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.
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.”
One of the owners of the Mount Vernon was a guy named Joseph C. Hart, who was, in the words of my guide, a Renaissance man. In addition to running the hotel, his career spanned roles including teaching school, writing geography textbooks, serving as a Colonel in the national guard, writing a novel about whaling that influenced Moby-Dick, writing a memoir called “The Romance of Yachting,” in which he became one of the first people ever to assert that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays, and dying while serving as U.S. Consul in Tenerife, the Canary Islands. Clearly a Joe after my own heart.
Imagine yourself an up-and-coming middle class antebellum New Yorker. You live in the grime and congestion and excitement of the city, and spend a great deal of time working. What do you do for respectable fun on Sundays, or whenever you’re able to snatch a bit of leisure time?
The answer is probably the same as it is for respectable middle class New Yorkers today. You get the heck out of the city. Today, New Yorkers decamp to the Hamptons, the Jersey Shore, or the Rockaways. In the era before the Civil War, they didn’t have to go quite as far. Indeed, one popular day-trip destination from that era survives today, tucked near the midtown East River shore of East 61st Street.
History of the Mount Vernon Hotel
The Mount Vernon Hotel was built in 1799 as a carriage house for a great estate. However, the building was quickly converted into a residence. The associated mansion burned down in 1826, and coincidentally that same year the carriage house opened as the Mount Vernon Hotel.
The public parts of the building today are decorated as a hotel of that era would look. You can visit the ladies’ parlors, the downstairs tavern area, a sample of a room for an overnight guest, see what supper would have looked like (turtle soup!), and view a well stocked, “modern” kitchen.
Most visitors to the hotel would have just gone for the day, to socialize and relax in the country, returning to the city in the evening the same way they came — typically by stagecoach or ferry. So the place emphasized public spaces over private rooms.
Hart and the other owners furnished the hotel with things that would’ve spoken the aspirations of New Yorkers of the era: an upright piano, birds, transferware china, lacquerware and other import goods from the Far East. And it would have featured equipment for suitably respectable pastimes: needlework, music, parlor games, keeping up with the news. Drinking, naturally. The hotel also featured riding trails on the grounds, and commanding views of the East River and a rather impressive prison that once stood across the way on today’s Roosevelt Island.
The house only served as a hotel for about 7 years— it changed back into a private residence in 1833. The Treadwells of the Merchant’s House Museum just barely missed the chance to visit.
What You’ll See
I had a great guided tour of the Hotel. I think that’s the only way to see it; there’s little in the way of written explanations or descriptions of the furnishings of the rooms.
A visit begins with a rather lengthy “setting the stage” video. The introduction room also holds a model of the carriage house when it was actually used for horses and carriages, a great timeline, and a model of the hotel’s neighborhood back when it was the countryside.
The tour wraps in a peaceful little back garden, though it’s not representative of the hotel’s actual garden, which would have stretched a lot farther. And it’s not nearly as nice as the grounds of the Morris-Jumel or the Barstow-Pell mansions.
The Hotel deploys specific people well in its story — for example, the aforementioned story of Joe Hart. And the tour highlights one of the Hotel’s more famous guests, James Stuart, a Scottish “duelist and pamphleteer,” who wrote about visiting America, including his stay at the Mount Vernon. They help bring the place to life.
Currently, the Hotel also has a small exhibit on the rise of newspapers in 19th century New York. It feels a little beside the point. That said, catching up on and discussing the news of the day was an important activity for guests. It’s always good to check what ships are departing and arriving.
An Historic Building With Differentiation
The hotel survived because the Colonial Dames of America decided to make it their headquarters in the early 1900s. Originally they called the place the Abigail Adams Smith Museum, and focused on the original builders of the carriage house. Makes sense: daughters of founding fathers tightly align with the Colonial Dames’ interests. But in the 1980s the Dames decided to re-focus on the hotel story instead.
I’m really glad they did. Historic houses are somewhat common in New York, but aside from this place and Fraunces Tavern, places where people went to socialize or enjoy a spiked lemonade are rare. It’s a distinctive story and perspective. Even though Hamilton never visited and no one you ever heard of stayed at the Mount Vernon Hotel, the sheer unlikelihood that Turtle Bay served briefly as sort of the Hamptons of its day justifies a visit to this even more unlikely survivor of that era.
The West Room Vault, which Charles McKim designed so that Mr. Morgan could keep his most super-special books super safe.
Many of the city’s great institutions, maybe even most of them, were gifts to the public by plutocrats looking to give something back, improve their image, or maybe atone for awful things they did to get ahead. Fro some people, it may diminish the joy of visiting somewhat to reflect on the ruthless profiteering that paid for all of it. That’s especially true of the most personality-driven institutions, like the Morgan and the Frick.
And yet. Your mileage may vary, but when I go to either of those two places, I’m sorely tempted to believe that they did it: the institutions balance the scales, and their sins are erased by the magnificence of what they’ve left for posterity — me– to enjoy.
The Morgan Library & Museum contains treasures. It was literally Pierpont Morgan’s private library, so it combines gilded age period room splendor with a fascinating collection and space to put on dazzling temporary exhibitions.
Additionally, the Morgan is one of my favorite examples of marrying new architecture with old. In 2006, Renzo Piano completed an incredible glass box that fits like a missing jigsaw puzzle piece with the older Morgan buildings. The original library was built in 1906 by Charles McKim of McKim, Mead, and White, so it’s no slouch in the architecture department. One of the things I like best about the new addition is it doesn’t try to erase the differences between the buildings that make up the campus, while still managing to unite them harmoniously. It also adds more gallery space, fancy piston-based glass elevators, and a beautiful cafe with a tree and a view of the Empire State Building.
I love how the Morgan smells. The parts that are more library than museum contain enough ancient tomes that the very air is permeated with old leather, paper, and erudition.
The Morgan owns three (three) Gutenberg Bibles. Manuscripts of, it sometimes seems, everything ever written or composed by everyone. A collection of exquisite Babylonian cylinder seals. Huge amounts of religious art. It just goes on and on. I saw scores by Mozart and Chopin and Mendelssohn. And the first page of the original draft of General Grant’s first inaugural address on display. And the Zir Ganela Gospels, from Ge’ez Ethiopia ca 1400. And the only complete manuscript of a Jane Austen novel (of Lady Susan).
Its book and manuscript collection enable it to put on amazing shows just drawing from its own resources — “Delirium,” on the art of symbolist books, was on when I visited, along with a great show on Emily Dickinson (called “I’m Nobody! Who are You?”), where I learned her handwriting was awful. And a small show of old masters borrowed from the Swedish Nationalmuseum.
The Morgan also has at least a bit of a sense of humor. A fair number of things on display are not what Mr. Morgan thought they were — ingenious fakes, misattributed or misidentified works. I get the sense that he was a bit of a sucker. Or he just didn’t care — he’d Hoover up all the art there was, authenticity be damned. Clearly art sleuthing has progressed a lot in the intervening century, and seeing fakes can be both instructive and entertaining. Anyway, I like that they don’t hide them away or quietly dispose of them.
The Morgan contains wonders enough to balance a robber-baron’s debt to society. I can almost guarantee you will see at least one thing, a document, a score, a letter, that takes your breath away. It is an incredibly fine museum, and everyone should go.
It can be hard for an untrained modern viewer to distinguish between youths and women in Japanese prints. There are subtle but important hairstyle and fabric differences but in terms of face and body shape, they were depicted very similarly. I wonder how many pretty women I’ve seen in woodblock prints over the years have actually been pretty dudes.
The Japan Society’s home, Japan House, was designed in 1971, by architects Junzo Yoshimura and George Shimamoto of Gruzen & Partners, and built on a site near the United Nations donated by the Society’s then-president, John D. Rockefeller the Third. The Society’s history, however, goes back much further than that; it was founded in 1907 in the wake of an official U.S. visit by two Japanese dignitaries. Its fortunes have waxed and waned along with Japan-U.S. relations, and today the society is a great place to take a language class, hear a talk, see a movie, or see some art.
The building feels simultaneously modern (for a midcentury architectural definition of same) and Japanese, and the first thing you notice on entering is the sound of water from a gentle fountain, replete with a stand of bamboo, a modernist, completely enclosed and skylit, take on a traditional courtyard garden.
The Society’s gallery space is on the second floor, in rooms arrayed around the courtyard. They program all kinds of stuff there. It’s one of the first places I saw Haruki Murakami’s work; they’ve done great shows on crafts like contemporary Japanese basketwaving and ceramics; they did a show a couple of years ago on cats in Japanese art (I bet the Brooklyn curators were jealous the Japan Society thought of it first)… It’s a broad and varied list, always tied back to Japan.
The current show is called A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints, and looks at societal impressions of essentially tween- and teenage boys in early modern Japan. It makes the case that they were viewed as beautiful and desirable by both men and women, and displays a variety of contemporary woodblock prints, books, and other artifacts to examine how they were depicted and described in that society.
I am emphatically not going to use this blog to discuss concepts of gender or the politics of sexuality. But I was disturbed by this exhibition, because it robs the subject of the show of all agency: there’s nothing in it that says whether tween and teen boys in Japan liked being or wanted to be the objects of lustful attentions from grown up men and women. To me it feels uncomfortably like looking at TV shows and advertising from 1950s and 1960s America and concluding that women then enjoyed being secretaries and housewives and having their butts pinched by the boss.
My misgivings aside, like all Japan Society exhibitions I’ve attended it was well curated and thoughtfully designed. While none of the pieces in it is super-famous or a masterpiece, it leverages depth of collection to examine an otherwise unknown facet of life in Tokugawa Era (ca 1600-1868) Japan.
Unless you’re a fan of the Land of the Rising Sun (full disclosure, I am a fan, and have been a member of the Japan Society for well over a decade) I don’t think the Japan Society generally merits a special trip to the far eastern reaches of midtown Manhattan. But they put on a good show, and if you happen to be by the United Nations it’s an excellent place to imbibe some culture that will almost certainly be beautiful and interesting.
A grave stela for a “lovable pig, victim of a traffic accident” from Edessa in Macedonia from the 2nd or 3rd century AD. That was some pig. He was radiant. And humble.
The Onassis Center is a medium-sized subterranean gallery space accessed via the public atrium in the lobby of the Olympic Center. It’s the Greek answer to the various cultural forums and societies that dot the city, and thanks to its benefactors, it has the resources to put on really interesting shows of high-end art from the Hellenic world.
The current show has pieces from Greece, along with things borrowed from other notable museums around the world (including thet Met), so the Center clearly has some standing among the bigger guys. Always a good sign in terms of whether it’d be worth randomly dropping by.
Without a doubt the Onassis Center was good for my vocabulary (which is very good to begin with). I picked up six new-to-me words, at least five of which I am sure I will find opportunities to use in the near future.
apotropaic: having the power to avert evil influences or bad luck
nympholepsy: the condition of believing one has cavorted with nymphs
phimosis: a medical condition involving an overly tight foreskin
prothesis: in this case lying in repose/viewing a body, part of ancient Greek funeral rites
And the last two terms distinguish between kinds of desire.
pothos: longing for something lost or distant
himeros: desire for something new or unexpected
I bet we discussed those at some point in my liberal arts, great-books based college education, but if so I’d forgotten about them. It’s a great distinction. Whereas I’d say equally I’m “in the mood” for my college-era pizza place or to try a well-regarded Laotian restaurant in Jamaica, in reality I’m feeling pothos for one and himeros for the other. I think.
The Onassis Center is beautifully designed, filtering a lot of natural light down into the basement level space, and features a fancy glass staircase and a small water feature, architectural details for which I have a weakness.
The show didn’t allow photography, so I don’t have any of the inside of the gallery itself. But the current exhibit was interesting, on how the ancient Greeks processed and depicted emotions. It features sculpture and painted vases and masks, but also tablets inscribed with curses and requests for the gods, and other humbler, day-to-day items. It explores emotions not in the obvious “happiness, sadness, anger” way but rather through the lens of location: emotions in the home/private, emotions in public, emotions in the graveyard and on the battlefield.
The one exception was around wrath, where there was a corner of the exhibit devoted specifically to depictions of Medea, who of course pretty much cornered the market on the topic. The one non-classical work on display was a large-scale projection of a still photo of Maria Callas as Medea in a La Scala production from 1961. Not at all classically Greek, but very very wrathful.
The Onassis Center has been under my radar right up until I started this project. I’m glad it’s not anymore. You still need to visit to the Met if you want an encyclopedic grand tour of Greek art, but I trust them to do amazing shows scaled right for their impressive space. I highly recommend it.
Finally, a planning note, the Olympic Tower is right across 52nd Street from the Austrian Cultural Forum, so those two spots form an easy (and free, and uncrowded) art-filled couple of hours in midtown.
Mark Dion’s “Humboldt Cabinet,” (2013), a beautiful wooden construction containing postcards painted by Colombians with random everyday things: a cat, a bug, a light, a toy airplane, fish hooks… It’s simple and beautiful and speaks wittily and intelligently to the urge to collect and categorize the exotic.
The Austrian Cultural Forum is housed in a remarkable contemporary building, skinny and super tall. The forum formerly lived in a townhouse on a standard Manhattan lot of 25 feet wide by 100 feet deep. When they decided they’d outgrown that space, like so many Manhattanites before them they tore it down and built up. On a footprint of 25 feet by 81 feet, architect Raimond Abraham designed a 24-story building, including a multilevel exhibit space at and slightly below ground level. The new building opened in 2002.
The gallery space is super. The tower is slightly set back from the rear of the building such that there’s a skylight, and it’s therefore bright and airy. The different levels flow together well, and while the total space isn’t large, it gives them a lot of flexibility for small-scale shows.
The current exhibit is called “Constructing Paradise,” pretty self explanatory. I was surprised and intrigued by the breadth of artists — a handful of young contemporary Austrian and American artists contribute pieces but there’s also a print by Gauguin (perhaps the granddaddy of exotic-paradise-seeking-or-constructing artists). Basquiat and Kara Walker and Oscar Kokoschka are represented too.
The show ends (if you view it from lowest to highest) with a computer-generated tropical, palm-strewn sunset Mathias Kessler, a very timely take on invented paradise.
This is a great space for art, and assuming this show is typical, I really like the way they program it. I’d say absolutely visit if you happen to be in midtown and need an art fix. The Austrian Forum and the Onassis Center are across 52nd Street from one another and make a great double bill.
The front doors of the school of interior design are massive, wooden, sliding. When the revolution comes, the building will ensure that interior designers hold out a little longer than say doggie daycare purveyors or third-generation coffee roasters.
If you wake up one day and want to be an interior designer, there are worse places you could learn your new trade than the New York School of Interior Design. Occupying a midtown building that runs through the entire block, the school has a gallery that’s open to the public.
The Elevateds were built in the late 1890s and much of the signage was done in beautiful glass with floral decorations. I think of them as just big and hulking, but they must have been rather beautiful as well.
New York’s main Transit Museum is in Brooklyn, and it is very worth visiting. When they restored Grand Central in the early 2000s, they opened a tiny branch (or “gallery annex”) of the museum there. I’m tempted to say skip it — the exhibit space is very small, it’s more gift shop than museum, and there’s so much else to see at Grand Central.
And yet, I’ve seen some really good shows in that little space, so I wouldn’t dismiss the museum out of hand.
This year, the transit system is celebrating the construction of the new Second Avenue Subway. In a brilliant bit of counter-programming, the current show at the Transit Museum’s GCT branch is about a bit of deconstructing, showing photos of the dismantling of the Third Avenue Elevated in 1955.
The pictures were all taken by Sid Kaplan, now a rather well known printer and photographer, but then a 17-year-old kid. They are beautiful, great slices of life and times long gone. Even with the High Line and the remaining Elevated lines outside Manhattan, it’s still hard to imagine a time when Second, Third, Sixth, and Ninth Avenues were overshadowed by train tracks.
Sometimes when I ride the subway I imagine the future moment when a train rolls down those tracks for the last time. It’ll probably be because of some calamity. Flooding of the tunnels, giant monster attack, zombies. Or maybe the subway will be obsolete someday due to self-driving cars or teleportation. So it resonated with me to see a sign announcing to riders, in a matter-of-fact way, the end of the Third Avenue El.
If your time at Grand Central is limited and you have to choose between seeing the Transit Museum there and, say, having a half dozen oysters at the Oyster Bar, or strolling through Grand Central Market, or just seeing the building itself, I recommend you prioritize any of those other things.
But if you have a spare 15 minutes, the Transit Museum’s small, well conceived shows are worth the time. And it is a fantastic gift shop, too.
I was just talking about taking a drawing class, and The Society of Illustrators holds $20 figure drawing sessions, with a bar and live music! Naked people, alcohol, music, and art. I mean, what more could one possibly want?
Here’s another place that I had no idea existed before starting this project. The Society of Illustrators occupies a very handsome townhouse on East 63rd Street, and includes an ample museum space (and even a gift shop!) for showing off the work of illustrators of all kinds.
The museum is terrific, although given that it is a townhouse, there are some stairs to navigate — fair warning if you’re movement impaired.
But what they have is fascinating, including portraits of illustrious illustrators hung in the aforementioned stairways, and temporary exhibitions. One of their gallery spaces is tucked into a narrow hallway that currently is painted bright red. It really worked for a show of the work of graphic novel artist Tony Harris, but I hope it’s that way all the time. I’m pretty sure it’s the most exciting room I’ve visited on this project to date.
All the gallery spaces are enjoyable, if much less zippy than the Red Hallway. They are extremely well suited to the types of work they show. You can tell the Society has been doing this for a long time, albeit under my radar.
And the current show is a stunner, a retrospective celebrating the 100th birthday of Will Eisner, possibly the most influential comic artist, well, ever. In many ways he created the form, and it’s fascinating to move from pieces of his very early work, where he still worked within the then-standard grids of 12 boxes per page, to where he literally thought outside the box, and reworked pages into this extremely expressive medium we know today. He didn’t coin the term “graphic novel,” but he is considered the father of the form. Eisner was a relative rarity in that he both wrote and drew, so his books are his through and through. Most modern comics take 3-6 people to produce, which is in no way meant to discount the talents of those who create them, just to emphasize how unique Eisner was.
I definitely recommend visiting the Society of Illustrators. It’s a great space, with a neat, sometimes undervalued area of focus.
Martynka Wawrzyniak slowly, slowly drowning in chocolate in a video that I didn’t really like per se but that I couldn’t look away from. Definitely doused my craving for Ghiradelli for at least a few days.
The Czech Center’s museum space is small but effective, and it comes associated with three things that no cultural institution I’ve seen thus far can match:
A really awesome, dramatically red spiral staircase that goes from the ground floor up into the center of the gallery.
An amazing, landmark, 1890s-era building, the Bohemian National Hall. I always thought the center of Czech culture in New York City was the Bohemian Beer Garden in Astoria, but lo and behold, this place was the heart of the community for almost 100 years. It’s now home to the Czech Consulate, an investment office, the Vaclav Havel Library Foundation, the gallery, a film space, and my third point:
A good-looking bar and restaurant on the ground floor. I was a bit too early to stop in for a drink but I wanted to. $5 for a small Pilsner Urquell!