hundred) more conventional museums. It encapsulates much of what I’ve come to think about what makes a good museum, and a meaningful museumgoing experience.

Mmuseumm Rest Stop/Gift Shop

For Reference:

Address 4 Cortlandt Alley, Manhattan
Website mmuseumm.com
Cost  General Admission:  $5 donation suggested
Other Relevant Links

 

Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation

Edification value 4/5
Entertainment value 4/5
Should you go? 4/5
Time spent 126 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned I am fascinated by Asante goldweights, a thing that I didn’t know existed. In the traditional Asante culture of Ghana, when a man came of age he received a set of these bronze weights, for weighing gold dust (used as currency). They let you verify you’re getting the right amount of gold.

The Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation, New York
Asante Goldweights

They are beautiful little figures, each representing a different weight, as well as an Asante proverb or aphorism. They remind me of Japanese netsuke, another small men’s accessory that could be purely functional, but how nice that they are beautiful, too.

Chaim Gross was apparently as fascinated by them I am, given the multitude of them he collected and displayed in a mirrored case in his dining room.

Chaim Gross was a sculptor active in New York from the 1920s until his death in 1991. In 1963, well after he was a well-known artist, he and his wife Renee purchased a building on La Guardia Place in Greenwich Village to use as both home and studio. In 2005, after Renee passed away, the Gross Foundation considered what to do with the place, and ultimately decided to restore and open it to the public.

The Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation, New York
The Most Understated Museum in New York?

And yet, this place is supremely under the radar. I discovered its existence while compiling my master museum database. But I’ve walked by its building numerous times, and I never once thought it might be a publicly accessible museum, much less such an interesting one. It may be the most stealthy museum in New York City — or the second, after the New York Earth Room.

Without hesitation, you should definitely seek it out. It’s a remarkable tribute to an artist and his family.

The Foundation is only open for tours, taking reservations via its website. It’s the kind of small organization where my tour guide was Sasha Davis, the Executive Director of the Foundation itself. She was fantastic, a wealth of knowledge of, and warmth for, the Grosses, their art, and their world. She was also incredibly nice about delaying the start of our tour for a friend who was running late.

The Ground Floor

The parallels between the Gross Foundation and the Judd Foundation are deep — both studio/museum spaces open for visits. But where Donald Judd was a consummate minimalist, Gross was a masterful maximalist. His home is sensorily overwhelming, literally every square inch of wall and table space covered in art.

That maximalism begins with the foyer. The entryway at the Gross Foundation is filled with photographs of Chaim, his family, their circle of friends. You know, like Marilyn Monroe, Allan Ginsburg, just the usual crew. But I found this one particularly compelling.

The Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation, New York
All the Living American Artists in the Met, in the Met, 1983

It is, Sasha the Executive Director said, a picture of all the living American artists with work in the collection of the Met as of 1983. Taken at the Temple of Dendur. Warhol, Chaim Gross himself, Warhol, and Louise Nevelson are relatively easy to identify. But I’m apparently mortifyingly bad at artist spotting. Jasper Johns has to be in there.  Ditto Ryman, Nauman, Marden.  Judd, Frankenthaler, Martin. Georgia O’Keeffe would’ve been alive when this photo was taken, and surely the Met owned some of her work by the early 1980s, but she’s not there. So, mysteries abound. So far Googling has not turned up any info about the picture. I feel like there’s an essay here!The Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation, New York

The Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation, New York
Tools of the Trade

Past the entryway, the ground floor consists of a galley showcasing Chaim Gross’s work, as well as his airy, light-filled studio. That space, downstairs from the galley, is replete with his tools and several pieces he was working on when he died. It also a number of uncarved blocks of the now-rare tropical hardwoods Gross favored for sculpting. Sasha related that sometimes when other sculptors come to visit they eye those blocks covetously. The overall studio and gallery create a fascinating time capsule to the man and his art.

A Touching Moment

Sasha explained that Gross felt strongly that sculpture needs to be experienced haptically— that is, by touch — to really understand it. The Foundation has struggled a bit to figure out how to honor that sentiment, and just opened a temporary exhibit on its second floor of select pieces of Gross’s work that visitors can, yes, touch.

The Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation, New York
Hands-On Experience

It is incredibly weird to put your hands on a piece of art in a museum setting. Transgressive.  Like you’re violating a taboo, even when it’s totally sanctioned by the rules. A friend needed to wash her hands before she could do it. I had to make two tries and each time I pulled back before finally taking the tactile plunge. And it’s so interesting. I guess I agree with Gross. You can look at works from all angles and think you know them, but the sense of touch opens your eyes — pardon the metaphor! — to a sculpture’s true nature.

The woods Gross worked with are particularly touchable. Ebony, lignum vitae, others, each have their particular warmth, density, grain, and smoothness. There’s also a piece in alabaster in the tactile exhibit, but that stuff is sensitive to skin oil, you have to wear a glove to touch it. It’s still worth it!

The Living Rooms

The Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation, New YorkThe tour then ascends to the third and final public floor, which preserves the Grosses’ living and dining rooms, and the art therein. It’s an astonishing surfeit of things to see. Given Gross’s circle of friends and colleagues, it’s unsurprising that the collection includes pieces by Milton Avery, Willem de Kooning, Marsden Hartley, and many others.  The furniture is an interesting, eclectic mix as well, some midcentury some older. And then there’s the African art, which clearly was a major passion of Gross’s.

The tour touched on a broad swath of the collection; I think Sasha could probably speak to every single piece, though there’s no way we would’ve had time for that. I was impressed by the depth we went into on the African art — and by how clearly it influenced some of Gross’s own sculpture.

The Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation, New York

You Should Visit the Gross Foundation!

I have to confess that the name Chaim Gross meant little to me when I first added this place to my museum list. One of the reasons I saved it for near the end was I didn’t know just what to expect.  (Also, the studio was closed for renovation over the winter.) Upon visiting I realize I’ve certainly seen his work before, but I’ve never found it compelling enough to learn about.The Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation, New York

Much like my Noguchi Museum visit, long, long ago on this project, the Gross Foundation changed my thinking about his work, and gave me a far deeper appreciation for what he did and how he did it. He seems like a fascinating guy, with a great family. The only thing the tour doesn’t provide is a sense of Gross’s motivation for his art — what influenced him and why he created what he did remains enigmatic. Sasha Davis says he didn’t really say or write much about that aspect of himself. Even though he taught many artists, he always focused on technique, not so much on inspiration.

The Gross foundation is a tremendously good house museum, all the better for being so unjustly unknown. If you like the art and artists of mid-century New York, or any kind of sculpture, you really have to go. Visiting was a glimpse into a life and a body of work that I wish I’d known about sooner.

The Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation, New York
Chaim Gross, Self Portrait

Gross’s maximalist art collection and great eye ensure that it is extremely unlikely to get old. This was my first visit to the Gross Foundation, but I’m sure it won’t be my last one.

For Reference:

Address 526 Laguardia Place, Manhattan (near Bleecker Street)
Website rcgrossfoundation.org
Cost  General Admission:  $15.  Advance tour reservations required.
Other Relevant Links

 

Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University

Edification value 3/5
Entertainment value
Should you go? 3/5
Time spent 68 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned A set of prints by Julie Mehretu and Jessica Rankin titled “Struggling With Words That Count, 2014-2016.” Less abstract than I’m used to from Mehretu, they combined mostly serene and spacey images with obscure texts in a way I really liked.

Julie Mehretu, Wallach Art Gallery

I started this project a bit over a year ago fully aware that things would change — I’d discover new museums to add to my list, and remove ones that didn’t fit my evolving definition of “museum.” Sure enough, one museum I’ve reviewed, the terrific Fisher-Landau Center in Queens, has shut down.

And another museum, Columbia University’s Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, has moved to spiffy new digs.  I recently edited my review of the Jewish Museum, based on the terrific reinstallation of its permanent collection.  That makes this my second re-review of an institution.  (Check out my review of Wallach 1.0 here.)

Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia
Wallach 2.0’s Sweeping Hudson Views

Continue reading “Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University”

Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University

Note:  Columbia’s Wallach Art Gallery was the second place I reviewed on this epic quest.  I published the review below on March 5, 2017.  The Wallach Gallery subsequently moved to spiffy new space in Columbia’s new arts center, and I’ve created a re-review of it. Read that here.

Edification value
Entertainment value
Should you go? 2/5
Time spent 24 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned A postcard rack with postcards based on a large-scale photograph Carissa Rodriguez took of a photograph by Trevor Paglen (of a secret military base), hanging in the home of Bay Area art collectors Mike and Kaitlyn Krieger.  I am a sucker for meta.

My second entry and already I’m in trouble.  Am I reviewing spaces, or exhibits?  The Wallach Gallery, on the 8th floor of Schermerhorn Hall at Columbia, has no permanent collection.  It is just a space for temporary shows.  I started writing this about “Finesse,” the current show there, and realized that’s not quite right. Continue reading “Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University”

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”

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”