A vertical tour brings you up close to the engineering of an old-school cathedral. The building is buttressed to support the weight of an enormous tower that was never built.
To balance that buttressing, there’s literally tons of lead above the ceiling vaults, pushing down and out as the buttresses push in.
Although I have rarely attended a service there, the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine has figured large in my life in New York City.
Shortly after I arrived as a freshman at Columbia, I attended an event at the Cathedral. The Dalai Lama spoke, as did the daughter of Desmond Tutu. I vividly remember it was right around Rosh Hashanah, and a group of monks offered a chant in honor of the High Holy Days. Tibetan Buddhist monks singing in honor of the Jewish new year in the largest Christian cathedral in the world. To this day, that stands as one of my quintessential New York experiences. Continue reading “Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine”
The library at King Manor houses beautiful, custom, glass-doored bookshelves and a library of 3,500 books.
I like that the museum put a statue of Rufus King there. I imagine it was his favorite room in the house.
Of all the historic houses in New York this is the only Manor. As in “Stately Wayne…” We have multiple “Houses” of course, a “Grange,” a “Birthplace,” and a “Mansion” or two. A “Homestead.” And now, a Manor.
Long Live the King
I now regret that I used “The King of Queens” in my review of Kingsland Homestead. Sea captain Joseph King was probably a fine guy, but Rufus King was far more deserving of the sobriquet.
Rufus King, owner of King Manor, served as a Major in the Continental Army, a friend to Alexander Hamilton, and a staunch abolitionist before that was fashionable. King contributed to the framing of the Constitution and signed it as a delegate from Massachusetts, his home state.
Washington wanted him in the Cabinet, but King demurred, and instead served in London as the American Ambassador to the Court of St. James. He reportedly got on well with King George III.
On his return to the States, family connections along with Hamilton persuaded him to move his household from Boston to bigger, badder New York City.
King decided that he wanted a country farm as well as a place in town, and that’s how he came to discover his house in Jamaica. He bought King Manor in 1803. King added substantially to the house he purchased, taking an asymmetrical Dutch farmhouse and making it at least faux-symmetrical, on trend with the then-current Federal style.
What with the renovations and expansion King’s family didn’t move in until 1806 or so. Hamilton was of course dead by then, so sadly never set foot in King Manor. However, King and Hamilton were so close that A.Ham was godfather to King’s eldest son.
The King family was also close with Archibald Gracie. Two King sons married two Gracie daughters. Moreover, for a short time, King held a mortgage on Gracie Mansion.
Mind Your Manors
I was the sole visitor on a random weekday afternoon. The volunteer minding the place was terrific, though, giving me a thorough and thoroughly interesting tour.
The tour takes you to the kitchen, decked out with a beautiful cast iron stove that dates from after Rufus’s day (his household cooked on an open hearth, which the stove tidily fills). Visitors also see the parlor, King’s library, and the dining room, which is complete with a trendy curved wall.
That graceful curved wall is just internal. It wouldn’t do to have a semicircular exterior wall breaking the house’s symmetry. There are two closets tucked into the odd spaces between the interior and exterior walls
King Manor doesn’t have much in the way of genuine King furnishings. It’s got some reproduction portraits. I wish it were more furnished than it is–even if the furniture is ersatz, it helps convey a sense of what life was like. It does have a genuinely old piano, and hosts concerts.
King Manor stayed in the King family until 1896, when Cornelia King, one of Rufus’s granddaughters, died. Soon thereafter the village of Jamaica bought the house and 11 acres of land to create King Park, preserving the building in its original location — a relative rarity in New York City.
Absent original fixtures and furnishings, the kitchen, parlor, and hall are given over to displays geared toward the school kids who constitute a massive proportion of visitors. Wall texts discuss Rufus King and his role in drafting the Constitution — and his opposition to the way that document basically punted on slavery, with the abolitionists among the Framers just sort of hoping it would go away on its own. One of King’s sons, John Alsop King, continued his father’s anti-slavery fight after his father died in 1827.
Another wall display discusses life in Jamaica when it was an independent village a long way from the towns of Brooklyn and Manhattan. My guide pointed out that Mr. and Mrs. King (and son John King) are buried in the churchyard of the Grace Episcopal Church just a few blocks away, so after departing King Manor I went to pay my respects.
Should you Visit the King Manor Museum?
King Manor fulfills its mandate really well. While I’m not saying “get thee to Jamaica!” if you like historic houses or founding fathers at all then you should unquestionably visit King Manor. It’s a beautiful old house, and the home of a person who turns out to be more interesting than I first expected.
My guide pointed out that King ran for president in 1816. Unsuccessfully, of course (we got Monroe instead). But not just unsuccessfully: King won only 34 electoral votes to Monroe’s 183, and put the final nail in the coffin of the Federalist party. My guide quizzed me: “In the history of the United States, two people from Jamaica have run for president. One was Rufus King. Do you know the other?” I thought a moment before suggesting, “The current president.” Yep.
His failure as a presidential candidate notwithstanding, King found many ways to serve his country during a time when his country was just being invented.
On the topic of slavery, Rufus King was ahead of his time. You can’t say that about all of his cohort. A visit to his home will acquaint you with someone who might be a B-list Founding Father, but who deserves better treatment from history, writers of hit Broadway musicals, and his adopted city.
King Park, 153rd Street and Jamaica Avenue, Jamaica, Queens
During World War II, Disney created character-driven U.S. war bonds to encourage the kiddies to contribute to the effort to “make life free and forever peaceful for all men.”
UPDATE APRIL 2021: The Museum of American Finance is closed as it seeks new space for its collection. It may reopen, but it won’t look much like it did in the pictures from this review.
I give the curators of the Museum of American Finance credit for chutzpah, anyway. In this day and age, a museum that lionizes financiers and the financial system seems tantamount to, I don’t know, a museum of baby harp seal clubbers.
That said, if you’re going to have a museum (or, as they style it, a MU$EUM) of American finance, there can be no better place for it than Wall Street. And no better place on Wall Street than in the Bank of New York’s former Grand Mezzanine.
The 1927 Bank of New York Building, at Wall and William Streets, is the third on the site. The original Bank of New York in that spot dates to 1796, about a decade after Alexander Hamilton and a coterie of America’s other financial founding fathers started it.
The Museum of American Finance was founded by a banker named John Herzog in the wake of the 1987 stock market crash. Herzog started his “museum project” (touché!) to create an institution to explain how the financial system worked. He reckoned that although Wall Street is synonymous with finance, most folks don’t really know what goes on there outside of movies. Continue reading “Museum of American Finance”
75 minutes, including time spent walking around in Fort Hamilton
Best thing I saw or learned
The Pattern 1844, 24-Pounder Flank Howitzer. In 1864, the Army deployed eight of these to defend Fort Hamilton. The base installed two in the caponier, ready to mow down any unfortunate infantry that tried to attack it.
Getting to the Harbor Defense Museum requires a bit of doing and determination. First because it sometimes keeps odd hours–definitely call before you go and make sure someone’s manning the fort (literally).
Second, because it is located in Brooklyn in the shadow of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. By subway, it’s at the farthest end of the R train. Its sister fort, Fort Wadsworth, situated across the Narrows in Staten Island, is run by the National Park Service.
And third, because uniquely among New York City museums, the Harbor Defense Museum stands within Fort Hamilton, New York City’s sole remaining active army base.
John Singer Sargent’s “Gassed,” 1919, a monumental oil painting on loan for the WWI show from the Imperial War Museum, London. It’s a Sargent, so it’s as civilized and genteel as war gets. But at the same time, it’s a far cry from the fancy society folks I’m used to from him.
The New-York Historical Society came into being in 1804, making it (according to itself) the oldest museum in the city. Its recent evolution presents a case study of a dusty old institution retooling itself for the social media age. Over the past decade or so a series of renovations turned it from the somewhat hermetic, academic attic of the city into a bright, airy, less-dense institution. Bronze statues of Abe Lincoln and Frederick Douglass welcome you outside the front doors, and that unexpected, slightly eccentric vibe continues within.
Of the many things I like about the Historical Society, I sometimes think my favorite thing is the hyphen between “New” and “York.” Nowhere else bothers with that anymore. However, without it visitors might think that they are visiting the new historical society of York, England. I bet that happened a lot in the 19th century. It’s really thoughtful. I shall feel quite cross if they ever drop it and rebrand as the Newyork Historical Society. Continue reading “New-York Historical Society”
The 1883 commemorative china for the Sons of the Revolution’s Turtle Soup Feast marking the 100th anniversary of Washington’s farewell to his officers. Cute turtle.
Fraunces Tavern started out as a private home in 1719, then opened for business as a drinking establishment in the 1760s. It served as the venue for two important events:
The governor of New York, George Clinton, held a public dinner there to celebrate the withdrawal of the British from New York (and the rest of the colonies), an event known as Evacuation Day. Evacuation Day (25 November) used to be a major New York holiday, though it’s mostly forgotten now, except by the Sons of the Revolution (about whom more anon).
After the war, General Washington gathered some of his staff in one of the private dining rooms to retire and say farewell to them. This was before the U.S. was the U.S., before the Constitution and before the country decided it needed a president (and what a fine idea that has turned out to be), and so before Washington knew he’d have another major role to play for his country.
In 1921, Christopher Robin Milne received a stuffed bear (of very little brain) for his first birthday. Other stuffed animals joined his menagerie, inspiring his father to write stories about them. Amid the sum of human knowledge, the Library keeps Christopher Robin’s friends safe for generations of kids to come.
The Croton Distributing Reservoir stands out as a stunning architectural and engineering accomplishment, even on an island with no shortage of them. Two city blocks long, it stretches from 40th to 42nd Streets, and halfway from Fifth to Sixth Avenue. Built in an eccentric, Egyptian Revival style, it features walls fifty feet tall, and the zillions of gallons it holds help ensure a somewhat safe drinking water supply for Manhattan. The promenade along the top provides unmatched vistas of the Crystal Palace, nearby Longacre Square, and indeed, stretch all the way to Long Island Sound and New Jersey, making it a huge attraction for New Yorkers and visitors alike.
Wait, what? They tore it down? In 1900? I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.
Whenever I visit the New York Public Library’s spectacular main branch, I always stop and imagine the imposing ramparts of the old distributing reservoir, which stood on its location from 1842 until 1900. There’s still a reservoir on the site, it’s just that now it stores and safeguards the sum total of knowledge of humankind. Continue reading “New York Public Library (Stephen A. Schwarzman Building)”
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.
A pair of Christian Louboutin boots laboriously decorated with antique glass beads by Jamie Okuma, of the Louiseño and Shoshone-Bannock tribes.
The 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.
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.
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.
Indeed, 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 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.
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.
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.
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.