National Museum of the American Indian Heye Center

Edification value  4/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 73 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned A pair of Christian Louboutin boots laboriously decorated with antique glass beads by Jamie Okuma, of the Louiseño and Shoshone-Bannock tribes.

National Museum of the American Indian, New YorkThe National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center is one of the Smithsonian Institution’s two New York outposts (along with the Cooper-Hewitt).  It could be the museum with the longest name in the city.

You may think, “But doesn’t the Smithsonian have a National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall in D.C.?” Yes, it does. The Heye Center in New York came first, though.  It started as the Museum of the American Indian, opening in Harlem way back in 1922, to display George Gustav Heye’s expansive collection of Native American arts and crafts.  In due course, the Smithsonian took over. While it started planning for the D.C. museum (which opened in 2004) in the 1990s, it also opted to keep a New York outpost.

The Building

Today, the National Museum of the American Indian makes its home in a spectacular Beaux Arts building at the southern end of Broadway.  The architect Cass Gilbert designed the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs House, which opened in 1907.  (The name is the sole Hamilton connection, but I’m counting it!) A monument to commerce wrought in stone, it’s a far grander and more prominent building than Federal Hall National Memorial, which also was built as a customs house.

Allegorical Figures, Alexander Hamilton Customs House, New York

Truly it’s a magnificent piece of architecture, festooned with allegorical sculptures and heroic traders and all manner of artsy ornamentation. Daniel Chester French, the sculptor of Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial, did four figures representing the major regions of the world.  Pictured here, fittingly, is “America.”

Inside some bits of historic grandeur remain, too. A matched set of swirly spiral staircases graces the corners. And the building centers on a –I know I already used the word “spectacular” but I’m using it again deliberately–spectacular oval rotunda.  I wish they did more with that space! It features some benches, ratty carpeting, and brass light fixtures currently. But really it cries out to be a fancy cafe or something.  I suspect the building’s landmark status prevents altering the rotunda to make better use of its potential.  Too bad.  The rotunda perimeter features Reginald Marsh murals of New York City, ships in the harbor, and historic figures important in trade in the United States– people like Columbus and Henry Hudson, whose presence seems more than a little ironic in the context of the building’s current use.

Oval Rotunda, National Museum of the American Indian, New YorkIndeed, the idea of turning a building focused on trade, from an era that unabashedly glorified the commercial impulses that ended up dispossessing the Native American tribes of their lands, into a museum for those nations…well.  I find it pretty ironic.

Or perhaps fair and fitting: why not have a colonization work in the other direction for once?

The Exhibits

The Heye Center divides into three galleries.  One of them hosts a permanent exhibit on the Native American nations. The other two feature changing exhibits.  When I visited, one focused on Central American pottery, and the other looked at contemporary Native American fashion designers.

Native Fashion Now at the National Museum of the American Indian, New York

Dustin Martin, designer, “This is not a peacemaker” T-Shirt. I love an ironic Magritte reference…

I’m particularly impressed that the Heye Center would put on something like the fashion show.  My stereotypical view of a Native American Museum would be all tradition and dusty artifacts.  I like that they care to show how American Indians today carry their traditions forward, creating both beautiful things and successful businesses.  It seems a through-line of the place that the objects on display represent more than just, well, museum pieces.

The permanent exhibit, titled “Infinity of Nations,” is somewhat dense and dusty, and tries valiantly to do  justice to an entire continent’s worth of tribes and traditions in a fairly small space.  That said, as a native of Hawai’i, I felt slightly vexed that the museum sticks just to the continent.

Dark colored texts call out commentaries from tribal members and other experts

However, I did very much like how the permanent collection intersperses descriptive wall texts with occasional signed ones, written by tribal representatives and other experts on Indian cultures. The specific voices create an immediacy that most museum texts lack, reminding visitors that these cultures still value these objects and their creators.  For the same reason, I like how the collection includes contemporary arts and crafts.  Finally, I also appreciate the way the curators deployed just a few touchscreens to offer deeper dives into key objects.  It felt like they chose the right things.

Buffalo Hide Robe, National Museum of the American Indian, New York
Apsáalooke warrior’s exploit robe, Ft. Benton, Montana, ca. 1850.

On balance, the Heye Center seems to maintain a good relationship with Native American communities.  Of course, I’ve only got their word on that.  But (a) Heye paid for all the items in his collection, didn’t just loot them, (b) many seem to realize that had he not treasured and saved these things, they likely would no longer exist, and (c) the Museum allows the tribes liberal access to the collections, for both study and ceremonial purposes.

The Bottom Line

Everyone should visit the Heye Center.  More than I expected, it depicts American Indian cultures as vital, living things.  And it does so in creative ways, via (at least sometimes) inventive, unexpected exhibits. Even if you’ve been to the D.C. National Museum of the American Indian, coming here might still offer new things to look at and to think about.  And the building is, as I may have mentioned, spectacular.

National Museum of the American Indian, New York
Infinity of Nations

For Reference:

Address One Bowling Green, Manhattan
Cost  Free
Other Relevant Links


Trinity Church

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 32 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Phillip Hamilton, son of Alexander, is buried in Trinity Churchyard. But there’s no longer a marker, and somehow no one quite knows where he is. How can that be? What kind of negligence does it take to lose a Hamilton for goodness’ sake? I mean, even before the musical to end all musicals made him a hero, A.Ham was always New York’s hometown Founding Father. And Phillip’s death was always an important part of the story. So, Trinity Church, how do you lose a Hamilton?
Wall Street NYC
View of Trinity Church from Wall Street

Its steeple stretching toward heaven at the head of Wall Street, Trinity Church stands as a powerful rebuke to those greedy financial types who see money as the beginning and end of living. I’m not sure it’s an effective rebuke, but it’s the thought that counts.

It’s an impressive, location at the heart of 18th century New York, and Trinity boasts not only a storied history, but also serves as a key, perhaps even the key stop on the Hamilton pilgrimage route. He’s buried there. As are Eliza and Angelica Schuyler (Peggy, the third Schuyler sister, is in Albany). And Phillip Hamilton is at Trinity too, though as mentioned above, no one quite knows where.

Hamilton Monument, Trinity Church, Manhattan
People leave coins at the Hamilton monument. I guess because $10 bills would blow away?

Eliza Hamilton Monument, Trinity Church, ManhattanThe current church is Gothic Revival, in brownstone, which always seems to me a striking and unlikely choice. Until this visit I never wondered what the surrounding area was like when it was built — if it was all brownstone rowhouses, it would’ve fit in nicely I suppose. Now it stands out, even as the surrounding skyscrapers far overtop it.

Trinity Church, Wall StreetTrinity’s history goes back to 1697, but this is the third church on this site. The first Trinity Church burned down in the Great Fire during the revolution in 1776. The second revealed structural problems following a severe snowstorm in 1838 that led to its replacement with the current building in 1846. So while it’s old, it’s not as old as it might want you to believe. St. Paul’s Chapel, a Trinity offshoot a short stroll north on Broadway, dates to 1766.  I strongly recommend visiting both if you have time.

With Trinity itself, I’d say the cemetery is more important to visit than the church, which with one an exception doesn’t play much of an historical role. In addition to Hamilton and family, an assortment of other luminaries is there, including Robert Fulton (inventor of the steamboat), who probably wishes Lin-Manuel Miranda would get to work on a musical about him. And there’s a monument to firefighters, and assorted romantically crumbling old gravestones. The oldest legible marker in the cemetery dates to 1681.

Trinity Church, ManhattanThe interior of Trinity is pretty, but not especially noteworthy. It’s on a par with most other gothic revival churches in the U.S. or U.K.

To my mind, Trinity’s most important historic role came in the days after September 11. Trinity and St. Paul’s Chapel served as incredibly important sources of physical and spiritual sustenance for all the people facing the unimaginable work at Ground Zero.

Graveyard, Trinity Church, ManhattanAnyone who likes old churches or cemeteries or Hamilton (or Robert Fulton) must visit Trinity. Moreover, the graveyard is an oasis of green in a part of the city that doesn’t have a lot of that. For those frantically visiting all of Lower Manhattan’s many historic sites, museums, and other landmarks, it represents a chance to catch one’s breath in the midst of a jam-packed day. Trinity also has a fine music program–definitely take a look at their website. Even for a casual visitor, Trinity is worth a special trip.

Finally, I was going to take Trinity to task for not playing up the Hamilton-Hamilton connection–missed marketing opportunity!–but as I was departing I  spotted this sign on the fence:

There's a Million Things You Haven't Trinity Church
Clever, subtle, Hamilton reference

Well played indeed.

For Reference:

Address 75 Broadway, Manhattan
Cost  Free
Other Relevant Links
  • NY Times piece on Trinity Church’s role after 9/11


Federal Hall National Memorial


Edification value  4/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 33 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Steampunk lock

The steampunky goodness of the “Damon’s Patent Lock Mechanism” guarding the Customs House vaults.  Even the bolts are pretty.

Federal Hall National Memorial, Greek Revival Masterpiece, New YorkFederal Hall is not what it seems.  In fact, it’s not Federal Hall at all. From the outside a passer-by might easily believe that it was the first capitol of the U.S., and the building where George Washington took the oath as president.  I thought that for years; only recently did I realize: right location, wrong building.

Federal Hall’s spot on Wall Street was the location of New York’s colonial-era City Hall, built around 1700.  When the fledgling United States of America decided New York would be the capital, that building got remodeled by Pierre L’Enfant (later architect of the District of Columbia’s master plan) to make it fancier. Rebranded from City Hall to Federal Hall, it did indeed serve (briefly) as the nation’s first capitol building, before the government moved to Philly and eventually to Washington.

Federal Hall, New York
Model of the actual Federal Hall

Ever more practical than sentimental, New York tore Federal Hall down in 1812. According to the visitor guide, the city sold the scrap to a “grocer on South Street” for $425. The guide skips over what they built next, but eventually the government replaced it with a United States Customs House in 1842.

In some ways that’s okay.  The current building is fantastic, the best example of Greek Revival architecture in New York City.  As Customs House and later a Sub-Treasury, it has its own important history as a key locale in New York’s growth as the commercial and financial capital of the U.S.

Federal Hall National Memorial, Interior, New YorkBut I couldn’t help get the sense that the National Park Service would trade today’s building if they could get the “real” Federal Hall back again.

As I’ve racked up historic sites for this project it occurred to me that New York’s relentless development leads to a fairly loose definition of “authentic” history.  Sometimes authentically old buildings migrate from their original locations (like Hamilton Grange or Edgar Allan Poe’s Cottage).  Sometimes historic locations remain, while the buildings themselves change (like Theodore Roosevelt’s Birthplace, Federal Hall, or Trinity Church).  And sometimes “historic” sites feature inauthentic buildings in ersatz locations.

That last one is typically bad, but not always. Think of The Cloisters, which enthralled both me and Jorge Luis Borges.

Forced to choose, I’d prefer old building/new location.  I’d rather see Hamilton’s house somewhere else (within reason) than an exact reproduction built on the site of Hamilton’s house.  Your mileage may vary.

On view at what I will more accurately call “(Not Actually) Federal Hall National Memorial”:

Federal Hall National Memorial, New York
Washington Stood Here
  • The cracked but actual marble slab Washington stood on when taking the oath of office.
  • Vaults where the Customs House kept tons of cash (literally)
  • A model of Washington’s Inaugural Parade
  • Memorabilia from the centennial celebrations of Washington’s Inauguration.
  • Models showing the old City Hall and Federal Hall buildings.
  • A National Park Service overview of historic sites and parks, in the New York region and beyond.
  • An exhibit on the Zenger trial of 1735, an early libel case that set a precedent for freedom of the press.
  • The Bible on which Washington swore the oath of office (borrowed at the last minute from a local Masonic Lodge).

Everyone should visit (Not Actually) Federal Hall National Memorial.  The architecture alone justifies a special trip. Contemplating the vicissitudes of history and what we save versus what we tear down just ices the cake.

Federal Hall, New York

For Reference:

Address 26 Wall Street, Manhattan
Cost  Free


South Street Seaport Museum

Edification value  
Entertainment value  
Should you go?  
Time spent 48 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned The Museum is home to the Alan Govenar & Kaleta Doolin Tattoo Collection. The current modest Gus Wagner show is like a teaser for what they might be able to do once material in the collection (Wagner’s notebooks and such) is conserved and stable. I was sad to learn the Staten Island Tattoo Museum is no more, so I’m hopeful this enables the Seaport Museum to fill that gap.

The South Street Seaport Museum just celebrated its 50th anniversary, and its establishment contributed to the survival of a collection of historic buildings in the face of Lower Manhattan’s relentless pressure for development.  The museum includes a print shop (worth visiting; great cards), the museum building proper, and the “street of ships,” a collection of historic vessels, several of which are open for tours when the museum is open.

Upper museum floors not currently open

The museum itself is still not fully back on its feet following 2012’s Hurricane Sandy.  This is unfortunate because a significant part of the museum’s space is not currently open, and the exhibits on display now are long on words and short on artifacts — the science fair school of museum displays, wherein you might as well just read about it on the internet.  Told that way, even something as fun as the story of an early 20th century tattoo artist is only so engaging.



A wall of reproductions and captions, the bulk of the Gus Wagner, Tattooist exhibit

Until it fully reopens, the museum by itself is not worth the time or $12 to visit.  However, the museum also offers the chance to tour the lightship Ambrose and the tall ship Wavertree.  And the museum also runs the sailing vessel Pioneer (which needs to be booked separately) which is an awesome way to get out on the Harbor.

Wavertree, open for visits

I only had time to visit Wavertree, but she’s impressive.  Immense, steel-hulled, and built in 1885 as a cargo ship, Wavertree just completed a massive restoration effort that has helped put her back in seaworthy condition.  The brief public tour gives a taste of what life was like for sailors (i.e., tough) and the officers (i.e., less tough) aboard.  She’s still a work in progress, which is interesting too:  there’s always staff or volunteers performing some work or other on her.

Ambrose is a lightship, which was a sturdy class of ship used as a floating lighthouse, in places where terrestrial ones weren’t feasible.  She went into service in 1908 and helped ships navigate the entrance to Lower New York Bay until 1932. 

The collection is completed by two sailing vessels, Lettie G. Howard and Pioneer, and an adorable wooden tugboat named W. O. Decker.

I want to be more enthusiastic about the Seaport Museum than I am.  I love ships, the sea, and the city’s history. South Street Seaport is about as central as it gets, while many of the city’s other maritime museums are in far flung locales like Staten and City Islands.  Still, in its current state, it’s operating at only a fraction of its potential, and having two historic boats to tour only goes so far.  With regret, the best I can muster for it is a lukewarm nod to anyone with an interest in those topics.  

For Reference:

Address 12 Fulton Street and Pier 16, Manhattan
Cost  General Admission With Ship Tour: $12
Other Relevant Links


African Burial Ground National Monument

Edification value  
Entertainment value  
Should you go?  
Time spent 39 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned The Visitor Center focuses quite a bit on the efforts at balancing the human desire to learn from the skeletons and artifacts in the burial ground, with the human desire to treat those remains respectfully and not have them end up on dusty museum shelves for eternity.  That’s a hard balance, and it’s valuable to have a glimpse into the  conversations that led to the compromises they made. 

African Burial Ground National MonumentThe African Burial Ground is a small monument overshadowed by the government buildings around Foley Square.  As they were digging for a new federal building in 1991 they discovered bodies, and from there re-discovered a forgotten cemetery used by the city’s African American population in the late 1600s and early 1700s.

African Burial Ground National MonumentToday a corner of what used to be the cemetery is a small green open space with a black granite monument, standing in for a headstone.  There aren’t any markers, of course, and if it weren’t for the signs and a series of low humps of earth, you’d probably just think it was a pocket park.  It’s not the whole extent of the cemetery, as this city is sufficiently about commerce and building that it won’t let the past fully forestall progress, even when that past includes the earthly remains of slaves.

Mosaic of Skeletons, African Burial Ground
Photomosaic of the remains examined and then re-interred at the African Burial Ground

You can visit the national monument in just a few minutes.  However, the as is the norm with the National Park Service, the visitor center’s exhibits are simple, thoughtful, and earnest, and merit spending some time and contemplation.

Comparative mortality ages show almost no African Americans lived to a ripe old age.

It looks at what we know about the people laid to rest at the Burial Ground — nothing in terms of written records, but quite a bit based on archaeological evidence.  It also talks a bit about contemporary black residents of New York about whom we do know something, and paints an unflinching picture of the hardships they faced.


The narrative of the visitor center speaks of “ancestors” (the remains of the people they dug up) and “descendants” (the modern activists who argued for humane treatment of those remains.  It forges a compelling but unproveable link– we don’t know the names of those who were buried there, and there probably isn’t enough DNA in bones that old to connect them with certainty to any living person.  Without a doubt, though, they were New Yorkers, and it seems very right that there is a space in the heart of the civic center of the city to note and remember the role that they played.

African Burial Ground National Monument Museum The African Burial Ground is definitely not entertaining.  But it is important.  Every New Yorker and everyone with an interest in the city and its history should go and pay their respects.

For Reference:

Address 290 Broadway (Visitor Center) and corner of Duane and Elk Streets (National Monument), Manhattan
Cost  Free