Roosevelt House


Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 88 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned
Roosevelt House, Hunter College
Happy Days Are Here Again Set

This 1934 pitcher and mug set featuring caricatures of FDR and other Democrats, created by the Stangl Pottery Company following the repeal of prohibition. Cheers!Roosevelt House, Hunter College

Roosevelt House on East 65th Street is Hunter College’s public policy institute.  Lots of schools name places after people who gave them money or famous alums (or both!) so you might just think, “Oh the Roosevelts bought naming rights back in the day.”  Or, I mean, it’s Roosevelt, why not name something policy-related after any or all of them?  But all those hypotheses are wrong!

Roosevelt House, Hunter CollegeFor nearly a quarter of a century FDR and Eleanor lived there as their place in New York City.  Actually it’s two houses designed to look like one from the outside. Franklin and Eleanor lived to the right, while FDR’s mom lived to the left.  While few historic furnishings remain, the house’s internal fabric is similar enough that you can get a sense of the space the Roosevelts occupied. And it’s open for public tours on Saturdays.  

For some reason, Hunter keeps this quiet. I stumbled on to the place late; it was not on my initial list of museums.  I think this is the most under-the-radar historic house museum in Manhattan.  And I’ve been to all of them.  At least, I think I have.

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in New York City

When Franklin and Eleanor married in 1905, Sara Delano Roosevelt, FDR’s mom, gave them a drawing of a townhouse as a wedding gift.  It took a while to deliver on the real-world equivalent, and it’s unclear whether she specified she’d be their extremely close neighbor.  But still, pretty neat wedding present.

The Roosevelts moved into the Charles Platt-designed house in 1908.  They already had Anna and James, and had a further three surviving children while living there.  The house feels big by New York standards, though small by modern McMansion ones.  And maybe not so big for a family of 7 plus assorted staff.

Each of the paired houses featured a teensy elevator, installed mainly for staff use initially. They turned out to be extremely important once FDR contracted polio in 1921.  His wheelchair, designed to be as small and discreet as possible, could fit.

Roosevelt House, Hunter College

The Roosevelts’ library is still a library today, and contains an array of interesting Rooseveltiana, including a complete set of travel guides published by a Works Progress Administration program to provide work for unemployed writers.  Today, I guess, the government would just give ’em a blog.

Roosevelt House, Hunter College
WPA Guides

Among other historic events, the Roosevelts were living in the house when FDR won the presidency in 1932.  FDR’s first radio address to the nation (also recorded for newsreel distribution by Fox Movietone News, which I can’t help but find ironic) was broadcast from the drawing room.

The House and Hunter

Roosevelt House, Hunter College
Sara over the fireplace, flanked by FDR and Eleanor

Franklin and Eleanor were living in the White House when Sara Delano Roosevelt died in 1941. By that point, it seemed unlikely that their path would take them back to NYC, and so they decided to put the house/houses on the market.  Hunter approached the family with an offer, and, generously, the Roosevelts both cut their asking price and donated some money to the school.  In exchange, the house was named the “Sara Delano Roosevelt Memorial House for Religious and Racial Tolerance.”

Hunter used the house primarily as a student center,  filling a vital need to build community in what was then an all-girl school that specialized in training teachers.

As a part of a not-very-wealthy academic institution, the house was hard used and ill repaired.  Eventually in the 1990s the school had to close it; conditions inside were becoming downright dangerous.

Fortunately, Hunter admins and donors realized the importance of the house to the college, the city, and the country. The school raised nearly $20 million for a lengthy rehab.  The restoration was bad in terms of the historicity of the place, permanently merging the two houses into a single space.  But it was good in the sense that we might otherwise have lost the house entirely. As happened with Teddy Roosevelt’s torn down then rebuilt birthplace.

Roosevelt House, Hunter College
Sara Roosevelt’s Former Bedroom, now Seminar Room.

Should You Visit Roosevelt House?

Roosevelt House, Hunter CollegeToday if anyone thinks of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s residence at all, they likely think of Hyde Park, the estate north of New York that houses FDR’s presidential library.  That’s absolutely worth a visit; Roosevelt House in Manhattan pales by comparison.

But Hunter’s public policy institute was the Roosevelts’ city home as they were growing their family; as Franklin suffered and recovered from polio; and as FDR and Eleanor plotted out the beginnings of a political career that would lead to arguably America’s greatest presidency.

So what if they don’t have the sofas or the lamps or the bric-a-brac.  They have the place, and places matter.  The guided tour was terrific, too.  Rachel, a doctoral student when not guiding people around Roosevelt House,  told the story with wit, warmth, and intellect, augmented by photos and videos in the various rooms to help bring the Roosevelts back to life.

If you’re at all interested in 20th century American history, presidential lives and times, or how wealthy New Yorkers lived in the early 1900s, Roosevelt House is well worth a visit.

For Reference:

Address  47-49 East 65th Street, Manhattan
Cost  General Admission:  $10 suggested donation


Hunter College Art Galleries

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent
  • 205 Hudson: 21 minutes
  • Leubsdorf: 12 minutes
  • East Harlem: 17 minutes
  • Artist’s Institute: 3 minutes

Total: 53 minutes

Best thing I saw or learned At 205 Hudson, Dario Robelto’s “I Miss Everyone Who Has Ever Gone Away,” 1997 recreated 2007. 

Hunter College Art Galleries

Little airplanes folded from the wrappers of candies from Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s famous candy-pile artworks memorializing AIDS victims.  It’s artistic appropriation in the most unexpected and literal way.

I discovered early in this project that just about every college in New York City has some kind of public art gallery or museum. Some are extremely impressive, like NYU’s Grey Art Gallery. A few have a specific focus, like the Fordham Museum of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Art. And some of them are surprisingly impressive and hard to get to, like the Lehman College Art Gallery and the Godwin-Ternbach Museum at Queens College.

Hunter College boasts not one but four art venues, collectively the “Hunter College Art Galleries.” If this were earlier in my museum expedition, I probably would write about each of them separately. At this stage, though, I crave variety in my write-ups, to say nothing of efficiency. And Hunter itself thinks of them in the collective. So my review covers all four spaces in one. It gets four dots on the map, though. Continue reading “Hunter College Art Galleries”

Neue Galerie

Edification value  4/5
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 101 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Café Sabarsky comes as close as possible to a trip to Vienna while remaining in New York City.  If the whole café seems too broad for a “best thing,” I will call out the cake display specifically.

Cafe Sabarsky at the Neue Galerie, New York

Should I recommend a museum just because I love its café?  Sure, why not.

Cafe Sabarsky, Neue Galerie, New York
Sacher Torte and Wiener Mélange

And Café Sabarsky is wonderful, unique, and an important part of the overall experience of a museum whose mission is to transport visitors to a specific time and place, in this case Austria-Hungary at the dawn of the 20th century. Continue reading “Neue Galerie”

Americas Society

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  2/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 25 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned
Leonilson at Americas Society
Leonilson, “Leo não consegue mudar o mundo,” [Leo Can’t Change the World”] paint on unstretched canvas, 1989
“Leo Can’t Change the World” stood out to me. The color, the way the canvas hangs like a flag on the wall, and of course the heart in the middle of it, flanked by the words “solitary” and “nonconformist.”

Americas SocietyThe Americas Society occupies a handsome neocolonial brick mansion on Park Avenue, designed in 1909 by McKim, Mead, & White.  It was a private residence through the 1940s, then the home of the Soviet Mission to the UN from 1946 until 1965. Which is an interesting claim to fame; I wonder if they still find CIA bugs in the walls from time to time.

You don’t see much of the house when you visit the museum, which is unfortunate as it sounds pretty spectacular. The America Society’s small gallery space fills three windowless rooms on the ground floor, currently accented in rich shades of blue and green, and preserving some classy travertine framing on the doorways. Continue reading “Americas Society”

Guggenheim Museum

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 92 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned
Joseph Cornell, Guggenheim Museum
Joseph Cornell, “Setting for a Fairy Tale,” 1942, and Untitled (Fortune Telling Parrot for Carmen Miranda), ca. 1939.

I’ll always pick Joseph Cornell’s achingly lovely, idiosyncratic boxes, wherever I happen to find them.

I despise the Guggenheim Museum. It sucks and you shouldn’t go there.

Guggenheim Museum

The brevity of those two sentences would make for a welcome break from my normal museum review, but my highly contrarian feelings toward the Guggenheim require justification. Let’s start with the building itself, and then move on to what’s inside. Continue reading “Guggenheim Museum”

Asia Society Museum

Edification value  2/5
Entertainment value  2/5
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 68 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned I loved a small room entirely filled with Anila Quayyum Agha’s “Crossing Boundaries,” a cubical, laser-cut steel sculpture from 2015 that cast amazing shadows on the walls, floor and ceiling. Immersive, serene, and beautiful, and none of my photos do it justice. (See link to her site at the end of this review.)

Asia Society, New YorkIn terms of attempting to cover an enormous mandate in an undersized area, the Asia Society Museum wins the prize for New York City museum with the most chutzpah.

In two modest floors of gallery space, it aims to present the world’s largest landmass, home to a population of billions and myriads of diverse cultures.  Call it “Asia” or “the Orient,” either way the label lumps together people who  have  nothing in common aside from location in a place that Europeans for centuries defined as “that exotic place that’s not here.”

The Asia Society Museum doesn’t succeed.  Moreover, it can’t succeed.  Well, it can.  The Met will give you a great overview of the arts and cultures of China, Japan, Korea, India, the Himalayan cultures of Tibet and Nepal, the Islamic world, Southeast Asia, and Oceania. But you need an institution the size and scope of The Met to do that under one roof. Continue reading “Asia Society Museum”

Met Breuer

Edification value  4/5
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 62 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned
Studio Job Chartres Cabinet, Met Breuer
Studio Job, “Chartres,” 2009-2012, Bronze, 24K gold leaf

This is the best, or at least weirdest, cabinet I have ever seen. Probably the most Gothic.  And the least practical. An entire cathedral, tipped on its side!  No putting that against the wall, that’s for sure.

Studio Job, Chartres Cabinet, Met Breuer

UPDATE APRIL 2021: The Met has pulled the plug on its Breuer experiment, reducing its New York City empire to the classic mothership and The Cloisters. I liked what it was doing in the Breuer building, but the silver lining is the Frick is now playing in that space.

Met Breuer
Art Fortress

The first thing you should know about my take on the Met Breuer, housed in the former home of the Whitney Museum of American Art, is I really really really dislike the building.  The iconic, Brutalist, Marcel Breuer art fortress says to me very loudly and in no uncertain terms, “Don’t come in here. You are not welcome.” It looms over the sidewalk.  It has one big wonky window like Polyphemus’s eye.  That’s it.  It’s a Cyclopean building.  A monster.  Hide under a sheepskin on your way out or it’ll devour you.

You have to cross a narrow bridge over a crevasse to get in, upping the feeling of peril. Then once you’re in the lobby, the harsh concrete and spotlight-y lights feel like some kind of an art world police state, with you as the object of interrogation.  “Admit it!  Talk!  You like MONET.  Confess and maybe we’ll go easy on ya.”

Met Breuer Lobby

One of the reasons I love the Whitney so much today is simply that it’s no longer in this building.

So, I have a bias.

The second thing you should know is, according to the Met, the architect’s name is pronounced BROY-er, not brewer.  Just in case you wondered.

With the Whitney’s move to the Meatpacking District, naturally questions arose as to what to do with the Madison Avenue fortress.  Fortunately (maybe?) the Met stepped in and leased it, making it the Met’s second satellite location after The Cloisters.  Otherwise they probably would’ve turned it into an H&M or a fancy food hall or something.

Thus far, the Met has used the Breuer building to…well, to let its institutional hair down a bit, it seems.  None of the permanent collection has moved.  Rather, it  leverages the space for special exhibitions. They tend to the modern or contemporary, which is good given the space. And yet, the Met’s also done some fairly fascinating surveys, leveraging the strength of its encyclopedic collection but doing things they might not want to do, or even be able to do, in any of the spaces in the mother ship on Fifth Avenue.

When I visited, one show consisted of four video installations, which were okay.  Certainly video works well in the cavelike Breuer space.

Ettore Sottsass, Design Maverick

The other show, on the designer Ettore Sottsass, exemplifies what I mean about letting the Met go a little bonkers installation-wise.

Sottsass first found fame designing an iconic Olivetti portable manual typewriter, in super-sexy lipstick red, with a case that could double as a waste-paper basket.  It’s adorable and brilliant, and the Met shows it off alongside other modern designs meant to be cheap and cheerful, like a One Laptop Per Child laptop.

But on top of that, they introduce it with a…colorful quote from Sottsass.  I have been visiting the Met for over 20 years, and I really don’t think I’ve ever seen that word in a wall text there before, much less in big type as a key quote.

Olivetti Typewriter, Ettore Sottsass Exhibit, Met Breuer, New York
Sottsass, a man of strong opinions

Ettore Sottsass, Met Breuer

Sottsass had a long career designing things of all types, including the outdoor furniture that uses classical capitals and columns in the photo above.  This also provides a typical view of Met Breuer gallery space, with its slate floors and the waffle iron ceiling.

Ettore Sottsass also went on to found the short-lived, exuberant, 1980s “Memphis” design movement, exemplified by his wacky, colorful room divider here. 

Ettore Sottsass, Met Breuer, New York

Creativity Unleashed

Cleverly, the Met juxtaposed some chunky Memphis jewelry with 4,000 year old Egyptian pieces (that looked really good by comparison).  They did things like that throughout.  Sottsass designed some glass art pieces he called “Kachinas,” and the Met displayed them next to Hopi dolls from its collection.  They displayed some of Sotsass’s nifty, colorful, tall, ceramic towers with a Frank Lloyd Wright architectural model, some Shiva Lingam, and a Chinese jade Neolithic ritual object.  Throughout the show, these sorts of unexpected pairings helped illuminate Sottsass’s work, providing a look at objects that might have inspired him, or at least creating a novel context for his pieces.  I really enjoyed it.

Creative combinations of works in a dialogue across thousands of years and diverse cultures is something places like the Brooklyn Museum have been trying for some time, not always successfully.  The Met seems to be using the Breuer to experiment with that approach to curating a show.  And I think they’re doing it really well so far.

My Bottom Line on the Met Breuer

So what’s my bottom line on the Met Breuer?  I’m not going to say everyone should drop everything and go.  The building might be interesting, but I still don’t think it’s a welcoming or pleasant place to see art.  But I can’t deny the creativity that’s going into the Met’s programming at the Met Breuer.  The staff has done some tremendous shows there so far, full of…spirit.  If having the Breuer lets them think about their collection in novel ways, and tell new stories about art, I value that highly.  Hopefully some of the Met Breuer spirit will eventually find outlets in the Fifth Avenue HQ, too.

Met Breuer Exterior

For Reference:

Address 945 Madison Avenue,  (at East 75th Street) Manhattan
Cost  General Admission:  $25 (Suggested)


Bernard Museum of Judaica at Temple Emanu-El

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 38 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned From a 2007 exhibit on Jewish cemeteries, I learned that they are sometimes called Beit Hayyim in Hebrew, House of Life.  More than just a euphemism, it affirms ties between the living and the dead, and an eternal existence to come.

Hans Beyer Photograph, Bernard Museum
Hans D. Beyer, “Interior of the Schmidl Family Vault,” Budapest, Hungary, 2006

I loved this photograph of the Schmidl family vault in Budapest.  An art nouveau extravaganza from 1904, covered in mosaics, I’d like to see it in person someday.

Temple Emanu-El, New York CityTemple Emanu-El is a beautiful, imposing synagogue, one of several great houses of worship on the green stretch of Fifth Avenue opposite Central Park. The temple itself is shut tight like a fortress between services,  However, if you go around to a side entrance on East 65th Street and ask the guard, you can visit the Herbert & Eileen Bernard Museum, which hosts temporary exhibits on various aspects of Jewish life, faith, and culture.

The museum occupies three smallish rooms on the second floor. A life-sized, somewhat cartoony Golda Meir sculpture currently greets you at the door.  She seems nice, though somewhat off-putting, like the Jewish museological equivalent of the fiberglass Ronald McDonalds that help to dissuade me from ever eating chicken mcnuggets. Continue reading “Bernard Museum of Judaica at Temple Emanu-El”

Jewish Museum

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent  140 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Florine Stettheimer’s marvelous “Heat” from 1919.  Summer languor distilled into color.

Florine Stettheimer, "Heat," 1919

Entrance, Jewish Museum, New YorkThe first time I visited the Jewish Museum, in July of 2017, it was in the midst of re-installing its permanent collection, taking a floor and a substantial part of the reason to visit offline. I had doubts concerning the temporary shows on at the time— odd curatorial decisions, highly esoteric subject matter and general kitschiness all nudged me away from strongly recommending the museum.

I’ve now been back to see the new permanent galleries, and I’m happy to say that in a rare re-review of a place, the permanent collection hugely and positively changes my impression of the place. As a result, I’m updating my review and my summary rating (it was formerly all 3s). Continue reading “Jewish Museum”

Park Avenue Armory

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 43 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned The surveillance show undermines its cautionary purpose by outlining a lot of frankly very silly spying technologies developed over the years.  The CIA apparently spent $15m trying to surgically wire a feline for sound, to approach and unobtrusively listen to conversations.  Sadly, “Acoustic Kitty” failed by being run over by a taxi on its first test deployment.  Truly cat-astrophic.

Park Avenue ArmoryThere were once 49 armories and arsenals in the Naked City (according to Wikipedia).  Today 24 remain. One of the survivors now serves as a leading-edge arts and performance space.  This is that one.

What’s an Armory anyway?

As the city grew, open air parade and training grounds for the militia (what we now call the National Guard) became increasingly scarce.  So the government built a slew of armories and arsenals starting in the early 1800s and extending through to the early 1900s.  These buildings often looked like castles or fortresses, and could take up their entire city block.  Some of them included vast, open, interior spaces for practicing bayoneting and such. 

Each military company used its armory as a sort of clubhouse, too, and so they became encrusted with awards, portraits, and other memorials to great men who served.  Nowadays some armories remain in active use, but many have been decommissioned.  The Park Avenue Armory, completed in 1888, served as the home to the Seventh Regiment.  Adopted by a nonprofit, it underwent a massive restoration that continues to today, room by room, opening to the public in its new role in 2007.

Awards, Park Avenue Armory
Assorted Regimental Awards

A Castle for Art

Today the Park Avenue Armory is a fortress for the arts, both visual and performing.  Many of the ground floor ceremonial rooms are open, and they contain wonders — ancient silver trophies, beautiful decoration and light fixtures.  They are glorious feats of interior design, featuring Tiffany and virtually all the other great designers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Park Avenue Armory, NYC

And then there’s the Drill Hall.  It’s an amazing space — 55,000 square feet with not a column in sight — to have at the disposal of art.  But at the same time, it must be daunting as an artist to get commissioned to do something there.  I read that once about the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern–it’s hard to do justice to the space.  Just so with the Park Avenue Armory.

Just by way of comparison:

  • The Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London measures 500×75 feet, so 37,500 sq. feet, and it rises to a height of 115 feet. 
  • The Drill Hall at the Armory is shorter, with “only” an 85-foot ceiling, but much larger in area, measuring 55,000 square feet. 
  • And just to round out the size-off, Grand Central’s main hall measures 33,000 square feet, with a 125-foot ceiling.  Bottom line, the Drill Hall is BIG.

Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel at Park Avenue Armory
Me, Surveiled

The current Park Avenue Armory show, called “Hansel and Gretel,” typifies the difficulties of filling the space.  Ai Wei Wei along with architects Jacques Hertzog and Pierre de Meuron collaborated on a commentary on the surveillance state.  They did so via a complex technological deployment whereby visitors wander around in a very dark Drill Hall, while drones whir overhead (on tethers so they can’t decapitate anyone if they malfunction), and infrared cameras capture images of visitors which they then project onto the floor of the hall in real time.  You see photos of yourself, in grainy black and white, with red boxes picking out your appendages and such.

It’s…interesting?  But there’s no reason for it to be in the Armory, as opposed to a much smaller place.  I felt lost, wandering in the dark, waiting for something more exciting to happen.  And the darkness defeats the Drill Hall’s grandeur, the whole point of going there.

Park Avenue Armory
Majestic Drill Hall, Park Avenue Armory, in the dark

Caveat:  Perhaps the experience is more compelling when the Drill Hall is full of people.  I went on a weekday afternoon and it was quite sparse.

Following the wander in the dark, visitors then enter the smaller historic rooms where they have a gift shop, a tiny snack bar, and a bunch of tablets that tell more about the history of state surveillance, drone strikes, etc.  Which you can do at home, for free, here.

Bottom Line

I’m happy that I’m reviewing the Armory itself and not the Hansel and Gretel installation (my review: skip it!).  Everyone should visit the Armory.  The restored meeting and administration rooms positively glow.  If you can take a guided tour of the building I heartily recommend that.  And whatever they fill it with, assuming the lights are on the Drill Hall will take your breath away.

Park Avenue Armory, NYC

Wandering through these historic, once-dusty rooms, I imagine the era when our municipal and national security depended on forts along the waterfront and arsenals inland. When the worst we had to worry about were invading naval fleets or anarchist insurrections.  I don’t want to sugar coat other problems of the past, and I would never downplay the threat of anarchists.  But from the perspective of security (and surveillance, too), I envy those simpler, more innocent times.

For Reference:

Address 643 Park Avenue, Manhattan
Cost  General Admission:  $15 (exhibit) and $15 (building tour)
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