Samantha Holmes’s piece for Starlight Park, made of carousel horses rising out of the earth, like a zombie amusement ride or the merry-go-round of the apocalypse.
The model is sort of slapdash charming, I trust the real one will be more impressive.
Founded in 1987, the Bronx River Art Center (BRAC for short) occupies a building indeed located right next to the Bronx River. It just reopened after a thorough renovation, with a distinctive paint job that features terrific branding and makes it very easy to spot from the West Farms Square elevated station.
BRAC serves its community as a performance, exhibition, and studio space, and includes a small art gallery in its lobby.
The gallery at the Bronx River Art Center is fairly plain. I have no idea what it looked like pre-renovation, but post-renovation it’s a neutral, nondescript space. Big windows look out onto busy East Tremont Street. Continue reading “Bronx River Art Center”
My favorite monument at Woodlawn is the Straus family mausoleum. Three mini-tombs form a complex for the sons of Isidor and Ida Straus, plus a memorial to their parents, famously lost on the Titanic.
It’s a unique hybrid of art deco and Egyptian Revival, complete with an awesome, streamlined, funeral barge.
I need to preface this review with a disclosure. I have been visiting Woodlawn Cemetery for almost 20 years. Also, I’m a member of, and volunteer with, the Woodlawn Conservancy, and help out with guided tours there.
So I have a strong bias. I love this place.
Cemeteries as Museums
In my review of Green-Wood Cemetery (New York’s other masterpiece cemetery, in Brooklyn) I explain why I think great historic cemeteries merit consideration as museums. In short, their unique combination of history, art, architecture and nature makes them both edifying and, for some definition of the word, entertaining. And definitely inspiring.
It’s probably a sin that Torah pointers remind me of nothing so much as highly ornate magic wands from the Potter-verse.
But they do.
The Derfner Judaica Museum is one of two museums on my list located at institutions that I’d generally tend to avoid. It resides within the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, a senior assisted living facility. (The other is the Living Museum, located in a mental health facility in Queens.) But it’s on my list, so off to the Bronx I went.
Let’s start with Riverdale. There are many places in New York that don’t feel like “New York.” Fresh Kills. City Island. Broad Channel. Even among the non-New York places, though, Riverdale is special. Surely it is as far from anyone’s mental image of “The Bronx” as it’s possible to get. Verdant and spacious, much of it feels like the suburbs, a clump of wealthy Westchester transplanted within city limits.
The Derfner Judaica Museum: An Overview
The Derfner Museum resides in a bright, 5,000-square-foot ground floor space in the Reingold Pavilion, a 2004 building on the Hebrew Home campus. Windows connect it with the outside, with views encompassing a sculpture garden, the Hudson, and New Jersey’s palisades. Windows also connect it with the lobby and other public spaces of the larger institution.
An assortment of display cases feature Jewish ritual and cultural objects, organized largely by type, with helpful explanations for those not conversant with them. I expect most Hebrew Home residents would have more than passing familiarity with Jewish rites and tradition. I appreciated that the curators include rare random visitors like me as part of the intended audience.
Many of the pieces on display come from the collection of Ralph and Leuba Baum. Ralph moved to the U.S. in 1936, married Leuba in 1939, and built a successful business as well as a hefty collection of Jewish art and ritual objects. In 1982, the Baums donated 800 pieces to the Hebrew Home to start this museum. If you’re curious why it’s not the Baum Museum, in 2008, Helen and Howard Derfner underwrote the creation of the current space.
The clear focal point of the exhibit is a single, badly damaged, Torah scroll. It comes from a synagogue in a suburb of Hamburg, Ralph’s hometown. The synagogue burned in 1938, during Kristallnacht, and this scroll is the only one of its 13 Torahs to survive. In its silent witnessing way it’s as moving as anything in the Museum of Jewish Heritage, and it was the object that inspired the Baums to donate their collection.
Other Things to See
When I visited the museum had two additional exhibits on display. One was a set of 100 charmingly sketchy watercolors of residents and staff by Brenda Zlamany. The other shows Chuck Fishman’s striking black and white photographs depicting Polish Jewish life, taken from 1975 until the present.
I also perused the art in the Hebrew Home’s public spaces a bit. The Hebrew Home displays prints, paintings, and sculpture to help make the place seem less, well, institutional.
However, the Hebrew Home started collecting art long before it opened the Judaica museum. The institution follows a philosophy of “if you can’t go to the art, the art should go to you.” In that context, the Baums’ decision makes sense — the place was already partly a museum, and had a resident audience likely to enjoy and appreciate their collection.
I mentioned the sculpture garden previously. That too enriches the environment for residents and visitors alike.
A Trip to the Retirement Castle
Sad to say, most of my knowledge of senior assisted living comes from TV: the Springfield Retirement Castle, where Abe Simpson lives. So my view is jaundiced, biased, and not very positive. Having the museum and the art help residents immensely, I think.
I’ve written about “gateway museums” — places like the Bronx Museum of the Arts that serve people who may not have much museum experience. I reckon the Derfner is the opposite: for many Hebrew Home residents, it’s the last museum of their lives.
I spent some time talking with Emily, the assistant curator at the Derfner Judaica Museum. She spoke thoughtfully about the role that art plays in the lives of residents. She observed that sometimes the most impactful items in the collection aren’t its one-of-a-kind treasures. Rather it’s something like a pair of mass-produced Shabbat candlesticks that prompt a visitor to remember that their parents or grandparents owned the same pair.
If you have to get old, and you have to live in assisted living, it’s a blessing if you can live in a place full of art.
Should You Visit the Derfner Judaica Museum?
If you’re looking for Judaica, there are better and more convenient institutions to visit. However, the collection gains unique significance by virtue of its location. Jewish or not, if you’re planning to grow old someday you might find it worthwhile visiting the place, the art, and the residents.
Reingold Pavilion, Hebrew Home at Riverdale, 5901 Palisade Avenue, Riverdale, the Bronx
Rather than the grounds or the view I decided to limit myself to the “Call and Response” exhibit. Steven Millar’s “Many-Eyed Object,” 2017, is wood and glass, constructed and organic, and all about changing vistas and views.
In that, it neatly summarizes Wave Hill as a whole.
For the first time since I started this project, I feel the need for absolution.
“Forgive me, City, for I have sinned.”
“My son, how long has it been since your last confession?”
“Well, Bloomberg was in office, so it’s been a while…”
“What did you do?”
“It’s not a sin of commission, but a sin of omission. I confess that it has been twenty-three years since I last paid a visit to Wave Hill.”
What the Heck is Wave Hill?
Wave Hill is difficult to describe.
I mean, partly it’s easy:
Two fancy old mansions and associated outbuildings and landscaping across 28 acres of surrounding land, on a bluff in Riverdale in the Bronx, overlooking the Hudson and the majestic cliffs of the Palisades in New Jersey, now used as a venue for contemporary art.
So it’s a hybrid art museum, botanic garden, and historic home. Cut and dried.
176 minutes (including lunch) — I could easily spend a whole day
Best thing I saw or learned
The display of plant carnivores: flytraps, sundews, pitcher plants. My favorite members of the floral kingdom.
Both New Yorkers and non-New Yorkers alike tend to think of the Bronx as entirely, unremittingly gray: paved urban overdevelopment at its very worst. In reality, the Bronx features large expanses of green.
Wave Hill and the other verdant bits of Riverdale along the Hudson are beautiful.
Woodlawn Cemetery recently got certified as an arboretum.
And let’s not forget the Zoo.
But of all the many green spaces the Bronx has to offer, the most beautiful must surely be the New York Botanical Garden.
The New York Botanical Garden dates to 1891 and sprawls across 250 acres. (Don’t worry, there’s a tram.) Its vast holdings include a spectacular neoclassical Herbarium & Library, and an even more spectacular glass conservatory. Calvert Vaux and the Olmstead Brothers had hands in the Garden’s design, and of course it’s hard to beat them for this sort of thing. Continue reading “New York Botanical Garden”
The Fordham Museum’s ancient coin collection came from a literal buried treasure. While serving in Italy during World War II, Thomas Marrone stumbled on a trove of ancient Roman coins in a shell-hole. After the war, rather than keeping them or selling them off he gave them to Fordham.
The wall text observes that since the 1954 Hague Convention, walking off the battlefield with lost coin collections is no longer Kosher. So it’s lucky Fordham acquired its when it did.
Tucked away in the main library at Fordham University’s Bronx campus is an unexpected little museum of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman art, which opened in 2007. William and Jane Walsh donated their collection of about 270 objects to the school, the thought being that having a small museum of classical antiquity close at hand might inspire students pursuing a liberal arts education.
As a Columbia alum, I’m slightly jealous. I can imagine the resonance of reading Sophocles, Thucydides, or Cicero in the presence of objects from the cultures that shaped those works. Then again, our library is a neoclassical masterpiece by McKim, Mead, and White, whereas Fordham kids get a thoroughly style-less late 1990s building. Just sayin’.
Library architecture notwithstanding, Fordham did a fine job crafting its museum space. From the design and library layout, I suspect that it took over one of the reading rooms to do so. If so, then undergrads’ loss during finals prep is art’s gain. The Fordham Museum has ample windows opening onto the campus, which I like a lot. It makes you constantly aware of the academic environment, providing a distinctive context for the art.
The Fordham Museum’s collection is diverse and well curated. It includes a lovely Venus (Roman copy of Greek original, from the third century AD), bits and pieces of other statuary, and a wide array of pottery. The ceramics span a wide variety of styles, not just the typical red-black-and-white painted Greek wine jars. And it includes some impressively large and distinctive pieces.
It also has a poignant child’s casket, whose former occupant was the two-year old son of an early Roman policeman.
And a single small but nice vitrine full of Roman glass.
strigilated: decorated with curves in the shape of a strigil, and
Gnathian: of or originating from…Gnathia?
The museum sets aside an alcove for special interpretations. This offers a way for the curators to take parts of the collection and temporarily do a deeper dive, or look at them differently. When I visited it examined Etruscan terra cotta votive heads and a couple of feet. Interesting and well described. People purchased these votive sculptures to invoke the gods’ aid in the case of injury or illness. Perhaps an idea whose time has come again given the state of U.S. healthcare regulation.
I admire the Walshes for picking an unconventional place to gift their collection, and the museum for organizing the collection a logical and educational way. At the same time, it misses an opportunity to discuss the Walshes as collectors and connoisseurs. It left me curious why they acquired what they did — what caught their eye, what they liked and didn’t.
Also, considering the times, the Fordham Museum should discuss provenance. The coin collection origin story touches on the subject, but the museum says nothing else. I hope the Walshes got all their stuff on the up-and-up. But if so, the wall texts should say something about that.
Who Should Visit?
The Fordham Museum offers a quiet, competent display of an interesting collection in a beautiful academic setting. It’s great if you like communing with art solo: a kid studying was the only other person when I went. And a guard popped in briefly to make sure I wasn’t pilfering votive objects.
Who should visit? Students of antiquity, or even just fans, will find it worth their time. If you live closer to Fordham than to the Met or the Onassis Center, you should definitely consider visiting for a Greco-Etrusco-Roman art fix. And Fordham students have no excuses about going.
More general audiences may wisely hesitate about making the journey just to see the Fordham Museum. But you could combine it with something else.
The Fordham campus happens to be conveniently close to the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage — he walked over to visit the Jesuits when St. John’s College was new. Following in Poe’s footsteps after visiting his humble abode would offer a nice double bill.
It would also pair well with the nearby New-York Botanical Garden.
Finally, Fordham is close to the Bronx’s Belmont neighborhood, also known as Arthur Avenue. Combining Classical art at the Fordham Museum with shopping and a meal there creates a mini Italian vacation.
Walsh Library, Fordham Rose Hill Campus, 441 East Fordham Road, The Bronx
Baby Bootlegger was a 1924, 29-foot 10-inch speedboat with a 240 horsepower engine. She was designed by George F. Crouch, built by Henry B. Nevins of City Island, and owned by Caleb Bragg. She won the Gold Cup in 1924 and 1925 and I’m sure no rum was ever run in her.
“New York” conjures very specific images. Possibly positive, possibly negative, but distinctive, and related to density, height, congestion, diversity, and creativity. Extremes of wealth and poverty. And yet New York also contains neighborhoods that feel nothing like “New York.”
The City Island Nautical Museum aims to tell the story of arguably the least “New York” place in all of New York City. Despite its misleading name, City Island does not feel “city” in any way. Rather, it’s a quiet village, whose heritage and livelihood has long focused on the waters of Long Island Sound.
City Island was part of the massive tract of land ceded by the Lenape to Thomas Pell (whose story the Bartow-Pell Mansion recounts) in 1654. It developed into a fairly self-sufficient seagoing community. Oystering supported City Islanders for many years, until the oysters ran out. And boatbuilding was a massive industry. Eight America’s Cup winning yachts were built at City Island from 1870-1980. And they built mine sweepers there during World War II.
Today, sailors still have reason to go — it’s home to some five yacht clubs. But for most New Yorkers, City Island barely registers in their consciousness, except as a curious, far-flung corner of the city.
A Schoolhouse Full of Stuff
The City Island Nautical Museum occupies the island’s old schoolhouse. Its four rooms each focus on a specific theme:
the School Room, focused on the island’s schools and kids who went there;
the Nautical Room, on boats and boatbuilding;
the Community Room, on life on City Island from pre-colonial days to now; and
In addition to various books, copies of Yachting magazine going back to the 1930s, and neat ship models, the library currently houses a temporary show of local artwork memorializing the City Island Bridge, recently torn down.
A Charming But Chaotic Collection
I’d call this museum “charming,” if I’m feeling charitable, and “chaotic” if I’m feeling less so. It’s a bit of both. This is a museum by accretion, like the Maritime Industry Museum.
But the Maritime Industry Museum is a paragon of military-grade organization. It’s dense but not dusty, its artifacts are well cared for, and you know every object there has been carefully cataloged.
By contrast, the City Island Museum is a hodge-podge. Things on display aren’t always in good repair. It feels like the museum may not even know all that it has. And that’s sort of a shame.
Then again, I have to say much of the collection feels random and not very important. For example, the museum has an array of outboard motors that look like they date to the 1940s-1960s. Whose outboard motors were they? Are they historically important for some reason? Who made them and why? There’s a case of arrowheads. A bunch of old bottles. Old cameras. Nothing feels…documented. The artifacts kind of tell a City Island story, in that they all presumably were used there at some point. But they don’t tell it in coherently. And they crowd out things that would give a better understanding of the island’s people and times.
Stories I wish the City Island Museum told:
City Island’s days as a weekend getaway — it used to have public beaches and an easier connection to the city. Could it have become a northern Coney Island?
The short-lived, dangerous City Island Monorail (amazing story; see the Bowery Boys link in the box at the end of this review).
The changing population and demographics of the island. Who lives there now?
Early ambitions for City Island — the name comes from a bout of marketing optimism that it’d someday rival New York as a maritime port.
Should You Visit?
Like the Old Stone House, this museum isn’t really for tourists. Or, it’s only partly for tourists. It’s a center for the community, a place where people can come and research family ties to the island, and a place where clam diggers (i.e., native City Islanders; the rest of us are “mussel suckers”) can contribute bits of their own legacies to be part of the greater story.
You should go to City Island, unquestionably. It’s unique in New York. And if you go, to sail, to just look around, or to have a piña colada at Johnny’s Reef Restaurant (which I personally recommend) then, sure, stop in at the City Island Nautical Museum. It’s a thing to do. But I would not recommend planning a trip to the island just to visit this small, charming but too-chaotic museum.
The broad array of games: deck of cards, dice, checkers, arrayed around the upstairs sitting room. Makes me appreciate our sophisticated modern timekillers like Settlers of Catan and Pandemic.
Long ago (1654) and far away (under an oak tree on what is now the frontier of the Bronx), a, Englishman named Thomas Pell signed a treaty with the local Siwanoy/ Lenape Indian tribe. He gained ownership of either 9,166 acres (City of New York, Friends of Pelham Bay Park, other reputable sources) or 50,000 acres (Bartow-Pell Mansion printout, Wikipedia) of land. While his descendants sold off the massive holding over time, in 1836 Robert Bartow, scion of the Bartow-Pell family, bought back part of the original estate and started building a fine country house and working farm on it. In 1842, he and his wife Maria Lorillard Bartow, their seven kids, and assorted Irish servants moved out from the filth and hubbub of New York City. The family resided there for over 40 years.
Like all of the country retreats I’ve visited, the family’s fortunes ebbed, and the expanding City eventually caught up with the Bartow-Pell Mansion. Mostly. Today the house stands in the heart of Pelham Bay Park (in fact, the City bought the house and land as it was creating the park), the only survivor of what used to be a string of mansions in the area. Continue reading “Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum”
A scale model of the Brooklyn Navy Yard in full swing during World War II. I can only imagine the hours and focus and attention it required YNC Leo J. Spiegel USN (Ret.) to build it. Scaled at 1 inch = 50 feet, it depicts 46 naval vessels (all called out by name on a sign below), 273 shipyard buildings, 8 piers, 6 drydocks, and 659 homes in the surrounding area. BLDG 92, eat your heart out!
A Visit to Fort Schuyler
Throg’s Neck is a peninsula in the Bronx just at the point where the East River becomes Long Island Sound. In the Age of Sail, the extreme currents of Hell Gate and the general narrowness of the narrows afforded New York natural protection from naval attacks from the Sound. With the advent of steam power, however, that changed, and so in the 1830s the government acquired a good chunk of Throg’s Neck and built Fort Schuyler there. And a few decades later Fort Totten across the narrows in Queens.
That’s Schuyler as in General Philip Schuyler, father of the Angelica, Elizabeth, and Peggy Schuyler and so Alexander Hamilton’s father-in-law. It’s a tenuous Hamilton connection, but I’ll take it.
Fort Schuyler today is home to the State University of New York’s Maritime College, where you study if you want to join the merchant marine. It’s also home to the Throg’s Neck Bridge, which flies right over the school. And SUNY Maritime also houses the Maritime Industry Museum, which provided me with one of my oddest museum experiences on this project.
The Post-Apocalyptic Museum
I drove out to SUNY Maritime on a lovely June Saturday. The gate at the head of the campus opened for me, and I proceeded in. I didn’t see a soul.
The Maritime Industry Museum is located within the old defensive bastion of Fort Schuyler, which also contains SUNY Maritime classrooms and administrative buildings. It’s fantastic that the old fort is still so intact, and so open for exploration. The museum is large, and yet they make it surprisingly hard to find. I wandered around the fort for a while, discovering things like a tiny drawbridge and the Bouchard Tugboat Simulation Center. I did not, however, see any people.
I feel pretty sure that on weekdays during the term, the campus buzzes with life. But on summer weekends, wow. It’s post-apocalyptic.
Finally, I discovered a door with a small brass plate. This may be the most stealthy museum I’ve yet visited. I tried the door, and it opened. So in I went.
And…no one. Not an elderly volunteer greeter. Not a guard. Not a docent. Definitely no other visitors. I was all alone in the heart of Fort Schuyler, in the midst of an amazing assortment of maritime memorabilia.
This museum is sort of what I expected the Noble Maritime Collection would be like: bunches of forgotten nautical knicknacks, tons of didactic explanations in verbose wall texts from 30 or more years ago. But its scale and scope impress. And there are treasures galore for those who explore here.
The Floor Plan
Sprawling across two floors (or A Deck and B Deck) and a good arc of the fort, the museum covers:
SUNY Maritime’s history and its training ships
Famous alumni, and memorials to those lost at sea
A very brief history of sailing in the ancient world
A history of the U.S. merchant marine that ends in the 1980s
A lot about World War II
A section on famous ship disasters (General Slocum, Andrea Doria, Titanic…)
Information about the evolution of shipping, including containerization and supertankers
Ocean liners of the past and present (mostly past)
Lighthouses and lightships
I feel certain I have omitted things. The philosophy here diverges sharply from the minimalist, less-is-more aesthetic of some contemporary museum curators. I can’t possibly tell relate everything I saw that made me smile. So here are just some highlights.
Just Some of The Things I Saw
A model of an Egyptian Funerary Barge, all decked out with oars and a mummy. I’m not sure Funerary Barge Pilot on the Nile is really a going merchant marine career path these days, but you never know.
This crazy pentagonal gizmo, which showed a map of New York Harbor and all the key ways the region contributed to the war effort during World War II, color coded to differentiate logistics from training from wartime industry from defense installations. Touch a button for a place and the relevant spot or spots light up. I can’t conceive who would’ve made this or where it was originally. It’s an amazing piece of pre-touchsceen museum interactivity.
Gershenoff’s Locker, a “replica of a circa 1940s cadet’s locker stowed with care.”
A deck chair from the S. S. United States.
A large-scale model aircraft carrier. (If you’d like a bigger aircraft carrier, I recommend the Intrepid.) Models of just about every type of seagoing vessel you can imagine, actually.
And an entire place setting from the Queen Elizabeth 2’s 30th anniversary “maritime enthusiasts cruise.”
And a model of and story about the Savannah, the first nuclear merchant ship. Do they still have those? I feel like I’d know if there were nuclear powered container ships buzzing about on the seas. I feel like people would be worried about it.
My Own Private Maritime Museum
The museum’s space actually forms the hallway between the SUNY Maritime classrooms that occupy Fort Schuyler. If I were studying there, I’m not sure how I’d feel having all this historic stuff cluttering up my hall. On the one hand, it’s a link to maritime tradition going back centuries. On the other hand, it’s a bunch of cases of stuff you’re unlikely to be tested on.
As a non-student, I loved this museum. I loved historic Fort Schuyler, I loved the “lost treasures in the attic” aesthetic, and the exciting, “what’s around the next corner?” feeling. And I especially loved being all alone in it. I have never had that experience before. My own private maritime museum.
But Should You Visit?
Despite my strong enthusiasm, I’m not going to insist that everyone rent a car or hire a Lyft and get themselves out to Fort Schuyler. The Maritime Industry Museum is a diamond in the rough. The collection has grown through gifts from alumni and others. For example, many of the ship models come from the collection of Frank W. Cronican, a bequest to the museum in 1993. It feels like the museum has accreted over time like a coral reef, with only periodic thought to editing or curation.
Whatever the topic, “accretion” style museums can intimidate. And they can frankly be really boring if you don’t have a metaphorical chart to navigate by. And even though the maritime industry is worth $14 billion annually in New York State alone–guess where I learned that–most people won’t care enough about it to justify the effort or the drive.
However. If you love boats or ships of any sort, or if you’re interested in maritime history, then, obviously, you must go. And if you like museum-ology, that would also make this place a must-see.
The Maritime Industry Museum has vast potential. I hope they unlock it someday, though it’ll take a passionate curatorial voice and direction, and a very large grant, to make it happen.