I visited Boston by accident. It was a wedding (second cousin, once removed). On a cold December day between Christmas and the New Year, before the nuptial celebrations commenced, I found myself with some time to kill in this historic New England city. So I figured I would use the opportunity to walk the Freedom Trail.
The Freedom Trail is a walking path linking several historic sites in the city of Boston. Most of these have something to do with our Revolutionary War. In the 1770s, Boston was hotbed of rebellious fervor. John Hancock, Paul Revere, and Sam Adams, early advocates for independence, lived here, as did Sam’s more moderate second cousin John. So it was here that the growing dissatisfaction with British rule first spilled out into conflict and bloodshed. This history can be followed as it unfolds along the Freedom Trail.
The path begins in Boston Common. This is a park in the center of the city, which holds the distinction for being the oldest public park in the country, as it was opened in 1634. When I visited it was a cold and dreary day, which makes it difficult to judge the park’s comeliness. But overlooking the Common is the Massachusetts State House, a very attractive building designed in the Federal style by Charles Bulfinch, which houses both the governor’s offices and the state legislature.
Standing before this building, on the outer edge of the Boston Common, is the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial. Shaw, as you may know, was the white colonel who led the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment during the Civil War, which was composed of free black soldiers. Allowing black people to serve in the military was considered a radical step at the time; but it also was a kind of symbolic victory over the southerners who were fighting to preserve slavery.
The monument itself was a sensation: its opening was attended by the philosopher William James, the sociologist W.E.B. DuBois, and the educator Booker T. Washington, among other notables. And while the monument did attract criticism during the George Floyd protests—for it portrays the white commander above and in front of his black troops—I think that it was actually radical in its own day. It depicts the black soldiers as dignified, powerful, and fully individual. One need only compare this monument to the Emancipation Memorial (recently removed) in Boston, which shows a black man crouching beneath Lincoln. The soldiers in the Shaw Memorial do not kneel, but march resolutely.
Continuing along the trail, we immediately come upon the Park Street Church, a very attractive place of worship built in the first years of our Republic. Nextdoor is the Granary Burying Ground, so named because a granary used to occupy the space where the church now stands. The visitor enters through a mock-Egyptian gate into what is the third-oldest cemetery in Boston (founded in 1660). Quite a few heroes of the American Revolution are buried here. There is Samuel Adams (1722 – 1803), the aforementioned firebrand who helped to spark our rebellious spirit, as well as Paul Revere (1734 – 1818) of Midnight Ride fame. Aside from Adams, two more signers of the Declaration of Independence are in attendance: Robert Treat Paine (little remembered these days) and the man whose name survived in his oversized signature, John Hancock (1737 – 1793).
But that is not all. All five victims of the Boston Massacre are buried here. To recount the event dispassionately: An inflamed mob started to throw stones and other things at a garrison of British Soldiers, one of whom fired without orders, causing his comrades to follow suit. Five Americans died from the gunshots. John Adams, who was simply a lawyer at the time, took it upon himself to defend the British soldiers in court, and for the most part succeeded. But the massacre was a decisive step on the road to revolution, as it mustered colonial support more effectively than any speech could. As it turns out, citizens tend to be upset when the forces meant to protect them instead shoot them dead.
The next stop on the trail is another church and burying ground. King’s Chapel is a lovely stone church designed by Peter Harrison, one of the first trained architects to work in the American colonies. Next door is the King’s Chapel Burying Ground, which actually predates the church by over a century, as it is the oldest cemetery in all of Boston (established in 1630). The cemetery does not contain as many famous bodies as the Granary Burying Ground, but some names stand out for comment. Mary Chilton (1607 – 1679), supposedly the first woman to step foot in New England from the Mayflower, was laid to rest here, as was John Winthrope (1587 – 1649), the third governor of the Massachusetts colony. But most consequential may be Frederic Tudor, the so-called “Ice King,” who made a business cutting and shipping blocks of ice from the frigid ponds of Massachusetts. This was both a major innovation and an inspiration for the refrigeration that all of us now take for granted.
The next stop, just down the street, is the old site of the Boston Latin School. This is a venerable institution of public education—indeed, the oldest public school in the United States. And it is still active, though it has since moved to more ample accommodations than the little building that once stood here. Its presence is marked by an elaborate plaque in the ground. Nearby is a statue of the school’s most famous dropout: Benjamin Franklin. The portly and balding Franklin is honored beside perhaps the most famous mayor of Boston, Josiah Quincy III, whose namesake is the Quincy Market in central Boston. These two eminent men stand before the Old City Hall—serving that purpose from 1865 to 1969—a lovely old relic built in the French Second Empire style
Continuing down the street, we reach the Old Corner Bookstore. This is an attractive brick building, built in 1718 to be used as an apothecary shop with an attached residence. The place became a bookstore in 1828; and shortly thereafter, starting from 1832 and on to 1865, it was used by Ticknor and Fields, a publishing company. Though long forgotten, Ticknor and Fields published some of the most significant American writers of the day, including Emerson, Hawthorne, and Longfellow. They even published Dickens’s books in the United States. As a result, this humble building came to be a meeting place for men (and women) of letters. Unfortunately, after such an illustrious history, this noble edifice is now the home of a Chipotle restaurant. Meaning no offense to big burrito lovers, I will venture to say that this building deserves better.
Right nearby is the Boston Irish Famine Memorial. This is a group of statues—two families of three—that contrasted the lives of those who left Ireland and those who remained. The family that emigrated is shown happy and healthy, while the family stuck in Ireland is on the verge of death. While the artistic merits of the memorial are not beyond dispute, it is certainly right to have a monument to the Irish in Boston, as the city was dramatically shaped by the influx of Irish in the 19th century. Indeed, Boston reminded me of no city more strongly than Dublin—its brick architecture, tight and chaotic streets, and dour atmosphere. At a glance, one could easily mistake historic Boston for the capital of Ireland.
Next on the trail is the Old South Meeting House. This is a plain but elegant brick Congregational church, with a tall white wooden spite—a typical New England aesthetic. The whitewashed interior is filled with boxes of pews, arranged like an enormous maze. This church is not notable for its aesthetic, however, but for its role in the Revolutionary War. After the Boston Massacre of 1770, annual memorials were held here, complete with fiery rebellious rhetoric. Then, in 1773, thousands of irate colonists met here to discuss the much-hated Tea Act, a tax on imported tea. From here, everyone knows the story: A group of a few dozen colonists—some dressed as Native Americans—raided three English merchant vessels in the harbor, and chucked all the tea overboard. This was the Boston Tea Party
Soon we come to the Old State House. And here, the contrast between the old and the new Boston is quite apparent, as this erstwhile commanding structure is now completely dwarfed by the buildings and skyscrapers all around it, in what is now the financial district. But the building is still attractive and graceful. As the name suggests, this building served as the original Massachusetts State House, before it was replaced by the current one (described above). Indeed, built in 1713, the Old State House was used for government affairs long before independence, making it one of the oldest public buildings in the country. Nowadays it is the home to a museum; but I admit the entry fee put me off, and I only browsed the gift shop—filled with the expected touristy stuff. Notably, the museum has a vial containing some tea from the Boston Tea Party, snuck into a raider’s boot. The site of the Boston Massacre is commemorated nearby, in the form of a stone circle.
Now we enter Government Center, the part of town where we can find the modern City Hall. Unfortunately, this enormous hunk of brutal concrete compares quite unfavorably with the pretty constructions we have seen so far. Apparently gaining our independence did not advance our taste. The contrast is immediate when we turn our attention to our next stop, yet another big brick building with a white spire: Faneuil Hall. This building served as both meeting house and marketplace in colonial Boston. Firebrands like Samuel Adams gave seditious speeches in the building’s Great Hall, a task for which he is now commemorated with a nearby statue. Faneuil Hall owes its name to a slave trader, who sponsored the project with his ill-gotten gains. Slaves were even sold here. But that original building mostly burned down in 1761, passing along its name to the current edifice. So far, activists have not succeeded in changing its appellation.
The building’s Great Hall—an enormous auditorium filled with wooden chairs—is now decorated with portraits, paintings, and other sorts of patriotic paraphernalia. It is still used for meetings, organizing, and ceremonies. “Faneuil Hall” is not only used to refer to this building, however, but sometimes to this entire area, a hub of nightlife and a great place to grab a bite to eat. This is partly because the old marketplace has been supplemented by the enormous Quincy Market, named for the Quincy mayor we met earlier. This is a long, open building filled with food stalls and a fair share of touristy junk. I enjoyed walking through the busy space, as it at least provided some respite from the cold.
From Government Center, we now walk to North End, the oldest residential neighborhood in the city. As you will probably notice, this area became popular with Italian immigrants, resulting in the plentiful restaurants serving pizza and pasta. More relevant to the Freedom Trail, this neighborhood is also home to Paul Revere’s House. The house actually predates the famous revolutionary by quite a lot: built in 1680, the house was not bought by Revere until 1770. Though the three-storey, timber house does not look like much to the modern eye, at the time it was both spacious and luxurious, befitting Revere’s status as a prosperous silversmith (there are examples of his work inside). Sold by Revere, and subject to the whims of the market—among other things, it was used as a shop and a tenement—the property was eventually bought by Revere’s grandson, who began the process of restoring it and turning it into a museum. Nowadays, one must pay to enter. Freedom has its price, after all.
Onward, we reach the Old North Church. Once again, we are confronted with a big brick church with a white spire, whose whitewashed interior is filled with wooden boxes for pews. But perhaps the Old North Church does deserve credit for originality, as it is the oldest extant church in Boston. The competition is close: built in 1723, the Old North Church beats the Old South Meeting House by six years. This church was where the iconic lanterns of Paul Revere’s ride—one if by land, two if by sea—were so briefly hung, in order to warn the colonial militia of the approach of the British Army. Revere himself rode his horse to deliver the message to the troops waiting in Lexington and Concord, though he almost certainly was not shouting “The British are coming!” as that would have blown his cover. As it was, Revere was still arrested by the British, and very nearly executed. His patriotic messenger service is now commemorated by a statue of the man on horseback.
Now we come to yet another cemetery, the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground. As its name suggests, this is situated on a slight hill, giving the visitor a decent view of the River Charles. Founded in 1659, Copp’s Hill is the second oldest cemetery in Boston (29 years after King’s Chapel, but one year before the Granary), and it has its fair share of venerated bodies. Paul Revere’s less-famous fellow rider, Robert Newman, is interred here, as is the poet Philis Wheatley, the first African American woman to be published. But Copp’s Hill is more appealing simply for its landscaping, providing a much-needed relief to the crowded stone and brick streets of Boston. I consider myself something of a connoisseur of cemeteries, and Copp’s Hill is a fine one.
We have a bit of a walk now, as the next stop on the Freedom Trail is across the Charles River. This means walking across the North Washington Street Bridge, which connects North End with the Charleston neighborhood. It would be an exaggeration to say that the bridge is a beautiful piece of engineering, or that the view from the bridge is quite breathtakingly beautiful—especially on a cold, windy, drizzly December day—but I still managed to enjoy the walk. Once across, you turn right towards the wharf, where you may spot the top mast of the next stop in the distance: the USS Constitution.
Now, as it happened, I was visiting Boston during the 2018-19 government shutdown. As a result, the museum attached to this historic war vessel was not open. Visitors were, instead, hastily ushered through metal detectors onto the dock by military personnel (presumably working without pay). In any case, I was able to climb aboard the old ironside and enjoy the charm of an antique vessel. The history of this ship takes us back to the very beginnings of our nation, as it was one of the first six commissioned by the new United States government. Indeed, the Constitution is now the oldest commissioned naval vessel that is still seaworthy. The frigate—equipped with 50 canons—saw significant action during the war of 1812, when it overcame five British warships. This earned the boat legendary status, and it has been kept in good working order ever since. In fact, the boat still has its own 60-person navy crew.
After taking in my fill of the winds and waves, I made my way to the last stop on the Freedom Trail: the Bunker Hill Monument. As you may know, the Battle of Bunker Hill was one of the first and most important of the Revolutionary War. Though the British succeeded in driving the colonial militia from their positions, in their assaults on the rebel position they took heavy casualties, losing far more men than their untrained opponents. According to legend, it was during the first British charge when Col. William Prescott instructed not to fire until they saw “the whites of their eyes.” Unfortunately, there is scant evidence that this dramatic phrase was uttered, and it does seem like a needlessly poetic battle command. What is more, though universally known as the Battle of Bunker Hill, most of the fighting was done on the nearby Breed’s Hill. And this is where the inaccurately-named Bunker Hill Monument is to be found as well.
Built from 1825 to 1843 (they frequently had to stop due to depleted funds), the Bunker Hill Monument is one of the oldest national monuments in the country. And its design was influential. Standing on top of the mound of green earth, a granite obelisk juts 221 feet (67 m) into the air. This design almost certainly provided the inspiration for the tower’s more famous cousin, the Washington Monument. The stone was taken from a quarry in the town of Quincy (the town named after Abigail Adams’s grandfather) and transported to the site via one of the first railroads in the country, the Granite Railway. A statue of Prescott stands in front of the obelisk, not too far from where he likely stood during the battle, looking fearsome and fearless. There is an exhibit lodge next to the obelisk, too, though it was closed due to the shutdown. At least the view was still available—revealing the spires of downtown Boston, the cozy houses of Cambridge, and the industry across the river Charles.
I was very cold by now. My clothes soaked through from the rain, and there was a long walk back to the hotel. But my misery was punctuated by a stop at a restaurant in Chinatown, where I had some delicious noodle soup. Then it was time to shower and get my suit ready for the wedding. And that was it. So, unfortunately, I saw very little of Boston during this trip. I was particularly sorry not to see Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, one of the finest art museums in the country. But what I had seen, during my few hours of exploration, was enough to motivate me to walk several miles in soggy shoes. And that is a pretty high compliment.
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Through some combination of chance and circumstance, some little places become fulcrums of history. This is certainly true of Concord, Massachusetts.
Boasting a population a little south of twenty thousand, and of no obvious geographical significance, this town nevertheless became the setting of our War of Independence. A detachment of British troops was sent to Concord to confiscate or destroy weapons that they believed were being stockpiled here. But they were met by the nascent American militia. After a brief shootout, the redcoats retreated, demonstrating that the British army was not invincible. This was the battle of Lexington and Concord (there was an earlier skirmish in the nearby town of Lexington), and it took place at the Old North Bridge, which spans the Concord River.
Being the site of the “Shot heard round the world”—as it was later dubbed, somewhat self-importantly—would satisfy most towns the size of Concord. But in the 19th century, this modest municipality once again attracted outsized importance by becoming the center of one of the most important movements in American literature and philosophy: Transcendentalism. This was largely due to the presence of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who moved into town in 1835.
The son and grandson of ministers, Emerson was very much a preacher himself, though of a new religion. Transcendentalism was perhaps the original back-to-nature movement, a celebration of self-reliance and the simple life. The time was ripe for such ideas, and Emerson was its most articulate voice. He attracted a circle of friends and admirers, among whom was Amos Bronson Alcott, a fellow philosopher who sadly lacked Emerson’s gift for expression. Alcott’s most notable venture was an experiment in Utopian living, called the Fruitlands, a kind of agricultural commune whose members adhered to a vegan diet. It soon imploded, and Alcott returned to Concord to live in the now-famous Orchard House with his wife and four daughters. One of those daughters was Louisa May Alcott, who fictionalized her girlhood to create the classic, Little Women. Her literary ability kept the family financially afloat.
The Fruitlands was not the only Transcendentalist experiment in communal living. Another was Brook Farm, also in Massachusetts, and also an attempt to live off the land in perfect equality. The novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne took part in this venture, though he did not stay for long (and Brook Farm did not survive for very long, either) before he, too, moved to Concord. Indeed, he moved into the Emerson family home, the Old Manse, which stands near the famed Old North Bridge. Emerson, meanwhile, moved into a larger house, now an eponymous museum, where he continued to serve as the center of the town’s intellectual life.
A frequent guest was a young and very earnest man named Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau must have seemed to be an eccentric and marginal character compared to the likes of Emerson. But it was Thoreau who came to epitomize Transcendentalism better than anyone, and Thoreau who immortalized Concord more completely than any writer (with the possible exception of Louisa May Alcott). His fame largely rests upon a single book, Walden, named after a small lake in Concord. In 1845, the young Thoreau decided on an entirely novel experiment: to attempt to live independently in the woods beside Walden Pond. The land was owned by Emerson, who let the young vagrant use it. In Thoreau’s own words:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
So Thoreau used some recycled materials to build a little cabin with some furniture and commenced an experiment that would last two years, two months, and two days. Later, when he wrote up the experience, he compressed this into an imaginative year, weaving memories into reflections to make an original work of literature. Walden is an odd book by any standard—meandering, prickly, pompous, but also thoroughly original and beautifully written—and it did not find a large audience in Thoreau’s lifetime. In the years since his death in 1862, however, Walden has become one of the most beloved American classics, and Walden Pond has become a site of pilgrimage.
It was certainly in the spirit of a pilgrim that I visited Walden Pond, once in summer, once in winter, both times passing through the town of Concord on my way to someplace else. On my first visit I was filled with anticipation, as though I was about to step into the Sistine Chapel or walk along the Great Wall of China, though in retrospect it is hard to say what I was expecting. Walden Pond is just that—a pond: a body of water, surrounded on all sides by trees. In fact, it is not even treated very reverently by the locals. Now a state park, when I visited in summer there were many locals lounging on the sand, and a few in the water. It is a place for recreation as much as reverence.
Admittedly, the geology of Walden Pond is interesting. A kettle hole lake, it was formed by retreating glaciers during the end of the last ice age, when a hunk of ice broke off the glacier and got lodged underground. As a result, the lake is surprisingly deep: over 100 feet, or 30 meters. But ninety-nine out of a hundred visitors (if not more) would likely not find anything memorable or special about Walden Pond had it not been made famous by Thoreau. And, I realized, this is precisely the message of Thoreau’s book: that anyplace can be made special through focus, attention, and work. With the right eyes, a mundane pool could be just as inspiring as a gothic cathedral.
On my first visit, I walked around the lake to the spot where Thoreau had built his little cabin. It does not stand today, though the spot is marked by concrete pillars. Nearby is a large cairn, where visitors have been pilling pebbles for decades. Before it stands a sign on which Thoreau’s famous battlecry is painted (see above). Once again, rather than any grand monuments, we are confronted only with the woods, the water, and Thoreau’s words.
Not long before my first visit to Walden Pond, I visited the Morgan Library in Manhattan, where I was lucky enough to find a special exhibit on Thoreau. It was extraordinary: the museum had Thoreau’s walking stick, surveying gear, and writing desk. They even had the many volumes of Thoreau’s journals—and he was a prolific diarist, recording both his philosophical thoughts and his observations of the natural world—which served as the basis for his published books. I believe that the bulk of these items were on loan from the Concord Museum, where they normally reside.
During my second stop in Concord, we also stopped by the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. The reader may recognize this name from the legend of Sleepy Hollow, which of course takes place in a cemetery—though not the one in Concord, Massachusetts. The burying ground of Washington Irving’s story is in Westchester, New York: my home town. It seemed very strange to me that two famous cemeteries would bear the same name; and I assumed that the Concordians had copied the Westchesterites. But apparently this is not the case. The Westchester cemetery was formerly called the Tarrytown Cemetery, and only changed its name to honor a posthumous wish of Washington Irving, who died in 1859. The Concord cemetery was established in 1855, and the place had been called Sleepy Hollow before anybody even thought of burying the dead here. So the names are a complete coincidence.
The cemeteries in Westchester and Concord do not only share a name; they were established at almost the same historical moment, and were shaped by the same intellectual currents. Washington Irving was a notable proponent of romantic gardening, wherein the landscape is modified to appear as if it were just a product of nature—albeit a particularly pleasing product. Ralph Waldo Emerson, too, believed that nature should be emulated, not suppressed; and as the designers of Concord cemetery were followers of his, the cemetery incorporates the natural topography—and some original vegetation—into its design. Both places can thus be classed as “garden cemeteries,” far more open and green than what came before.
Luckily for the visitor, most of the famous graves in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery are concentrated in one spot: Author’s Ridge. Here you will find Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, and Henry David Thoreau. Emerson’s grave is by far the most conspicuous: an enormous marble boulder to which a plaque has been fastened. I suppose it symbolizes Emerson’s love of nature to have an unhewn tombstone. Hawthorne’s grave is far simpler: a standard headstone, about a foot high. Thoreau’s and Alcott’s are even humbler; but theirs inspired the most devotion. Alcott’s was covered in old pens and pencils—presumably to honor Jo, Alcott’s writer heroine—while Thoreau’s was adorned with feathers, pine cones, and a bird’s nest. The two of them are still beacons for young minds.
Before we go, another resident of the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery must be mentioned: Ephraim Wales Bull. Not a writer, nor even a Transcendentalist, Bull was responsible for developing the Concord grape, now a ubiquitous varietal. This cultivar was special because, unlike other grape species, it could survive the brutally cold winters of Massachusetts. It was also robust and sweet, making it perfect to eat by itself or to turn into juice and jelly (though not great for wine). Unfortunately for Bull, his grapes were stolen and sold, meaning that he did not profit from his hard word. This is why his tombstone says: “He sowed, others reaped.”
I have gone on and on about the historical importance of Concord, but I must end by noting that it is simply an attractive place. In my all-too-brief time in the town, I was enchanted by the antique houses and churches, so quaint and picturesque. Even if you have little interest in the Revolutionary War or Transcendentalism, and just want to visit a thoroughly charming place, then I propose a visit to Concord and Walden Pond.
Thomas Jefferson is an American icon. Virtually every American can recite (or at least recognize) the immortal lines penned by Jefferson, declaring our independence: “We hold these truths…” His face graces the nickel, and his likeness scowled from the now-defunct $2 bill. A veritable Greek temple stands devoted to his form and memory in the nation’s capital; and, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Jefferson is chiseled into a mountain-side. And yet, if you really want to pay tribute to this foundational father, you must make your way toward the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, to Charlottesville.
In the summer of 2019, my family did exactly that. On the drive down from New York, we even decided to listen to Jon Meacham’s worshipful biography of the man. Unfortunately for us, the book failed to make a good impression; and, as it so happened, Jefferson similarly failed. But I am getting ahead of myself.
This was my first time in Virginia. The summer sun beat down hard, making the rolling fields of grass glow an iridescent green. A friend of my father owns an alpaca farm in the nearby town of Gordonsville, which we visited before dinner, giving me the briefest taste of farm life—new to me.
That night, after dinner, my brother and I wandered into downtown Charlottesville. As we did not wish to visit a bar, there was little to do but walk. But we did happen upon the statue of Robert E. Lee, which has been the center of so much controversy. A 2016 proposal to remove this Confederate monument sparked the now-infamous Unite the Right rally—in which one counter-protester died, and which Trump refused to condemn. After this, the City Council voted to remove the statue; but the state government overrode this decision, and the strange commemoration of a rebel racist stands to this day.
If I had been more aware at that moment, perhaps I would have realized that this embattled statue was only the most visible manifestation of the region’s contested history. The Confederacy may have been defeated, and slavery long abolished; but in Charlottesville, history is still an active warzone. And nowhere is this struggle more apparent than in the town’s most famous resident, Thomas Jefferson.
We parked the car in the garage and walked onto campus. Charlottesville is, above all, a college town, and that college is the University of Virginia. This university was founded by Thomas Jefferson himself, in 1819, and the place still bears his distinct thumbprint. Jefferson designed the buildings—now a UNESCO World Heritage site—and designed the curriculum and sat on the original Board of Visitors. Indeed, the university is arguably the most complete expression of Jefferson’s intellectual vision.
As it happened, we arrived in the university’s central building—the Rotunda—right at the commencement of a free guided tour. Naturally, our guide told us a little bit about this building first. A dedicated Neoclassicist, Jefferson modeled his design after the Parthenon, as well as works by the Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. But Jefferson’s use of red brick gives the building a distinctly American stamp. Just as significant as the building’s form is its function: it housed the original university library. This is an obvious and significant deviation from the traditional, medieval model of a university, centered on a church. Indeed, Jefferson’s plan was so insistently secular that he did not even want theology or divinity taught to his pupils. This elegant building was severely damaged by a fire in 1895, during which a group of enterprising students saved a marvelous life-sized statue of Jefferson by pushing it onto a table and carrying it out together. Jefferson’s spirit would have thanked them if he had believed in the afterlife.
Extending outward from both sides of the Rotunda, like two arms, are the parallel rows of buildings that enclose the Lawn. These are the ten Pavilions (five per side), where faculty reside and teach. Nowadays, professors only live in these Pavilions for three to five years, and rotate to allow for fresh faces; but in Jefferson’s original idea, the faculty would stay here long-term and live among the students. Even now, the resident faculty are expected to socialize with the students, 54 of whom stay (during their senior year) in the prestigious “Lawn rooms” that flank the Pavilions. On the other side of the Pavilions are gardens; and beyond that, the Range, for graduate students. The idea is both idealistic and charming: Jefferson imagines a kind of open-air community of scholars, living amid architecture that inspired the mind. Indeed, each of the ten Pavilions bears a distinct, Neoclassical design, the idea being that the ensemble would be a kind of visual catalogue of architectural styles.
On the whole, I found the Academical Village to be greatly appealing. I would love to wake up in one of those quaint little rooms, sit outside on my rocking chair, under the colonnade, reading some book, and waving casually to my passing professors. Few places I have been so perfectly evoke the gentile life of the mind—the elevation of beauty, truth, and goodness over all petty practical concerns. This picture contains a large dose of fantasy, unfortunately. The first batches of scholars were rowdy, spoiled, wealthy boys, who drank and partied and played pranks on their professors. More significantly, it is worth remembering that these buildings, gardens, and manicured lawn—not to mention the entire economical system—was built by slave labor. And though students could not bring their own slaves, professors could and did. To the rosy image of intellectual freedom, then, we must add the violence of human bondage.
Just as our tour of the university was coming to a close, our tour of Monticello, Jefferson’s old plantation, was about to begin. Now, Monticello literally means “little mountain,” and the name is perfectly sensible, as the house stands on a hill overlooking the surrounding area. We drove up to the visitor’s center (which has a café and a gift shop), and then hopped on the shuttle bus up to the house for our tour. Monticello can only be visited on a guided tour, which took around two hours. No photos are allowed inside, but the website includes a wonderful virtual tour, which is far better than this measly blog post.
I will hardly bother to describe the exterior of Monticello, since if you have seen a nickel you know what it looks like. Suffice to say that it is built in the same Neoclassical style, with the same red brick, as the buildings of the university. Indeed, Monticello could be transported to the center of the University of Virginia and look perfectly at home.
The house is entered, logically enough, through the front door, which leads directly into the entrance hall. This room is decorated with all sorts of artifacts from Lewis and Clarke’s epochal journey into the American wilderness—horns, antlers, Native American artifacts, and even the mandible of a mastodon. (According to Meacham, Jefferson’s attitude towards Native Americans was only slightly more enlightened than his contemporaries, thinking them not racially but culturally inferior. In any case, he still had no qualms about taking their land.) There are also many busts on the wall—including one of Voltaire, and another of Jefferson’s rival and nemesis, Alexander Hamilton. I suppose Jefferson liked his enemies close.
Most conspicuous of all might be Jefferson’s Great Clock. It has two faces, one facing outward, which only shows the hour (accurate enough for slaves, Jefferson thought), and another facing inward, with a minute and a second hand. It is quite a contraption. The clock is connected to a gong outside, which chimes out the hour loud enough for the whole plantation to hear. It works via a series of weights, which look like cannon balls. The clock is wound up at the beginning of the week (Sunday), and the falling weights mark the day as well as keep the hour. Unfortunately, the clock was designed for a somewhat more ample space, and so the last day of the week (Saturday) is located in the basement.
As one moves through Monticello, the visitor gets a greatly paradoxical impression of Jefferson. He was, for example, both provincial and cosmopolitan. Not remarkably well-traveled himself, he read voraciously about other lands (such as in the journals of Captain James Cook), and kept up a correspondence with contemporary explorers like Alexander von Humboldt and Meriweather Lewis. On the other hand, he was himself something of a homebody, keeping close to Monticello (after his return from France) and even founding his pet university in his backyard. In terms of taste, Jefferson improbably wants to combine a kind of rural simplicity with an enormous mansion and French style, making the house seem both luxurious and homely.
Another contradiction is between Jefferson’s genius and his dilettantism. His library spans dozens of academic disciplines, and yet his manner of organizing books, plants, and correspondence is entirely homespun. Monticello is a work of architectural brilliance; but the windows awkwardly span both the first and the second floor, meaning that they do not align with eye level. The clock may epitomize this contradiction best: an ingenious device for which Jefferson had to bore a hole through his own floor. The biggest contradiction of all, of course, is that the self-proclaimed champion of freedom lived in a slave plantation. But I will return to that.
From the entrance hall, the visitor quickly moves to Jefferson’s living quarters. His working life centers upon his library and his “cabinet” (or, study), which are filled with dusty volumes, the busts of famous men (like his frenemy, John Adams), and scientific instruments, such as his telescope, barometer, or theodolite (a surveying instrument). Both rooms overlook Jefferson’s greenhouse, where he grew exotic plants. The quaint quality of Jefferson’s mind is quite apparent here. He had a five-sided writing stand commissioned and built, so that he could display different documents and books (though a simple table seems more practical to me). On his desk stands a bygone innovation, the polygraph, which uses a mechanical arm holding a pen in order to duplicate letters (and Jefferson was a prolific correspondent). Jefferson did not invent the device, but he tinkered with it, and was quite enthusiastic about its use. The most idiosyncratic touch may be Jefferson’s bed, which is built into the wall between his study and bed chamber. The arrangement does save space; though for a man of 6’2’’, the bed seems quite snug.
My favorite room in the house was perhaps the parlor, where Jefferson did much of his entertaining. The room has a high ceiling and an unusual geometry. Opposite the main doors (hooked up, under the floor, so that both sides open and close in tandem), there are two pairs of tall windows and a single glass door, all looking out at the back garden, which serve to make the room sunny and bright. Two pianos and a zittern (similar to a lute) sit ready for music-making; Jefferson himself took part on the violin. Most attractive, for me, were the many portraits covering the walls. A somewhat unusual painting of George Washington stands near the famous Mather Brown portraits of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, made while the two men were overseas, with Jefferson looking distinctly more foppish than usual in his big white wig. On another wall hang three portraits of Jefferson’s intellectual heroes: Francis Bacon, John Locke, and Isaac Newton—all unabashed champions of empiricism.
I do not wish to get bogged down in a room-by-room description of Monticello, but I must mention some highlights. One of Jefferson’s innovations were double windows, which let in light but provide for more insulation, since the air between the glass acts as a buffer. The dining room is equipped with a dumbwaiter to bring up wine from the cellar (Jefferson liked French wine), to minimize the number of servants (read “slaves”) needed for his guests. An octagonal bedroom on the ground floor—with another alcove bed—is called the “Madison room,” since this was where that other founding father stayed on his frequent visits. Upstairs (and the stairs are very steep and narrow, another oddity of Jefferson’s design) there are mainly bedrooms, for Jefferson’s sister, daughter, and grandchildren. The tour culminates with the dome room—also octagonal, as apparently Jefferson loved the shape—on the third floor, which provides a commanding view of the surrounding area.
But now we must leave the house of Monticello itself, and explore the grounds of the estate. For here is where the history of Monticello becomes decidedly less charming. Monticello was not simply a residence, but a plantation, wherein enslaved men and women worked to enrich Jefferson. This was done by growing and selling crops—tobacco and wheat, notably—as well as by producing goods for sale, such as nails. On the road running past the house, dubbed Mulberry Row, stood the small residences of these enslaved workers, many of whom labored alongside white contract laborers to construct the house. Some of these still stand, or have been reconstructed. One of the latter is the cabin of John Hemmings, a literate carpenter who was one of the few enslaved people to be freed by Jefferson.
The contrast between elegant finery of the mansion, and this simple little dwelling, is almost gut-wrenching. That the man who declared that liberty was an inalienable right, that all men were created equal, could own fellow human beings and live by the violent coercion of their labor—it is simply too paradoxical to swallow. One naturally at least hopes that Jefferson was an especially “good” or “enlightened” slave-owner, whatever that would mean. But even that is not the case. Jefferson owned 600 different people during the course of his life—about 100 at any one time—and he treated them much as his neighbors did: namely, by giving them the choice between work or physical punishment. Husbands and wives were separated, as were mothers and children; and Jefferson ordered his overseers to beat enslaved people on multiple occasions. This should hardly need stating: Slavery requires violence to exist, and is itself a form of violence. There is no nice way to own a person.
One cannot even take comfort in the fact that Jefferson was distant from the real management of his estate, like some dreamy philosopher absorbed in his pursuits. Slavery was at the core of his life. After his wife passed away, Jefferson began a sexual relationship with his wife’s half-sister, an enslaved woman named Sally Hemings. Indeed, this “relationship”—if that is what it should be called—likely began when Hemings was still an adolescent. And while we do not have much notion of how the young Hemings felt, it is difficult to call such sex “consensual,” considering that Jefferson was much older, not to mention her legal owner, as well as the owner of much of her family. Sally Hemings had six children by Jefferson, whom he owned until his death, freeing them in his will. Evidently, slavery could not have been a more intimate part of Jefferson’s life.
The tour ends with a walk down back to the visitor’s center. On the way, you pass by the Monticello Graveyard, where Jefferson himself is buried along with many members of his family. His own tombstone—tall, but not grandiose—bears an epitaph he wrote himself, mentioning three accomplishments: that he wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Statue of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and that he founded the University of Virginia. Anyone familiar with his life will immediately notice that it omits arguably his greatest accomplishment: serving as President. But Jefferson was very mindful of his image, and strove hard to preserve his aura of the humble, unworldly intellectual; and so I think the epitaph is very much in keeping with this persona.
Further on, down near the parking lot, is a fenced off area. This was a burying ground where at least 40 of the enslaved people of Monticello were buried, though you would never know it if not for the sign, as there is not a tombstone to be seen. Once again, the contrast speaks for itself.
Though Jefferson is buried on the property, his family soon lost it after his death. For all of his brilliance as an intellectual and a politician, Jefferson was not a good businessman, and died hopelessly in debt. The house—including the vast majority of the enslaved workers—was sold after his death to pay off these debts. Luckily for posterity, the property was bought by an admirer of Jefferson, Uriah P. Levy, who preserved the house. Monticello is now owned and run by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which I think does an excellent job in telling the story of this place. Every aspect of this complex man—from his scientific pursuits to the reality of slavery—was explained with honesty and care.
The Thomas Jefferson Foundation does not attempt to resolve the conflicts inherent in the life and legacy of the third president. Nor will I. Indeed, there is no way to resolve the paradox: Jefferson was a champion of freedom and a slave-owner. He was a man of life-enhancing brilliance who participated in one of history’s most monstrous institutions. His words epitomized some of our finest aspirations, while his actions embodied our basest impulses. I do not think penning the Declaration of Independence can somehow cancel out the violence inflicted on 600 human beings. Morality does not work like that. If he were brought back from the dead, we would have to award him the Nobel Prize and then throw him in prison for the rest of his life.
For this reason, we left Monticello just as appalled as inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s life. His legacy is perhaps most valuable, then, as a reminder that high ideals on paper can and do coexist with ugly realities in the world. This, after all, is just as true of the story of America as it is that of Jefferson. We should not make the same mistake as Jefferson in thinking that we can politely express our disapproval of an oppressive and unsustainable system while profiting by it and doing nothing to change it. Even now, almost two centuries after Jefferson’s death, there is still much work to be done.
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It was a thoroughly muggy day in mid-August when I boarded a boat in Battery Park.
My destination was the most famous statue in the United States, if not the world. And I was willing to pay to get up close. Now, if you merely wish to take a good picture of the statue against the New York City skyline, then no financial transaction is necessary. The Staten Island Ferry—a gratuitous vaporetto—passes quite near Liberty Island, allowing its parsimonious passengers an excellent vantage point from which to gawk and snap photos. But I was in no mood for drive-by glances; I wanted to see the statue from dry land, which requires a certain amount of money.
In the time before COVID-19, the ferry company had no qualms with herding us through a large security tent and then packing us into the boat like salted fish. I opted to stand on the deck. Despite the summer heat and the humidity, the sea wind whipped up soon after we set off, giving me goosebumps. But this was compensated by anticipation. Even a short ferry ride partakes, however modestly, in the romance of travel by sea. And as a good friend of mine once said (well, he said it repeatedly): “The best way to see a city is by boat.” This is certainly true regarding New York City, at least. Seen from the harbor, the Manhattan skyline is at its most vertiginously dramatic. The Statue of Liberty is not bad, either.
In about twenty minutes the boat docked at Liberty Island. Now, this was not always the name of this little piece of earth. Before Europeans came to dominate the land, the Canarsie people called it Minnisais. Since then, however, the island has been dubbed Love Island, Great Oyster Island, and Bedloe’s Island, among other appellations. It had many uses before being made home to an enormous copper goddess. Food was grown, men were hanged, garbage was dumped, and Tories waited here to be extracted to England. The island was even used as a kind of lazaretto for those suspected of harboring smallpox. Its last function before being turned into a monument was as a fortified battery; and the star-shaped remains of Fort Summer still sit below Liberty’s green heel.
I pushed my way down the boarding ramp and headed straight for the statue. This was not my first visit. Many years ago, when I was still in middle school, I visited the island with my Californian cousins, who wanted to see some of the main sights of New York. At the time I was inclined to see any sort of cultural excursion as a monumentally boring waste of time. Video games were infinitely more entertaining, and I resented my family for dragging me away from my computer. Nothing I saw made much of an impression on me: not the Empire State Building, not Wall Street, not Battery Park. It was wholly unexpected, then, when I found myself entranced by the Statue of Liberty. I could not take my eyes off it. I even felt inspired. Somehow the statue had broken through the many layers of youthful apathy and juvenile ignorance to touch a hitherto unknown part of myself.
This second visit was not quite as stupendous, if only because by this time I had grown accustomed to visiting monuments and the feelings that they evoke. This is not to say that I was uninspired. The towering lady is not as dynamic in composition or as beautiful in form as, say, Michelangelo’s David; and the sickly green color (caused from the oxidation of the copper) is not the most aesthetically pleasing shade imaginable. (Like the oxidized patina itself, however, it grows on you.) But statues of this size have different engineering constraints, not to mention serving a different purpose. As a synecdoche of the nation, as a grandiose welcome to those arriving by sea (many of them immigrants), and as an artwork that represents the Enlightenment values that (nominally, at least) set this nation apart, Liberty Enlightening the World could hardly be more successful. Granted, Bartholdi probably only intended some of this in his design; yet the mark of any great work of art is that it goes beyond even the vision of its creator.
I had opted for the cheapest ticket, which only allowed me to gaze at the statue from without. Paying more would have given me access to the pedestal, and still more would have allowed me to ascend to the seven-pronged crown. (Visits to the torch have been prohibited since 1916, for a somewhat obscure reason.) But even the most basic ticket seemed pricey to me. So after I had taken my fill of the statue, and walked around her a few times, I wandered over to the other end of the island to see the museum. The visit begins with a strange cinematic experience, wherein visitors are led into a big, empty room, shown an informational video about the statue’s history, and then led into another room where the video continues, and then yet another. I suppose they screen the film this way so that more visitors can be shown it at once, though I did wish there were seats available.
The museum in general was surprisingly good. There are models of the statue and its innards, a great deal of information about its construction and inspiration, and even real models and former parts. But rather than try to narrate the museum, I will use it as an opportunity to tell something of the statue’s history:
Given that Lady Liberty is one of the most quintessentially images of America, it is somewhat ironic, then, that the statue was designed and built entirely by the French, and given to us in an act of international generosity. I can think of no other major monument with such an origin.
The idea for a celebratory dedication to the United States evidently originated with Édouard René de Laboulaye, a prominent French abolitionist, who wished to celebrate the Union victory in the Civil War, and the end of American slavery. This proposal was taken up by his friend, the artist Frédéric Bartholdi, who liked the idea, if only because it would have provided an indirect rebuke to the repressive regime of Napoleon III. But such projects are seldom conceived and completed on schedule; and by the time the statue was finally built, in 1885, Napoleon III had been deposed.
It was difficult enough for the cities of Brooklyn and New York (when they were formally separate) to work together to plan, fund, and execute the Brooklyn Bridge across the East River. Imagine, then, the nightmare of coordinating an international project across the Atlantic. To build the statue, Bartholdi had to personally come to the United States, scout out a good location, meet with the president (Ulysses S. Grant at the time), and then cross the young nation trying to drum up support. Batholdi also had to come up with a design. That the theme should be liberty was obvious; but freedom can take many forms. It can be a bare-chested woman leading troops into battle, à la Delecroix; yet that seemed too violent or revolutionary. Instead, Bartholdi opted for a neoclassical design, staid and solemn, robed in a Roman stella (togas are for men), crowned with a diadem, and holding a torch rather than a sword.
In 1875 Bartholdi and Laboulaye set to work raising money for the statue. It was to be a long slog, combining a difficult PR campaign with a vast logistical challenge. Building material was needed, talent had to be recruited, and the public interest maintained at a high enough level to keep funds flowing. As an engineering task, the statue was daunting enough. Standing 46 meters tall, the statue had to support 91 tonnes of metal without crumpling or toppling over. The thin copper skin simply would not bear that much weight, and so Gustave Eiffel was contracted to design an internal steel skeleton. This internal work is a magnificent achievement in itself, since it could be easily assembled and disassembled, and also because Eiffel designed it in such a way as to allow the metal to expand and contract in the changing weather without cracking the skin. Were the copper exterior removed, then, New York would have her own Eiffel Tower.
While the French were busy with the statue, the Americans had to make the pedestal. This proved to be quite a challenge, for the simple reason that nobody wanted to cough up the money. Grover Cleveland—who was then the governor of New York—vetoed funding for the statue, which left the project lingering in unfunded purgatory. (Cleveland, as president, later presided over the dedication of the statue, which seems terribly unfair.) The task to fund the project fell, instead, to private industry and the good people of New York. Specifically, Joseph Pullitzer led a funding drive in his newspaper, The New World, promising to publish the name of every single contributor. Thus the pedestal was built with spare nickels, dimes, and pennies, mailed in from children, widows, and alcoholics. Even so, it took longer than expected to raise the required sum, and the pedestal was still incomplete by the time the statue arrived by steamboat.
The assembly and disassembly of the statue, transportation across the seas, and then reassembly in its new home, was yet another massive engineering challenge for the designers. Eiffel’s steel beams arrived with Bartholdi’s hand-beaten copper, and teams of workers had to put it all together, like an enormous erector set. The statue’s completion was celebrated by the city’s first ticker-tape parade, which culminated in a yacht trip to the island for a private dedication ceremony, attended only by politicians, dignitaries, and other officials. Ironically, in a fête for an enormous female, few women were permitted to attend. The values of the Enlightenment have their limits, after all.
My sojourn on the land of liberty had come to close; but I still had more to see. Tickets to visit the Statue of Liberty come included with a trip to Ellis Island, just a few minutes away. Like Liberty Island, this island used to be called Oyster Island, for the very logical reason that it was a shallow tidal flat where oysters liked to live. As such, it was used as an important food source by the Lenape people, but they called it “Kioshk” for the many seagulls which liked to rest there. Much later, when an island was needed to process the increasing tides of immigrants, the government started dumping sand, rocks, and soil (taken from the subway tunnels) in order to create something fit for permanent habitation. (This had very unfortunate results for the oysters, which scientists are now trying to revive in the Billion Oyster Project.) Ellis Island was not even originally a single island, but three separate ones which were gradually merged. The current landmass is shaped like a fat “C,” and ships dock in the space between the northern and southern halves.
Ellis Island has come to serve as a symbol of American immigration, but of course this particular institution represents only one chapter of the story. Ellis Island was never the only port of entry into the United States for immigrants, and it was active for only about thirty years, from 1892 to 1924. Most of these immigrants coming through Ellis Island were, naturally, from the other side of the Atlantic, specifically Europe. This includes Germans, Irish, Scandinavians, a great many Italians, Eastern European Jews escaping pogroms—and many more, to the tune of 12 million souls. It has been calculated that 40% of the United States population can trace at least one ancestor to Ellis Island (though I do not know if that includes me).
The basic visit is to the island’s Main Building. This is a large and surprisingly beautiful structure, built in a French Renaissance style. Your visit is meant to replicate the journey of an arriving immigrant to the island. You begin in the baggage room, complete with real period suitcases and trunks, where you pick up your audioguide. Then you advance to the registry hall, a cavernous open room topped with Guastavino tiles, which shimmer and sparkle in the indirect light. But I doubt that an arriving immigrant would have been in the mood to admire architecture, since this room was the scene of fateful decisions.
While the hall is now open and luminous, during the heyday of Ellis Island it would have been full with queues upon queues of incoming immigrants, awaiting their turns on long benches to talk with a customs official. While they entered and waited, doctors would inspect and examine the hopeful immigrants for any signs of ill health. Those presenting a worrisome sign would be marked with chalk and more thoroughly examined. If the problem was grave, or the disease highly contagious (like trachoma, an eye affliction), the poor soul might be sent all the way back—a fate of a small minority (about 2%), but a very crushing fate indeed after spending one’s savings and crossing an ocean in the hopes of a new life. If the problem was less severe, then the migrant may be in for a stay at the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital (more on that later).
In any case, even for the well in body in mind, the experience must have been extremely stressful. For the most part, the rich are not the ones who emigrate; it is the poor, with little money to spend. Consequently, then, the voyage aboard the steamers crossing the Atlantic was abysmally uncomfortable—cramped, cold, dark, seasick and poorly fed. Then the storm-tossed travelers were thrown into a hall echoing with unintelligible languages to be handled by unfeeling officials.
Thankfully, for the majority of those arriving on Ellis Island, the affair was quite short, lasting only a matter of hours before they were allowed through. Laws regarding immigration were, after all, far more lenient back in the day, especially in the decades leading up to World War I. Stefan Zweig, for example, remembers traipsing around Europe without even possessing a passport. But that war initiated a period of nationalism and xenophobia on both sides of the Atlantic. A literacy test was mandated in 1917 (in the immigrant’s native language), and by the 1920s quotas were imposed, thus ending the period of mass immigration.
From the registry hall, you move from room to room, each one used to process the immigrant in a different way—further health inspections, mental aptitude tests, literacy tests, legal processes, money exchanges, bus tickets, and so on. A courtroom was busy hearing cases of immigrants suspected of being professional paupers or contract laborers (oh, the horror!); luckily, immigrant aid societies paid for lawyers to help appeal cases, and 80% of the immigrants on trial were accepted. Particularly fascinating to me were the examples of IQ tests, meant to weed out those considered to be mentally infirm or deficient. This was a challenge, since the tests had to be applicable to anyone, regardless of their national background. Even a simple task, like drawing a diamond, was not a fair measure, since a large portion of immigrants had never even held a pencil. The psychologists thus settled on visual tests, like identifying faces or distinguishing between images. Still, the whole attempt seems rather silly in retrospect.
To repeat, for the majority of immigrants, Ellis Island was only a brief stopover. But a sickly minority required a longer stay—days, weeks, or even months—in the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital. For some, this meant a stay to “stabilize” their condition before being sent back, but for others successful treatment was an entry ticket to another life.
The hospital is on the other half of the island, and off limits to the casual visitor. To go, one must sign up for a guided hard-hat tour, as the buildings are nowadays in a quite dilapidated condition, empty and overgrown. But at one time this was one of the biggest public health hospitals in the world, complete with separate words for infectious diseases. Nowadays, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, we can appreciate the role of border control in controlling contagious illness. This idea was old even by the time Ellis Island was built (there are islands for isolation in the Venetian lagoon, for example), though of course it was never a fool-proof way of controlling epidemics—such as the waves of cholera that arrived from the Old World. Still, Ellis Island was an important line of epidemiological defense for the United States.
Taken together, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island are the country’s greatest monuments to the immigrant—symbols of the country’s open-armed embrace of anyone willing to come. At a time when anti-immigrant sentiment is once again raising its ugly head, these monuments are more important than ever, for they remind us that the majority of us are descended from immigrants, most of them poor, most of them uneducated, and all of them looking for a better life. How were those Hungarians or Italians, unable to write or even to hold a pencil, any different from the people now at our southern border, who fill us with so much fear?
Economists may show us, again and again, that immigrants do not steal jobs; and historians may demonstrate that xenophobia is used, again and again, as a scapegoat for other social ills. But no argument is as profoundly moving as that lady of oxidized copper, herself an immigrant, holding out her torch towards the vast and windy seas, inscribed with the words of Emma Lazarus:
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
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Some capitals are far older than the countries to which they belong. This includes Lisbon, Paris, London, and Rome—all ancient settlements which survived the rise and fall of many states. We have very little idea how these cities were founded, who exactly founded them, or when exactly they first came into being. None of this is true in regards to America’s capital city. Washington D.C. is younger than its country (by one year), and we know nearly everything about its creation.
When George Washington was inaugurated as the first president of the United States, in 1789, it was not, of course, in the city that now bears his name, but in New York City. Many in his cabinet—including, most notably, Alexander Hamilton—would have been quite happy to have left the capital right there, in the nation’s largest and most cosmopolitan city. But a powerful contingent from the south feared that this would give the northern moneyed interest too much sway over the nascent country. Therefore, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison pushed to have the nation’s capital established in the south.
Although Hamilton did not get along with the two Virginians, they somehow managed to come to an agreement, in what we now dub the Compromise of 1790. (The details of the negotiation are impossible to pin down, since it took place at a private dinner.) In return for allowing the federal government to assume the states’ war debts—thus helping to establish the new country’s credit—Hamilton agreed to have the capital established along the banks of the Potomac. Thus, even before the ground was surveyed, Washington D.C. was marked by backroom political haggling.
Though most everyone is aware that the city is named for our first president, there are fewer, perhaps, who know that “Columbia” was a kind of highfalutin name for America. The city was built on land donated from Maryland and Virginia—though in the tensions leading up to the Civil War, Virginia cordially decided to take its land back. The city owes much of its shape to a foreigner, the Frenchman Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a Revolutionary War veteran who came up with the basic grid layout. His original plan for a presidential mansion five times the size of the White House was, however, mercifully not put into action.
Washington D.C. has grown into a medium-sized city, with about 700,000 residents. But when its entire metropolitan area is included, the population rises to 6 million, making Washington D.C. the sixth-biggest urban center in the country. Yet the city still retains the artificial character of its origin. A friend of mine once described D.C. as having “all the hospitality of the north, and all the efficiency of the south.” Though perhaps a bit too hard on the capital, this description does capture the strange lack of personality that struck me as I first stepped foot D.C. It is a place of many monuments and little life.
But I do like a good monument.
The taxi left us—my dad and my brother, plus me—at the National Mall. It was a muggy day in early September, and the blue sky was heavy with clouds. The only structure breaking the sky was the familiar form of the Washington Monument.
This was the first time I had seen the famous tower since I was in middle school, and I was surprised by its height. Indeed, the Washington Monument is fairly massive: standing over 500 ft. (150 m), it is simultaneously the tallest obelisk, the tallest structure made of stone, and, for five glorious years, it was the tallest structure in the entire world. (The Eiffel Tower put an end to its brief reign in 1889.) It is also curiously discolored, as a result of using marble from two different sources during its construction—which in turn was a result of a long hiatus in construction, caused by a lack of funds and the American Civil War. As the ancient Egyptians could have told us, building obelisks is not as simple as it seems.
Our first stop was the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is one of the many Smithsonian museums along the National Mall. Housed in a decidedly futuristic building—like a step pyramid that had been turned over—the main collection is displayed underground. This museum was only opened in 2016, a shocking fact, considering that the Holocaust museum opened almost two decades earlier. It is always easier to deal with the crimes of others, I suppose. Considering how important it is for the country to come to terms with African American history, it pains me to criticize this museum. However, I must admit that I was disappointed by the visit, partly because there was a great deal of text to read in the poorly lit, underground rooms, and also because I found the history presented to be almost the identical story that was taught to me in high school, and thus already familiar. Such a museum should not feel like a textbook but a reckoning.
We emerged, blinking, back into the hazy D.C. summer day. To our right was the grand obelisk, and all around us were grass and trees. This was the famous National Mall, a green area stretching from the Lincoln Memorial, to the east, to the Capitol building, to the west. (While it does seem appropriate that the center of American power is a mall, the name derives from an older version of the word, meaning a sheltered promenade.) The entire area from the Washington Monument to the Capitol is dotted with enormous museums, all administered by the Smithsonian Institute.
Strangely enough, the name of this august body comes from a man named James Smithson, an Englishman and a bastard in the technical sense, who spent much of his life running around Europe performing scientific research. A bachelor, he left his estate to his nephew, with the stipulation that, were his nephew to also die without an heir, the money be used to set up an “establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men” in Washington D.C. The nephew did duly die childless, and so the Smithsonian was born. It is rather strange that Smithson chose Washington for this bequest, since he never visited the United States. And so our most prestigious center of knowledge bears the name of an aloof English bastard.
The Smithsonian, as it exists today, is beyond the bounds of even the most eccentric English scientist. All told, the Smithsonian administers 50 institutions—including museums, research centers, libraries, and even a zoo—and its collection is numbered in the tens of millions of items. Much of the money used to fund this vast edifice of knowledge comes from the humble tax-payer, who is rewarded by being allowed free entry into any and all of the Smithsonian museums. The headquarters is quite conspicuous among the enormous buildings of the National Mall. Nicknamed “The Castle,” it is built in a kind of flamboyant medieval revival style out of red sandstone. This eye-catching design, by the way, was the work of James Renwick, Jr., who is also responsible for the even more resplendent St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC.
We had many museums to choose from. Besides the previously mentioned, there was the Museum of American History, the National Gallery of Art, the Museum of Natural History, the Museum of the American Indian, the Hirshorn, the Renwick Gallery, the Museum of African Art… All wonderful museums, I am sure, and all within close walking distance. But, for my part, if you are in Washington D.C. and hoping to rekindle your patriotism and American pride, the best place to go is the Air and Space Museum.
If you retain even one iota of the childhood wonder of human flight, then the Air and Space Museum will be a delight. It is exactly what you would expect: room upon room full of fighter jets, propeller planes, gliders, rockets, missiles, satellites, space shuttles, and landing craft. So many of these vehicles are connected with American firsts—the first airplane, the first transatlantic flight, the first man on the moon—that a visiting citizen cannot help but feel a mixture of pride and also nostalgia, since these great achievements now seem so very distant. Indeed, the Cold War still hangs over this museum like a stubborn ghost, as it was this conflict which spurred us to the furthest reaches of the atmosphere and beyond.
My favorite part of the museum was the exhibit on the Wright Brothers, which has the original Wright Flyer on display. The exhibit was conspicuously well-written; indeed, its tone was so highly reminiscent of the historian David McCullough, that it made me wonder if he had written the plaques himself. After this exhibit, I was so impressed by the Wrights that I decided to pick up McCullough’s book on the inventors, which I highly recommend. The brothers were far more than idle tinkerers, as I had assumed; they were brilliant mechanics and dogged problem-solvers, who accomplished something many people thought impossible. Seldom has a single invention so entirely changed modern life as the airplane; and its inventors were bike mechanics.
After taking in our fill of space suits, cockpits, engines, wings, slats, spoilers, and flaps, we went back out into the mall for a bite to eat. There were plenty of food trucks around, so this was quite easily accomplished. A few dollars bills exchanged, a few chunks of greasy meat swallowed, and we were ready for the next museum: the National Gallery of Art.
This is the Smithsonian’s enormous homage to Western culture. The central building has a façade and dome made in imitation of the Pantheon in Rome; and its spacious wings are full to the brim with paintings from Spain, France, Italy, England, and the Netherlands (not to mention the United States). Stretching from the middle-ages to the twentieth century, the collection is remarkably high-quality. There are self-portraits by Rembrandt and Van Gogh, studies of light by Monet, atmospheric symphonies by Turner, dancers by Degas, landscapes by Cezanne, and portraits of all the founding fathers. El Greco’s magnificent Laocoön is to be found here, as well as a breath-taking full-length portrait of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David. Most spectacularly of all, the National Gallery has the only work of Leonardo da Vinci to be found in the country: Ginevra de’ Benci. In sum, I think the American National Gallery is fully the rival of its counterpart in London, which is high praise indeed.
While we were about halfway through the visit, my brother slipped off to meet a friend of his in the area. The two of them visited the National Portrait Gallery, where, among other works, there hangs the iconic presidential portrait of Barack Obama, by Kehinde Wiley. I wish I had gone to see it, too.
Now, at this point my visit to D.C. became somewhat jumbled—what with going out to eat, rendezvous with family, returning to the hotel, meeting local friends, and so forth—and so I will forego any pretext of narrating my own visit in order to round out this portrait of the National Mall.
At the eastern end of the Mall stands the most impressive structure in the entire city: the Capitol Building. Its majestic form is so iconic that, I have found, many foreigners actually confuse the Capitol Building for the White House. But with 13 times the floor area, and 4 times the height, the Capitol Building is far grander. It is also far more approachable. The curious visitor can walk right inside to the visitor’s center of our legislative palace, without the worry that a secret service sniper will open fire. The name “Capitol,” by the way, apparently derives via Jefferson from the Capitoline Hill, in Rome—though the connection between American democracy and Jupiter Optimus Maximus remains obscure to me. Jefferson did, however, manage to give everyone a headache when it came time to spell capital and capitol.
The Capitol was not always such a grandiose structure. The original building, completed in the year 1800, was a fairly modest affair, roughly the size of the present White House. But as the country grew in wealth, population, and number of states, so did the building have to be enlarged and expanded. The current dome—88 meters high, and 96 in diameter—was built between 1855 and 1866 (Lincoln insisted that construction continue right through the Civil War), and is actually made of iron painted to blend in with the white stone of the main structure. The two legislative chambers are now housed in the expansive wings to the north (Senate) and south (House of Representatives).
As one approaches from the west—passing the monument to Ulysses S. Grant, which marks the end of the National Mall—the Capitol presents a grandiose but inviting appearance, with two winding staircases leading up to the entrance. If one approaches from the east, however, one can see the faux-Greek temple façades, complete with sculpted pediments, such as the Apotheosis of Democracy above the entrance to the House of Representatives. The Capitol Building is also, naturally, decorated with plentiful patriotic art in its interior. Beneath the dome is the painting, The Apotheosis of Washington—a kind of heavenly scene, common in European palaces, that I always find rather silly—and below that, the Frieze of American History, a trompe-l’œil (as in, a painting that pretends to be a frieze), whose colonial imagery did not age particularly well. Both of these are the work of the Italian-American painter Constantino Brumidi, who famously fell off the scaffold and had to hold on for dear life for 15 whole minutes, until someone noticed the poor hanging artist.
But most of the people who worked on this resplendent structure were not eccentric European immigrant artists. In large part, the manual labor was performed by slaves, and the same is true of the White House. Racism runs very deep, indeed, in our democracy.
Right across the street from this most democratic branch of our government is the least: the judiciary. The current Palace of Justice is not as old as one might expect, having been completed as recently 1935. Before that, the Supreme Court had no residence to call its own, but instead had to find space within the Capitol Building. What is now called the Old Supreme Court Chamber served as the seat of constitutional law from 1810 to 1860, and the court moved to the Old Senate Chamber (itself replaced when the Capitol was expanded) until the construction of the current building. Finally, under the impetus of William Howard Taft (the only person to serve as both president and chief justice), a separate structure was built for the court.
Designed by Cass Gilbert, a friend of Taft, the Supreme Court Building is a testament to the American pretension for fancying ourselves heirs of Greco-Roman culture. The building takes the form of a Greek temple, with columns, pediment, and walls made of white marble. Two brooding statues, the Authority of Law (masculine) and the Contemplation of Justice (feminine), flank the staircase leading up to the main entrance. Above, in the pediment, is a frieze with the great theme: “EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW” (they spell it out in case you miss it).
The humble visitor does not ascend these great steps to enter the court, however, but walks in through a little door at ground level, with the obligatory metal detectors. Inside the visitor center, one is presented with a monumental sculpture of John Marshall, who is often considered the greatest Supreme Court Justice ever. There are also plentiful little plaques and exhibits, and of course busts of many other justices, past and present, and a very beautiful marble spiral staircase. The visitor is permitted to ascent to the first floor, and peek into the courtroom. (The only way to actually enter, when court is not in session, is to sign up for a lecture.) Then, the visit is capped off by exiting out of the enormous, bronze doors.
As impressive as all this was, the cold dictates of justice did not touch me so nearly as the warm thrill of literature from right next door: the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. This is but one of three library buildings in the capital, the other two being the John Adams and the James Madison memorial buildings (to deal with the overflowing collection). As an institution, the Library of Congress is impressive. With a collection of over 170 million items, in 470 different languages, the Library of Congress plausibly claims to be the largest in the world. Like any famous library worth the name, it has an ample collection of rare books and manuscripts, including one of the three perfect versions of the Gutenberg Bible still in existence. Thomas Jefferson amply deserves to be the namesake of this library, as he personally sold his collection of 6,487 books to the federal government after the invading British burned the previous collection during the War of 1812. (A subsequent fire unfortunately destroyed many of Jefferson’s books as well.)
I am a sucker for books, of course, and rather fond of ornate architecture as well. So I was absolutely delighted with the Thomas Jefferson Building. The visitor is first confronted with the busts of literary giants, from left to right: Demosthenes, Emerson, Irving, Goethe, Franklin, Macaulay, Hawthorne, Scott, and Dante. Some of these choices do seem questionable to me, however. Why a Greek orator, an Italian poet, a German dramatist, a Scottish novelist, and an English historian? And why, in this great diverse nation, no women or minorities? I propose, then, that we replace old Demosthenes with Emily Dickinson, Goethe with Louisa May Alcott, Macaulay with Frederick Douglass, Scott with Herman Melville (a white man, yes, but for my money the greatest American novelist), and Dante with Walt Whitman (another white man, though at the very least sexually adventurous). I think we have quite enough native talent here to occupy all of the busts on our own national library, thank you very much!
The interior of the building is even more richly decorated than its façade. The Great Hall is covered in an elaborate program of murals, friezes, and sculptures, created by an enormous team of artists. It is a kind of secular cathedral, with personifications of the arts, sciences, and civic life. Little cherubins adorn the grand staircases leading up to the upper deck, while heroic figures in flowing robes masquerade as abstract concepts. The names of great writers—Cervantes, Shakespeare, Milton—with accompanying quotes are worked into the decorative program, preserving something of the taste of Ainsworth Rand Spodoff, who was the Librarian of Congress at the time. All of the decoration, abstract and figurative, is lovely. The room has a light and buzzing energy, not at all oppressive in its finery. The rare books on display complete the impression of a temple of knowledge.
From the upper level of the Great Hall the visitor can peak down into the equally vast Reading Room. I must confess that, at this point, the first thing that came to mind was the second National Treasure movie. I must further confess that I was feeling slightly annoyed, as I had mixed up the Library of Congress with the National Archive, and assumed that the Declaration of Independence was displayed here. In any case, the Reading Room is quite gorgeous—filled with concentric circles of reading desks, all beneath a towering dome. Here, too, allegorical women and Great Men stand guard, including statues of Beethoven, Homer, Plato, and Newton to keep the busy scholars company. (The statue of Columbus may be somewhat less welcome nowadays, however.) Even if I were looking up the number of hairs on the underside of a flea, I think I would feel quite wise and important while doing so in such a room.
As much as I love the idea of a national library serving as an enormous intellectual resource for the nation’s lawmakers, I wonder how often members of congress nowadays make use of this temple of knowledge. One suspects it is a lot less than ideal.
I want to mention here an institution in the neighborhood that I regret not visiting: the Folger Shakespeare Library. This is an independent research organization, dedicated to the bard. Its name may be familiar from the high-quality editions of Shakespeare’s works published by the library. For any Shakespeare fans, this is the nearest thing to a mecca in the United States, as the library has the largest collection of the bard’s printed plays, as well as a theater where his immortal works are performed. Admittedly, it does seem a little strange that an institute dedicated to an Elizabethan playwright is located in the heart of our nation’s capital; but I suppose we have never been able to shake off a bit of our ancestral anglophilia.
Well, we have visited two of the branches of the federal government, so it is high time we make our way over to the third: the executive. To get to the White House from the Capitol Building by foot means walking along the most famous stretches of road in the country, a section of Pennsylvania Avenue called “America’s Main Street.” The walk takes about half an hour, and leads past a few notable monuments. One is the National Archive—which, again, I regret not visiting—and another is the monumental Old Post Office building, designed in a castle-like Romanesque Revival style. I must say, however, that Washington D.C. is not a pleasant city to stroll about, even on its most famous avenue.
Unless you contact your Member of Congress to request an official tour, chances are you will be seeing the White House from the outside, as I did. Your choice, then, is to see the presidential residence from the north or the south. The southern route takes you to The Ellipse, a large clearing in President’s Park; and from the north the spectator must gaze from Lafayette Square. This last park is the scene of much recent controversy. Presiding over the green space is an equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson, a populist and a racist, which Black Lives Matter protesters attempted to remove during the 2020 protests. The police not only thwarted the demolition, but forcibly removed all of the protesters from the area with chemical irritants, in order to give the president photo opportunity with the nearby St. John’s Church. I will let Christians decide on the righteousness of this course of action.
The White House was completed in 1800, which means that John Adams, not George Washington, was the first president to occupy this iconic seat of American power. The building owes its design to the Irish Architect James Hoban, who himself was deeply influenced by the Italian Renaissance architect Andres Palladio, who himself was deeply influenced by the Roman architectural writer Vitruvius. In consequence, the style of the White House is thoroughly neoclassical. As with the Capitol Building, the White House has two distinct façades. The northern one, facing Lafayette Square, features four columns and a triangular pediment, while the southern façade consists of six columns on a semicircular bow. It is worth pointing out that, compared with either the Capitol or the Supreme Court buildings, the White House is conspicuously unadorned. There are no statues or allegorical friezes, which I think gives the building a certain gravitas.
As presidential power gradually expanded, and the president’s entourage grew, so did the White House. The West Wing was added during the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt, in order to deal with this influx of personnel, to which William Howard Taft later added the now iconic Oval Office. The East Wing was added a few decades later, thus giving us the symmetrical structure we have today. Having toured many palaces in Europe, I must say that the White House is, at least, refreshingly small by comparison. Charles L’Enfant envisioned a palace more along the lines of Versailles; but I agree with Jefferson in thinking that such a monstrous residence would be out of keeping with a democracy. The White House is not meant to be the domain of some distant, all-powerful ruler, but our house—the seat of the people’s power.
But let us leave this fraught symbol of national power and return, once again, to the National Mall. Whereas the eastern half of the mall is dominated by museums, the western half is given over to memorials. The grandest of these is, without a doubt, the Lincoln Memorial. The memorial takes the form of a Greek temple, situated at the end of a long reflecting pool. A staircase leads the visitor past two rows of columns and into this presidential shrine, where, instead of finding an enormous Athena, we are greeted with the equally august Abraham Lincoln. He sits, regal and somewhat world weary, on a kind of throne; and the text of two of his speeches—the Gettysburg Address, and his second inaugural address—adorn the walls on either side of this national hero. Though I cannot help a little irreverence in my description, in truth I found the memorial—and especially the statue of Lincoln, designed by Daniel Chester French—to be both beautiful and inspiring. It is rare that a monumental sculpture of a politician is so compellingly human.
Standing at the other end of the reflecting pool is the World War II Memorial, which was opened as recently as 2004. Perhaps the least famous of the mall memorials, it consists of a series of granite slabs in two opposed semicircles, one per each state and U.S. territory (56 in all). The Korean War Memorial, to the south of the pool, is rather more striking in design. 19 stainless steel soldiers, in full gear, bedecked in ponchos, make their way through what is doubtless muddy ground. For my part, the sculptures strike a difficult balance between portraying the horrors of war and capturing the determination of the soldiers.
The most iconic memorial, however, is that devoted to the Vietnam War, which stands north of the pool. In design, it could hardly be simpler: a black wall that cuts a triangle into the earth, inscribed with the names of all the servicemen (and, later, some women) who died in the conflict. At the time, this design was controversial, both for its simplicity and also because its designer was an Asian woman, Maya Lin. As a compromise, a more traditional sculpture, The Three Soldiers, was placed nearby. But history has vindicated Lin’s design. Even the casual visitor cannot help but sense the trauma left by the war. Indeed, the sculpture itself was conceived as a kind of wound in the earth, which opens and then closes as the visitor makes their way from end to end. Friends and family and old comrades still leave flowers and photos besides the names of their loved ones.
Before we leave the mall, I have to mention some memorials that I did not have the opportunity to visit. They are located around the Tidal Basin, the reservoir between the National Mall and the Potomac River. One is that dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr., which was completed in 2011. It is centered around a monumental sculpture of the civil rights leader, called The Stone of Hope (a line from King’s most famous speech), in which he emerges from a partially carved block of granite. (I should also mention that the spot from which King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech is also marked, on the steps to the Lincoln Memorial.) Further on is the Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial, which features an open, spread out design, commemorating the 32nd president with a series of scenes from his eventful tenure. But the memorial to Thomas Jefferson undoubtedly occupies the pride of place. Like that of Lincoln, Jefferson’s shrine is a pseudo-Greek temple, with a statue of Jefferson at the center, surrounded by some notable quotes of his. Though I think the building itself is impressive, I must say that I do not care for the bronze statue of Jefferson at the center.
Well, at this point I wish I could say, “Enough with dead presidents and old wars!” But our next destination has plenty more of both: the Arlington National Cemetery. To get there, the visitor will have to leave D.C. entirely, traveling across state lines to Virginia, via the Arlington Memorial Bridge. (The bridge had been proposed since at least Andrew Jackson’s presidency, but it was not built until 100 years later. It was conceived as a kind of symbolic reunification of North and South.) Though I cannot say the walk is especially scenic, at least you get a good view of the Potomac.
Arlington National Cemetery is a graveyard with an odd history. After the Revolutionary War, the land was bought by an adopted son of George Washington, whose daughter eventually married Robert E. Lee—a man who was, himself, the leading general of the secessionists during the Civil War. In a decision that was equal parts whimsical and spiteful, the land was then confiscated to be used as a resting place for the Union soldiers who died fighting against Lee’s forces. The Supreme Court eventually decided that this confiscation was not legal, and awarded Lee’s son a very large chunk of money for the land. It does seem ironic for the government to pay someone who wanted to secede from the country for use of their land, but I suppose even rebels deserve due process.
Arlington is a military cemetery. There are very strict rules for being interred on the grounds, most of which involve having served in the military (or being the family of someone who has). With 400,000 already buried, space is naturally limited. But one can immediately see why Arlington is such a coveted spot to inter one’s earthly remains. Even if this land had not been the residence of a rebellious general, it would still be ideally suited for the task. Consisting of rolling hills that rise up above the Potomac, the cemetery provides a commanding view of the surrounding area, including the Pentagon (which sits just to the south). In fact, Lee’s old house still stands on the property, an enormous neoclassical building that was, unfortunately, closed during my visit.
The most famous person buried in Arlington National Cemetery is John Fitzgerald Kennedy. His tomb is marked by a simple black slab, which stands before an endlessly burning torch, the “eternal flame.” Nearby are buried John’s two brothers, Edward and Robert, who lay under simple crosses. Another often-visited tomb is that of Audie L. Murphy, one of America’s most decorated soldiers from the Second World War, who went on to be a movie star in later life. But most of the landmarks in this cemetery are dedicated to groups of people—mostly men—who died in tragic circumstances.
There is, for example, the tomb to the unknown soldiers of the Civil War, which stands near Lee’s old mansion. Also notable is the tombstone dedicated to the crew of the space shuttle Challenger—a moving monument, unfortunately marred by quite ugly portraits of the crewmembers on the tombstone. Most monumental of the monuments is that devoted to those who died aboard the USS Maine, which exploded off the coast of Havana, sparking the Spanish-American War. (Most likely the Spanish had nothing to do with it, but the explosion was used as a pretext for hostilities.) The monument incorporates the main mast of the ship, likely making it the tallest structure in the cemetery.
More famous, perhaps, than even the tomb of John F. Kennedy, is the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This is a large marble vault in the courtyard of the cemetery’s amphitheater, where the unidentified remains from four American wars are interred—World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Well, since 1998 that number has been 3, since the remains of the Vietnam soldier were identified via mitochondrial DNA and disinterred.
In any case, the bodies inside the actual tomb are meant more as symbols of the many thousands of soldiers whose remains have been lost in the fog of war. As such, they are symbolically guarded by soldiers in the United States Army, around the clock, since the year 1937. These soldiers perform an elaborate ritual of pacing back and forth, snapping their rifle from soldier to soldier, in a series of actions so precisely timed and coordinated that it seems scarcely human. It is hypnotic to watch; one wonders at the amount of training that must have been necessary. Every hour or half-hour (depends on the month), the guard is relieved of duty in an equally elaborate ritual, known as the Changing of the Guards, in which the rifle is presented to the next guard on duty.
Now, here I am, at the end of a long post about the capital of the United States of America. And I am afraid that it has all been rather stuffy and dreary. Virtually all that makes Washington D.C. notable has to do with politics or war (which is, of course, just politics by other means). In other words, it is a city given over to monuments, memorials, and museums—beautiful, grandiose, and dead. Apart from these attrctions, the city center is mostly comprised of governmental offices, filled to the brim with bureaucrats, lawyers, administrators, clerks, officials, aides, and of course politicians (aside from all the tourists). This gives the city a curiously alien feel, as if it exists for nobody in particular—like an office full of disaffected workers. Even the shops and restaurants reinforce this impression, as the vast majority are chains and franchises, equally devoid of character.
So, to end this post, I would like to focus on a bastion of life in our nation’s great capital, a little takeout place called the Greek Deli, located right in the center of D.C. Its owner, Kostas Fostieris, has been working in this cramped little shop for over 30 years, beginning his workday at 3 in the morning. He was still going strong when we visited, September of last year. The deli serves an assortment of typical Greek staples: gyros, soups, hummus, salads, feta cheese, and so on. What makes the place so special—aside from the food being so very delicious—is that it is absolutely unpretentious. There is nothing trendy about the place; there is little outdoor seating, and there is no way to order via an app. Indeed, the deli is not even open on the weekends. Instead, the visitor must queue up, order from Fostieris himself, and then hope there is a spot to eat in one of the tables outside.
Explained in such a way, perhaps the deli does not sound so appealing. But in a city like D.C., it is a godsend. This was the one time during my whole visit that I felt like I was in a real place, filled with living people, people who were laboring, loving, and growing old in this chosen spot. This is the feeling one gets from any genuine community—and it is a feeling horribly lacking from the capital, or at least the city’s center. And, let me add, the story of a Greek immigrant struggling night and day to make his little shop a miniature institution is just as American as the Lincoln Monument. For my part, Kostas Fostieris is an American hero. At the very least, he has likely brought more joy into the world than many who have served inside the Capitol Building.
I am sure that is a lot more to D.C. than what I saw during my short visit. My only hope that there are enough pockets of life like the Greek Deli to help compensate for the sterile deserts of jingoistic vainglory that so dominate Washington. During my visit, I felt that the entire city epitomized the emotional distance between the ordinary citizen and those at the country’s helm—as if our politicians were the equivalent of the guard of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, enacting a stiffly ritual preservation of the illustrious dead. But, as Jefferson noted, “The earth belong always to the living generation.” This is why politics, at its best, shares the same goal as any great human endeavor: to touch people. And I cannot think of any better way of doing that than a delicious lamb gyro.
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California and New York have a relationship like many siblings. The two have much in common: they are wealthy, cosmopolitan, populous, and mostly liberal. And yet they drive each other crazy with their differences. Whereas New Yorkers are traditionally rude, uptight, stressed, and workaholic, the archetypical Californian is relaxed, gentle, happy, and obsessed with organic food and fair-trade coffee. Who is to say which is better?
I found myself reflecting on these differences as I walked off the plane that had taken me from JFK to the San Francisco airport, in the summer of 2018. The contrast was immediate. Any time you walk into JFK, you soon have someone yelling at you. But the airport here was calm and quiet. All the staff spoke to us in cheerful, polite tones. Of course, I was suspicious.
We were here to celebrate my cousin’s wedding, and to do some sightseeing in our free time. As it happens, all of my mother’s four siblings moved to California when they left home (whether from a hatred of NY or a love of Cali, it is unclear), which means that all of my cousins on my mother’s side were born and raised here in the sunny side of the country. It was inevitable that one of them would get married here.
My aunt picked us up from the airport. We were jet-lagged, tired, and quite hungry, and so we immediately headed to a restaurant. This meant a little bit of driving. Driving is fundamental to the Californian lifestyle; and since so many people live here, that means traffic is as well. But at least there are some nice places to drive. As a case in point, we were soon crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, probably the most famous bridge in our country (the only competition being the Brooklyn Bridge).
Now, when we were crossing this bridge, I am afraid that I mostly did not get a good look at it, since the bridge and its surroundings were shrouded in a thick fog. As I quickly came to appreciate, this is not unusual in San Francisco during the summer. The reasons for such abundant mist are rather elusive to me. Essentially, the fog forms because the air over land is heated more quickly than the air over the oceans. The hot air, then, rises, which means cold air is sucked in to replace it. And this cold air happens to be foggy, since it comes from the ocean. And as this process works best when the sun is hottest, San Francisco summers are foggy.
(The reason I say that this reasoning is elusive to me is that the same logic would seem to apply to any coastal city; but New York, Valencia, and Hong Kong are not foggy to such a degree.)
The climatic consequences of this are interesting. You can have hot sunny days a few miles inland, but in San Francisco itself it will be cool and misty—even a bit chilly. Indeed, Mark Twain famously wrote: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” That adage has a few problems, however, the first being that Mark Twain never actually wrote it. Another problem is that it is not true to begin with. Winters in New York are a lot colder, as Twain well knew.
Well, if I could see the bridge on that foggy afternoon, I would have seen one of the great engineering marvels of the world. At the time it was built (in the 1930s), the Golden Gate Bridge was the longest and tallest bridge on earth. The bridge connects the city of San Francisco with Marin County (where we were going to eat), spanning the entrance to the ample San Francisco Bay. It owes its fame, not only to its dimensions, but to its elegant design and bold orange color (the paint is called “international orange”), not to mention its dramatic location at the crossroads of land and sea.
Soon enough, we parked the car in the small town of Sausalito. Like the city of San Francisco, this town’s name preserves its Spanish origins (sauce means “willow tree”; sauzal means “a willow grove”; and sauzalito means “a little willow grove”). In the past, the town was a center of ship construction; but nowadays it is a touristy little town full of nice restaurants and cute shops, with a great view of the bay. We ate in an Italian restaurant and I felt greatly relieved. But our chit chat was interrupted when somebody said: “Is that Santana?” Everyone’s eyes turned to look at someone behind me.
“There’s no way that Santana is in this Italian restaurant,” I thought, and mentally justified not turning around. Then I saw somebody walk out of the restaurant: It was, indeed, the legendary guitarist Santana. This was my welcome to California.
San Francisco is located at the tip of a peninsula enclosing the eponymous bay. In many ways the city’s geography was its destiny. A center of commerce with limited land, the city had little choice but to expand upwards. These same factors determined the history of Manhattan; and, as a result, the two are among the most visually striking cities in the United States—a collection of spires rising out of the blue.
If you have gone to Catholic school, you may have guessed that San Francisco was named after St. Francis of Assisi. To this day, the oldest structure in the city is a small white building topped with a crucifix, a part of the Misión San Francisco de Asís, a holdover of the original Spanish mission to the peninsula. One must realize, then, that a city known for being a center of liberal politics, of the Summer of Love, of the gay rights movement, of the ultra-wealthy Silican Valley technicians, was named after a Catholic monk who took a vow of poverty. History is full of these delightful ironies.
We awoke early the next day (though still groggy from the jetlag) to begin our first day of exploring San Francisco. This time, we entered the city through the Bay Bridge, directly across the bay. This of course meant traffic and a toll. But it did provide a rather dramatic entrance to the city. At four and a half miles long (over 7km), the Bay Bridge is one of the longest bridges in the United States. It is not one continuous span, however, but two separate bridges linked to the Yerba Buena island in the middle of the bay. (“Yerba Buena” is a corruption of hierbabuena, which literally means ‘good herb,’ and is commonly used to refer to spearmint.)
This bridge has been reconstructed fairly recently. The original construction consisted of a suspension bridge on the west, and a cantilever bridge on the east. But an earthquake in 1989 damaged the eastern section, which eventually led to its being rebuilt with another, more stylish, suspension bridge, opened in 2013. Photos of the construction look very much like the construction of the new Tappan Zee bridge in Westchester, quite near my home, where another old cantilever bridge was replaced by a sleek and stylish suspension bridge. And, indeed, the same barge crate was used in both constructions: the Left Coast Lifter, an enormous contraption painted patriotic red, white, and blue, used to heave big pieces of bridge into place.
On a clear day, the Bay Bridge would afford you a magnificent view of the city. On this particular day, however, it gave us a rather less magnificent view of gray fog. But this did lend the city an intriguing air of mystery.
Our first stop was Coit Tower. This tower is not exactly conspicuous amid the skyscrapers now crowding the city; but when it was built, in the 1930s, this was the finest view in town. The tower is of fairly modest dimensions, about 200 feet tall. But it stands on Telegraph Hill, one of the hilly city’s tallest and most ideally situated hills. This makes the tower a wonderful place to enjoy the view—when it is not foggy, that is. In any case, the tower is interesting in itself. Made of unadorned concrete, it has a vaguely industrial shape, perhaps like a sprinkler. Considering that the tower is dedicated to fallen firefighters, many have surmised that it was to look like a fire hydrant. The resemblance is apparently coincidental, however.
Coit Tower owes its name to Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a wealthy dowager who patronized the volunteer fire department, and who left money in her will for the beautification of the city. I would say that the money was well spent, considering the tourists crowded into every inch of the building. We entered, paid the fee, and went up to the top. The building is narrow and there is only one small elevator providing service up and down. In any case, as soon as I reached the roof, I wanted to turn back. It was rainy, the wind was howling, and the fog put a damper on the view.
But Coit Tower has much to offer besides its view. On the bottom floor, there is a continuous mural running across the outer and inner walls of the hallway. It is detailed and impressive work, done during the height of the Great Depression, under the auspices of the Public Works of Art Project. Indeed, Coit Tower was the pilot project of this organization, an experiment in using public funds to employ artists to beautify public buildings. The results are still heartening. The murals are done in a Social Realist style, showing stylized scenes of America.
What makes the art “social realist” is not so much that the paintings are particularly realistic, but that they attempt to encapsulate the everyday American experience. Thus, we see street life, factories, and farms, rather than saints, heroes, or Greek gods. Personally I found the murals both aesthetically pleasing and even vaguely inspiring—showing pride and faith in our sprawling country. Certainly, such a thing seems very distant nowadays. Perhaps we ought to bring back the Public Works of Art Project. I am sure there are still lots of needy artists willing to paint inspirational scenes in public spaces.
After this we headed to the Financial District. Anywhere money is centered, big grey buildings are likely to follow; and so this is where the city’s skyscrapers are found. When you factor in the regular grid pattern of the streets, the final result looks remarkably similar to midtown Manhattan (though not as dirty). The Financial District even has its own Wall Street, in the form of Montgomery Street, one of the country’s great concentrations of capitalist activity.
For over forty years—from 1971 to 2017—the skyline of San Francisco was dominated by the Transamerica Pyramid, a daring modernist triangle of glass and steel. Even now, the building seems futuristic in its design. The same cannot quite be said for its younger brother, the Salesforce Tower, which surpassed the pyramid upon its completion in 2017. It is difficult to find anything positive to say about this building’s design. Its shape calls to mind objects not normally mentioned in polite conversation, and its bloated form does not harmoniously blend in with the San Francisco skyline, but dominates and disrupts the picture. I must admit, however, that the building is an impressive technical achievement, since erecting safe skyscrapers in the seismically-active city is no easy feat.
For lunch, we headed to Yank Sing, a dim sum restaurant in the famous Rincon Center. The building itself has an elegant art-deco design. But it is most notable for the murals inside, which also date from the Federal Arts Project. The best murals are to be found in the old post office, and were painted by the Russian immigrant Anton Refregier. They are also part of the social realist tradition, and treat of the history of San Francisco—covering major events, like the 1848 gold rush, the 1860 completion of the trans-continental railroad, and the horrible 1906 earthquake. Refregier’s sense of injustice and oppression caused some controversy, as it led him to portray some of the less attractive scenes of American history—a choice that got him into trouble as a communist sympathizer during the Red Scare. Thankfully, the murals have escaped destruction by bigots.
After we finished eating and enjoying the art, we got back in the car to head to the most iconic stretch of asphalt in the entire city: Lombard Street. This is a twisting street, consisting of eight hair-pin turns, that leads down one of San Francisco’s many hills. I have never seen anything else like it. The last time I had visited San Francisco was over ten years earlier, when I was quite young, and I still had a vivid memory of this road—so crazily misshaped. On this particular summer day, as the fog began to clear, the street was quite beautiful. Flowers bloomed in the little gardens beside the pavement, and plants even colonized one colorful house nearby.
This seems like an appropriate time to discuss San Francisco’s topography. Like Rome itself, San Francisco claims to have been built on “seven hills,” though there are an awful lot more than seven hills in the city. Indeed, there are six times more: 42 hills, ranging in height from 200 to over 900 feet tall. I can only imagine that the city’s marathon is punishing on one’s knees, and that owning a car means frequent brake repair. It is probably due to this inclination that San Francisco developed its famous cable car system—one of the city’s most identifiable symbols. In its hilliness and its in street cars, this Californian city has an intriguing resemblance to Lisbon, a city with its own big orange bridge.
Now we decided to visit the city’s most famous book store: City Lights. I must confess that I had never heard of it, and I walked out thinking that it was just a particularly nice shop. But my dear mother soon informed me that it was this humble store which published Allan Ginsberg’s iconic collection, Howl and Other Poems, in 1956—a pivotal moment in the Beats movement, as the resulting obscenity trial changed censorship practices and catapulted Ginsberg to national fame. When I found this out, I went right back inside and bought myself a copy of this poem. (Fortunately, after the store’s continued existence was threatened by the coronavirus lockdowns, an online fundraiser helped to save the business.)
After this adventure in literature, we retreated to the nearby Caffe Trieste for some caffeine. This is an elegant little establishment which holds the distinction of being the first Italian-style café on the West coast. As you might expect, having a quality coffee house near a center of the Beats movement meant that this spot also became a meeting-point for literati, like Alan Watts, Jack Keruac, and Alan Ginsberg himself. But I was mostly struck by the prices. Coffee in San Francisco is not cheap! Indeed, ever since we landed, everything I saw seemed absurdly expensive to me; and this is no coincidence.
Though San Francisco was the center of the Beats movement, the setting of the 1967 Summer of Love, and in the 1980s the epicenter of gay liberations, nowadays the city has gone the way of so many major cities—it is simply too expensive for anyone but high-earners to live there. A big part of this is due to the proximity of Silicon Valley, just a few miles south. The influx of big business has made the cost of living shoot up: the typical rent is higher than $4,500, and the typical house costs well over one million. According to this article, homelessness has increased by 17% in the last two years alone (and who knows how the coronavirus depression will affect that!). In short, it is not a great city to visit if you wish to travel on a budget.
Hippiedom and corporations aside, there are some traces of religion left in the coastal city. I have already mentioned the old San Francisco mission. There are some impressive church buildings as well, such as Grace Cathedral. This is the city’s Episcopal cathedral. The structure was completed in a resplendent neo-gothic style, doing a convincing imitation of Paris’s Notre-Dame. Yet the church doors are not gothic, but Renaissance in style; indeed, they are full-scale replicas of the Gates of Paradise. These are a set of bronze doors by Lorenzo Ghiberti, made for the baptistry of Florence, now considered to be great masterpieces of the early Renaissance. The replicas in San Francisco are wonderfully done, and were just as enjoyable to examine. The interior of the cathedral is quite as majestically gothic as the outside, with gilded paintings and stained glass illuminating the stone space. It even has a replica of Chartres’s labyrinth.
Not far off is the city’s catholic cathedral, Saint Mary’s. Completed in 1971, the building is so oddly shaped that you could be forgiven for not thinking it was a place of worship. To me, it resembles an enormous washing machine agitator, ready to rinse off the sky. While I am not an enemy of modern architecture, I do think that churches ought to be a bit more solemn and less, well, ridiculous in appearance. This church was built to replace the original cathedral, which had been standing since 1854. Reduced to the status of a humble church, this building still stands, now called Old St. Mary’s. While no architectural marvel, the simple brick building does have the conspicuous advantage of looking like a church.
Perhaps the most beautiful catholic church in the city is Saint Peter’s and Saint Paul’s. It is a pale white building with two long, narrow spires. The interior is quite lovely, with a coffered ceiling leading to a semi-dome above the main altar. The church even has a full-scale replica of Michelangelo’s Pietá—and it is extremely well-done. A center of the Italian-American community, the church holds services in Italian as well as in English. Somewhat more surprisingly, the church also holds services in Cantonese!
After some milling about in town, we got back in the car for the day’s final destination: Lands End. As you might have guessed, this is one of the many spots in San Francisco where earth meets water. More specifically, this is a park near the mouth of the bay. It is quite a romantic spot, with shrubby trees clinging to rocky soil, with the wind and the waves crashing in. The visitor’s center sits above a kind of rocky crater, beside which stand some ruins of old structures. This is all that remains of the famed Sutro Baths, an enormous complex of swimming pools that used to attract thousands of visitors.
I took some time to walk along the shoreline. The landscape is beautiful and dramatic, with whitecaps washing over sunbleached rocks, and the rolling hills crawling out from under the screen of fog. As I walked on, the Golden Gate Bridge came into view—still partially shrouded by the mist, but magnificent nonetheless.
I also noticed something strange in the water, a sort of concrete stump in the middle of the bay. I learned from a nearby sign that this is the Miles Rock Lighthouse. It was built after the SS City of Rio de Janeiro ran into a submerged reef and sank in 1901, killing 135 of the 220 on board. Originally, this lighthouse—which is built on a lonely rock—had the recognizable form of a tower, but in the 1960s the top floor was demolished in order to make room for a helicopter landing pad. Nowadays, the lights are automated, so nobody has to sit there, alone, in the middle of the foggy bay.
So ended my first day in San Francisco. We got back into the car and drove by the famous Cliff House restaurant, which overlooks the Seal Rocks (both of these very accurately named). Then, after a pizza dinner, we were on our way back to the suburbs. But I would return.
San Francisco is blessed to have the rail system with the dorkiest name in the country: BART, which stands for Bay Area Rapid Transit. For my next day in the city, I hopped on the BART by my aunt’s house in the suburbs, and disembarked at the Embarcadero. This is the city’s waterfront to the east, facing the bay; and its name is yet another mark of the city’s Spanish heritage (embarcadero is a place where you board a vehicle). With the weather quite clear and sunny, I could see the full span of the Bay Bridge. Infrastructure is inspiring.
I walked along the water, enjoying the gentle breeze and the bright sun, pausing occasionally to examine anything that caught my eye. This certainly included the giant sculpture, Cupid’s Span, which consists of a huge bow and arrow that have been stuck into the ground. Designed by the artist team Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen (who are married), the sculpture is meant to pay homage to San Francisco’s history as a city of love. (But to me it looks as though cupid had carelessly lost his weapon, which is not good news for would-be lovers.)
Next I passed the Ferry Building, which looks vaguely like a medieval city hall—with a large clocktower shooting up from a lower structure. This beaux-arts style building actually took its inspiration from the Giralda, the half-Moorish, half-Renaissance bell tower of Seville’s cathedral. As you may imagine, before the construction of the major bridges, ferries were quite important to the life of the city. But as time went on, the building came to be seen more and more as a historical monument, and parts were even rented out for use as office space. Nowadays, however, the building has regained some of its former luster, and is a tourist attraction in its own right—with a food court and a market in the “Grand Nave.” It is still the main ferry hub for the city.
While I walked along, I noticed an interesting presence on the streets: big, hulking streetcars. This is the city’s historic streetcar service. Much like the city’s cable cars, these streetcars now mainly serve a nostalgic purpose, ferrying tourists in creaky wooden and metallic boxes across the city. But they really are quite charming to see, as they scuttle past like big colorful beetles. Incidentally, I also passed by the Fog City Diner, a landmark restaurant with a classic, retro appeal. I later ate here with my family, and the food was fantastic.
My next stop was Pier 39. This pier is one of the city’s major tourist centers, which means it is crowded and filled with all sorts of touristy junk. But the pier is still worth visiting, if only for the view. From the end of the dock, you can see both the Golden Gate and the Bay Bridge; and behind you there is Coit Tower and the Transamerica Pyramid. What most attracts attention, however, are the Sea Lions. A few decades ago, these animals preferred to lounge on the rocks near Cliff House, but for some reason they moved inside the bay and set up camp here. The sea lions took over these docks and have not budged since. The number of animals present on any given day fluctuated. When I visited, there were probably around 50; but there can be many times that number.
There are still more things to see from the pier. The SS Jeremiah O’Brien was docked not far off in the bay, a so-called Liberty ship. These were medium-sized cargo ships mass-produced during the Second World War, to ferry goods and men across the Atlantic. This particular ship has quite an impressive record, having been part of the D-Day Armada and seeing use in the Pacific Theater. The ship normally sits in the dock, available for tours; but occasionally it takes tourists on short rides.
Yet by far the most famous thing in the bay is not a ship, but an island: Alcatraz. You may be surprised to learn that this name also dates back to the Spanish occupation. Nowadays, the word alcatraz is used to refer to garrets; but at the time the word was used for pelicans (both are white, coastal birds). Thus, Alcatraz is the island of the pelicans—as it remains, incidentally.
(It is also curious to note that this word—like virtually all the Spanish words that begin with “al-”—is a loan word from Arabic, dating all the way back to Moorish Spain. It most likely comes from al-ḡaṭṭās (in Arabic: الْغَطَّاس), which means “the diver.” So the name of one of the world’s most famous prisons comes from a Spaniard misidentifying a bird, using a word that was misheard from Arabic several centuries earlier. History is a funny thing.)
The last time I had been in San Francisco, I visited this island with my family. Nowadays, unfortunately, you need to have booked tickets in advance in order to visit, so we missed our shot. But I do have a strangely vivid memory of my time on this island. It is an arresting mixture of the wretched and the beautiful—with dark, concrete cells surrounded by ocean and sky. Because of the frigid waters and strong tides of the bay, the prison was considered escape-proof, though three prisoners tested this notion in 1962 (as dramatized in the classic film). The iconic gangster Al Capone was imprisoned here, as well as the famous “Bird Man” of Alcatraz, Robert Franklin Stroud, who did important work on bird diseases during his many years of imprisonment. (Alcatraz, however, did not let him have either birds or equipment.)
By now, I had had enough of the overpriced and gaudy seaside, so I headed to one of San Francisco’s great neighborhoods: Chinatown. San Francisco has a claim to being the most important city in Chinese-American history, as the city’s Chinatown—established in 1848—is the country’s oldest. Though New York City has a higher Chinese population in total, people of Chinese descent make up a greater portion (about a quarter) of San Francisco than NYC or anywhere else in America. As it happens, most of the residents in the Bay Area hail from southern China, where Cantonese rather than Mandarin is spoken (which explains why some services at St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s are offered in that language).
The most recognizable landmark in the neighborhood is the Dragon Gate—a stylized arch (called a pailou), with two fearsome guardian lions on either side. This was actually a gift from Taiwan, and was erected as a kind of PR stunt during the Korean War for the Chinese-American community (since the People’s Republic of China was fighting on North Korea’s side).
Two other notable landmarks are the Sing Fat and Sing Chong buildings, both on Grant Street. These feature an arresting combination of typical Western and Chinese building styles—looking like ordinary buildings that have grown ornamental frills, towers, and swoops. But elaborate architecture is not needed to know that you are in Chinatown. Every surface is covered with Chinese characters, and red lamps hang over the streets.
I had quite a bit of fun simply walking around. I love walking into Chinese grocery stores and food shops, as they are always full of unfamiliar products and brands, all of them wrapped in sparkling colors. As I walked by an alley, I spotted a couple men practicing a dragon dance. And I even paid a short visit to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company, which is exactly what it sounds like: a small factory for fortune cookies. But the best part of visiting Chinatown was the food. I waited online at a dumpling shop and walked out with enough food for three people, all for less than $10. In San Francisco, where a ham sandwich can cost more than that, this is beyond a bargain. And it was delicious.
Next, I wanted to visit a museum. San Francisco has plenty to offer in that regard. There is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), which has a vast collection of 20th century art, all housed in an appropriately daring building. There is the Legion of Honor, an imposing neoclassical building with a wide-ranging collection of (mostly European) art; and the de Young Museum, which mainly focuses on art from the United States. If you are looking for something a little more interactive, the Exploratorium—located on the Embarcadero—is full of participatory exhibits. (The museum was the brainchild of Frank Oppenheimer—a far more beneficent gift to humankind than Frank’s older brother’s gift of the atomic bomb.)
But I only had time for one museum, and the one which interested me the most was the Asian Art Museum. This museum is located right across from San Francisco’s city hall—a lovely Palladian structure with a gilded dome—as well as from the main branch of the San Francisco public library. The museum is an enormous institution in its own right, with one of the country’s great collections of Asian art. As I walked through the galleries—going from India, to China, to Japan—I found myself more and more deeply amazed, both at the quality of the collection and of the art itself, and once again filled with a burning desire to learn more about these cultures. But as I am, alas, still quite deplorably ignorant, I will let my photos do the talking:
This concluded my last full day in San Francisco. It was late and I needed to get back to my Aunt’s house for dinner. So I made my way to the nearest BART station and was whisked back across the bay. But I still had time for a last glimpse of the city.
On one beautifully unfoggy day, I took BART into the city center. I was going to go on a bike ride with my cousins. And to get to our rendezvous-point, I had to walk through one of the most famous neighborhoods in San Francisco: Haight-Ashbury.
Of all the famous cultural moments in the history of San Francisco, the 1967 Summer of Love may be the most iconic. That summer, tens of thousands of hippies—dressed in tie-dye and bell-bottom jeans, taking every type of substance you can imagine—converged on the city in order to protest war, reject capitalism, and in general to imagine a different kind of world. It was one of the high points of the sixties counter-cultural movement, an event that helped to identify an entire generation. The moment was so notable as to even merit its own hit song: “San Francisco,” by Scott McKenzie. It summed up the moment thusly:
All across the nation
Such a strange vibration
People in motion
There’s a whole generation
With a new explanation
And indeed there was.
All hippiedom aside, the neighborhood is quite beautiful in itself, for its array of classic Victorian-style houses. These constitute perhaps the most distinctive buildings in the city—stately, elegant structures of wood and many windows, all scrunched up against one another in the city’s rolling hills. Residents have taken to painting them mellow, contrasting colors, leading to the popular nickname “Painted Ladies.” Personally, I found the neighborhoods quite charming. And I was also taken with the detectable aftershocks of the summer of love in the neighborhood, such as an “anarcho-syndicalist” bookstore (presumably one doesn’t have to pay?), and the coffee shop where I waited, which served a very nice brew in a space dominated by used books.
Finally it was time to assemble with my cousins. Within mere minutes, we had rented bikes and were pedalling our way through Golden Gate Park. If San Francisco’s Painted Ladies are the city’s equivalent to New York City’s brownstones, then the Golden Gate Park is the city’s Central Park. In fact, it is quite a bit larger than Manhattan’s greenspace, which is impressive in a city that is a fraction of NYC’s size. However, the two famous parks could never be confused by a visitor. Whereas Central Park is full of maples and oaks over a gently rolling field of grass, the Golden Gate Park has palm trees, eucalyptus, and cypress, which to me seemed quite beautiful and exotic.
Even more exotic were the bison, which were lounging casually in a field. This was almost certainly the first time I had ever laid eyes on a live bison. (There are stuffed ones in the American Museum of Natural History.) And, of all places, I did not expect it to happen in San Francisco. The park had purchased a herd back in 1899, when the country’s bison population was threatened; and it seems the habit of keeping bison is hard to kick.
We made our way through the patchwork of roads, paths, and bridges, until we came to a large open garden. This is where the de Young Museum (mentioned above) is located, as well as the California Academy of Sciences. But I was more interested in a lovely sculpture of two of my heroes, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, praying to their creator Cervantes—yet another echo of Spain in this Californian city. We dismounted and walked for a bit, enjoying the sun and the bird calls (most of which were entirely unfamiliar to me), until we came to the park’s end.
Suddenly, the sky opened up and the land expanded into a sandy beach: the very literally-named Ocean Beach. There were a few scattered surfers in the distance (which caused my cousin’s boyfriend, an Australian, keen envy). Behind me, I observed a beautiful Dutch-style windmill, which had been constructed in 1903 as a tasteful way of pumping water into the park.
My time in the city was quickly coming to an end. We pedalled back to the other side of the parks, returned the bikes, and then had dinner in a bar. Soon, I was on the BART, heading back to the suburbs.
Inevitably, I missed a great deal during my trip. I would have liked to have visited more museums and to have seen Alcatraz once again. I also regret not paying a visit to the Castro District, one of the country’s most important gay neighborhoods. It was here that Harvey Milk became the nation’s first openly gay elected official, before his gruesome assassination. It was also here that the nation first came to grips with the horrible AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.
San Francisco is, without a doubt, one of the great American cities. Its history is fascinating, and its personality is unmistakable. Yet the city I had seen was very different from the city of Allen Ginsberg, Scott McKenzie, and Harvey Milk. Nowadays, San Francisco is the city of Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk. Whether or not this is an improvement, I will let its residents decide.
Soon enough I was walking through the airport gate, back into JFK. And it was not long before someone was yelling rudely. It felt good to be home.
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Every child should have someplace wild nearby. For me it was the Rockefeller State Park Preserve. I was fortunate enough to have the entire sprawling forest right behind my house, accessible through the back fence. So much of my childhood is connected with that place. I remember searching for ghosts with a polaroid camera, playing make-believe with the neighbors, and taking a winter walk with my family. When it snowed we would sled down the hill behind our house (and my unfortunate brother split his lip this way, when his sled collided with a tree).
I really came to cherish the forest when we got a dog. Dogs need to be walked, of course, and the forest was the perfect place to do it. Most dogs would love to be walked somewhere with so many plants, animals, and other dogs. But my dog was rather special. She was only mildly interested in chasing squirrels; she was even apathetic towards other dogs. There were really only two things that mattered to her: humans and food. The forest had the former in abundance—people out for a walk or a jog—and every time I passed another person I had to wrap the leash around my wrist and hold it tight to prevent her from jumping all over her new friends. The forest also had things to eat, in the form of dog and deer droppings; but I tried to discourage that, too.
My dog’s life came and went, but the forest remained. The many years of walking her instilled the habit in me so deeply that I continued to take walks in the forest just for myself. In fact, I started to walk much further than I ever could with my poor girl, since she had hip dysplasia (a common malady among purebreds). The forest was bigger than I had ever known. There were so many paths left to explore, stretching for miles and miles behind my house. It has been the work of years to know them all; and even now I am missing a few corners of the map. The park is so big that I reached its most distant corners when I took up running as regular exercise. That is the only way (besides horseback) to go from one end of the park to the other in a comfortable span of time. (Cycling is not permitted in the park, though it is allowed on the Aqueduct Trail.)
In this post, then, I would like to tell you everything I have learned about this park over the years. I have done my best to be as thorough as possible, describing the geography, climate, topography, history, flora, and fauna of the park. But I am not a scientist or a naturalist, or even a particularly knowledgeable amateur. Indeed, this post would have been impossible without the resources compiled by experts and nature-lovers alike, many of which are free online. Technology, for all of its ravages, does have its perks.
We shall begin at the beginning: with the formation of the earth. According to the geological maps I have been able to find—available on a superb application called Rockd—the bedrock of this area is composed of Fordham gneiss. The gneiss was formed between four billion and one billion years ago, which makes it one of the oldest rock formations in the world. Gneiss is a metamorphic rock (made by transforming other types of rock, such as granite in this case) created under high pressure and temperatures. This gives it a characteristic and rather attractive banding pattern that you can find on some of the exposed boulders in the area.
According to what I have been able to find (and the American Museum of Natural History’s exhibition on the New York State environment is the best resource I have come across), gneiss tends to form only a thin layer of fertile humus on the surface, making such areas ill-suited for agriculture. Further, gneiss tends to weather into “massive rough surfaces” (to quote the AMHN), which again is not ideal for planting and harvesting. You can see some of the exposed gneiss at various points in the park, most notably in the high elevations between the Aqueduct Trail and the Big Tree Trail. I suppose that this gneissic bedrock is why the land was mostly left alone by previous farmers. (Admittedly, the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture is situated on the same bedrock, and they seem to have no trouble with their agriculture.)
The landscape also bears the traces of the previous ice age, which ended around 12,000 years ago. This is most obvious in the glacial erratics (large boulders left by the receding glaciers) that are scattered about. One of these is Spook Rock, a fairly nondescript rock with an obscure scary story attached to it, after which a trail is named. Then there is the nameless glacial erratic, which is tucked into a detour off of Nature’s Way, one of the park’s smallest trails. According to a story in the New York Times from 1987, this massive rock is perhaps the biggest glacial erratic in the country, and certainly the biggest in the Hudson Valley. It stands about 20 feet high and is over 60 feet in diameter, which means that it must weigh several tons. Just imagine such a thing being budged, bit by bit, by frozen water. Nowadays, benches are set up around the rock, where I assume educators give presentations to students.
On the subject of rocks, I ought to mention Raven’s Rock. This is not a glacial erratic, but a large exposed rock formation. As usual in these parts, a couple ghost stories have been attached to this place, too. In fact, Raven’s Rock is referenced in Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: “Some mention was made also of the woman in white, that haunted the dark glen at Raven Rock, and was often heard to shriek on winter nights before a storm, having perished there in the snow.” Of course, there is some question as to whether the rock was named after this episode in the story, or vice versa.
The topography of the park is not especially dynamic. New York in general is geologically inactive. A mild earthquake in 2011 was enough to send people running from tall buildings, and made front-page news. A lack of tectonic activity makes for relatively flat landscapes, and consequently this area is hilly rather than mountainous. Rockefeller’s own house, Kykuit, occupies the highest point in the Pocantico Hills, just 500 feet above sea level. According to my running app, even the hilliest paths barely exceed 500 feet in elevation over several miles of trail. As discussed below, the paths were originally laid out for horse-drawn carriages, which require a relatively flat surface.
The Rockefeller State Park Preserve partakes in the climate of the lower Hudson River Valley, which is classified as humid continental. This means that there are quite dramatic seasonal changes in temperature, from well below freezing in winter to upwards of 90°F (or 32°C) in summer—both of which can be uncomfortable and even dangerous if you do not take proper precautions. Rainfall is heavy and steady. The yearly average is over 50 inches (or 130 cm) per year—for comparison, London gets less than half that amount—and it rains in all seasons. The typical Hudson Valley sky is low and grey, a consequence of the ever-present stratus clouds.
Even when it is not rainy, humidity is typically quite high, which can make summer days unpleasant. Even so, summer is my favorite time in the park, since the leaves shine with an intense greenness that I rarely see in Europe. It usually snows in the winter months, though how often and how much can vary quite a lot from year to year. The park can take on an ethereal beauty after a good snowfall. All of this snow, rain, cloudiness, and humidity can be somewhat depressing; but it does allow for a verdant landscape, full of plants and all the animals that they support. Fall is perhaps the most comfortable and certainly the most beautiful season in the park, when the trees turn bright shades of red, orange, and yellow. This effect is far more pronounced in the United States than in Western Europe, which is due to the much greater variety of tree species in America (a byproduct of the ice age).
The Hudson River is the most important geographic feature in the area. The river is unusual for having waters that alternately flow north and south, depending on the ocean’s tide. This alternating current is due to the river being, in its southern portion, a tidal estuary, intimately connected with New York’s harbor. For this same reason, the Hudson’s waters are brackish (a mixture of salt and fresh water), are thus not potable. The Hudson also marks a divide in the area’s geography, as the rock formations on either side of the river are vastly different in age and type. The rocks directly across from the Rockefeller State Park, in Nyack, were formed in the Late Triassic, and have been found to contain dinosaur fossils. That is a difference of at least half a billion years in age.
But the Hudson is not the only relevant water feature in the park. Several smaller rivers and brooks—tributaries of the Hudson—wind their way through the park’s confines, having long ago carved out a channel within the topography. The most important of these is the Pocantico River (whose name is derived from its indigenous appellation). It is normally between ten and twenty feet across, and usually not much deeper than your knee. Normally the current is gentle enough to allow you or your dog to walk right in, though strong rains cause the river to swell and flood, washing over the bases of neighboring trees. Even smaller and gentler are the little Rockefeller and Gory Brooks, which connect with the Pocantico and which all eventually flow into the Hudson. As charming as are these little rivers, it is worth noting that they are quite contaminated—more so, in fact, than the Hudson River itself—and this from sewage leakage. Do not be tempted if you are thirsty.
The biggest water feature in the park is Swan Lake, with an area of 24 acres. This is one of the most picturesque areas in the park, as well as one of the best spots to see many of the local bird species. Quite nearby, though technically not within the park itself, is Pocantico Lake. This lake used to be used as a reservoir, and ruins of the old waterworks building still stand next to the dam. Every year, the lake is stocked with hundreds of brown trout, which swim down the Pocantico River into the Hudson. Other native fish include perch and suckers; and if you have the relevant license you are free to cast your line into the waters—though I do not think I have ever actually seen somebody do so. (Judging from observation, the fishing seems to be better in the nearby Tarrytown Lakes.)
Human habitation in this area goes back far before Henry Hudson sailed up his eponymous river in 1609. Back then, the land of the park was occupied by the Wecquaesgeek people, a subgroup of the Wappinger. They spoke an Algonquin language closely related to the Lenape (the people who were living on the island of Manhattan), and lived as hunter-gatherers, dressing themselves in the skins of deer and beaver. When the Dutch began to settle in large numbers, in 1624, thus commenced a series of treaties, epidemics, and battles, all of which resulted in the Wecquaesgeek being pushed off their land. I do not know if any native artifacts have ever been found on the grounds of the park, or if anyone has ever looked.
Nowadays, the only things that may vaguely remind the visitor of this history are the lean-tos, situated in the forest near Spook Rock. Technically, they are not lean-tos, but “survival shelters,” made by leaning sticks against the base of a tree; and I very much doubt that they actually resemble anything that was built by the Wecquaesgeek. I believe they are made as demonstrations for boy scouts, judging by the little benches that have been set up nearby. If you find yourself lost in the middle of the woods for an extended period of time, I suppose that knowing how to build one of these may come in handy. Perhaps the very oldest surviving human constructions in the park are the stone walls that can be seen in many areas. These were built well over a century ago by yankee farmers, and they accomplished several purposes. The fields had to be cleared of stones to allow for planting; and the stone barriers helped to mark boundaries and keep livestock from escaping.
The history of the park as it exists today begins with one of the most controversial men in American history: John D. Rockefeller, Sr., a man whose very name has become synonymous with wealth. In 1893, Rockefeller purchased the land for what was to become his new home, Kykuit, on the Pocantico hills overlooking the Hudson. Part of the reason he chose this spot was because his brother, William, had already built a mansion for himself fairly closeby, called Rockwood.
Rockefeller was a man of few pleasures, among which was to ride in his elaborate horse-drawn carriages. Thus, he made sure to buy up huge tracts of lands adjacent to his new home, which he turned into a kind of paradise for scenic rides. This explains the peculiar characteristic of the park’s trails: they are quite wide and usually have a gentle inclination—both of which are necessary for horse-drawn carriages. Rockefeller was something of an amateur landscape designer, and many of the trails were laid out by the tycoon himself, along with his son. You can still occasionally see carriages being driven along the trails of the park, presumably owned by the descendents of the Rockefeller family, who still live closeby. (One friend of mine claims to have seen Martha Stewart riding around.) Another reminder of the continuing Rockefeller influence are the helicopters that sometimes fly overhead, presumably ferrying scions of this noble family over their domains.
In the 1980s, this enormous swath of land—almost 1,800 acres of land (over twice as large as Central Park), with over 50 miles of trails—was donated to New York to be used as a park and nature preserve. Nowadays it is overseen by the state of New York, which maintains a visitor center off of Route 117. Here you can park your car, see a bit of art in a small gallery, take a map, use the bathroom, and learn about the wildlife.
When I was younger, as I walked alone through the tall woods, I imagined that the park was as close to pure nature as I was likely to see. But of course this is not true: the park is a managed environment, even if that land management is done with a light touch.
The most obvious human intervention are the trails. Topped with crushed rock, they are quite wide, smooth, and easy to walk on. The trails are carefully maintained. At some points in the park, stone retaining walls prevent a neighboring hill from spilling onto the trails. More subtle is the drainage system, visible as a series of ditches and gutters running besides the paths, which work to redirect rainwater away from the trails. Without simple systems such as this, I am sure that the trails would be washed away in a short while.
The park staff also work to control certain types of invasive species. One of these is a vine called mile-a-minute (Persicaria pertofoliata), so named because of its rapid growth rate—about six inches a day. This plant is indigenous to India, and its accidental introduction to NY has put native species in jeopardy, since the thorny plant grows so fast that it can literally smother its competition. The park staff is currently engaged in a battle to stop this vine from spreading, and is asking for volunteers to help in the fight. (If you would like to help, call 914-631-3064.)
Another obvious human intervention are the many areas of the park which are kept as grassland rather than forest. The staff maintain this area in several ways. The grass is cut down at the end of spring with a tractor and gathered into bundles, to be given to livestock. The staff also bring in livestock—goats, sheep, and cows, guarded by a few wary dogs—to graze the land in summertime. Personally I find it quite charming to come across a group of these farm animals on a walk. And the animals are certainly effective. They eat all day from dawn to dusk, and they leave hardly a stalk untouched.
In layout, the park is massive and sprawling. The furthest reaches of the park are bounded by the Hudson River to the west and the Saw Mill River Parkway to the East. But between these two boundaries the park’s extent is uneven. Bits of the park jut out past Route 117 to the north or Route 9 to the West. One major artery through the park is the Old Croton Aqueduct trail, which runs parallel to Route 9 and across it into William Rockefeller’s old estate. Another major division is Bedford road, which cuts the park into two fairly distinct areas: the part to the east of Bedford road tends to have fewer visitors than the part to the west.
Virtually every one of the park’s dozens of trails has its own personality. I am biased, of course, but for me the area closest to my house (between the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery and Sleepy Hollow Road) is easily one of the most beautiful sections of the park. There are three stone bridges that span the Pocantico River. These are the clearest signatures of the Rockefeller family: for the bridges would certainly have been costly to build, and they perfectly evoke the kind of European antiquity that the Rockefellers enjoyed. For my part, I think they are lovely constructions, totally in keeping with the primeval aesthetic of the park. When I was a child, I could not help but imagine legions of centurions marching over these apparently ancient viaducts.
Some of the most beautiful trails—especially in summer—are in the area surrounding the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. (Stone Barns is a non-profit, sustainable farm founded by David Rockefeller.) Here the forest gives way to rolling hills shaded by rows of oaks, and the stone buildings and fields of crops create a bucolic picture. Just as lovely is Rockwood, located right on the Hudson River. There, several paths leads up a hill to what appears, superficially, to be a kind of stone fortress overlooking the river. This is actually the foundation for William Rockefeller’s mansion, long since demolished. Here you can sit on the wall and contemplate the new Tappan Zee bridge, and even spot Manhattan in the far distance. (For some reason, flies love to buzz around these rocky walls in summer.)
One of my favorite places to run is the Thirteen Bridges Trail, so named for the many little bridges that lead the wanderer criss-crossing over Gory Brook. Once you finish this loop, you can cross back over Route 117 on one of the two metal bridges. Turning in one direction takes you on the Pocantico River Trail, which (you will be surprised to learn) runs parallel to the Pocantico River. Turning the other way can bring you to the Big Tree Trail. This trail runs along a lower-lying part of the park, and is noted (as you may have guessed) for its large trees. If you walk along the trail on a quiet afternoon, as the sunlight drifts through the canopy, and the sounds of birdsong echo from above, the enormous columns of trees can create the impression of being in a natural cathedral.
This brings me to the flora of the park. By my count, the park is home to well over fifty species of tree. The tallest to be found is the tulip tree, which is so named because of its yellow spring flowers. The trunk is as straight as an arrow, and the tree can grow upwards of 150 feet (or 45 meters). In general, the tallest trees are found in lower-lying areas, often near the river. Erosion causes soil to fall from the higher areas and accumulate here. Apart from the tulip tree, the park contains a mixture of beech, maple, and oak, along with shrubbier trees such as sassafras and witch hazel. There are relatively few conifers—mostly spruces—and they seem to prefer the areas close to the rivers. The park also has some non-indigenous species, too, such as the beautiful European beech—with red leaves—overlooking Canter Alley. My favorite may be the (non-native) Shagbark Hickory on Douglas Hill Loup.
In the fall, most trees lose their leaves. They accumulate on the ground as a thick, brownish, rust-colored matting. Even by late summer, this bed of dead leaves is still noticeable everywhere. It seems that all of the insects, fungi, and bacteria present in the park’s soil have their hands full with such a superabundance of nutrients; but sooner or later, the dead leaves decompose and enrich the soil. We must pause here to acknowledge the kings of the park, and indeed of all life: bacteria. They are the most abundant organisms in the park and absolutely essential to each vital process. This is most obvious with the case of diazotrophs, which are the bacteria that convert nitrogen gas into a form (ammonia) that plants can use. Without these helpful microorganisms, plants could not grow, and the rest of us would be out of luck, too.
When it comes to shrubs, ferns, grasses, vines, and other sorts of plants, the species-count goes up into the hundreds. I could not hope to identify even a significant chunk of these plants. Using the application Plantsnap, however, I have collected a list of some of the more common vegetation. Claytosmunda (or interrupted fern) is intermixed with sensitive fern and spikenard, forming a thick underbrush of low, leafy plants in summer. In some areas there are thick masses of wild blackberry bushes, whose fruits are delicious and safe to eat, but whose vines are covered with painful spikes. In the more open grasslands one can find reeds and grass, as well as wild carrot.
(The application, iNaturalist, allows visitors to log any sightings of a species—be it bird, bush, or bear—within the park. This list, available here, has been a great aide to me.)
The most hazardous plant is poison ivy, which is quite common in the area. Rubbing up against this plant can cause painful rashes that last well over a week. (Lucky for me, I seem to be among those who have no allergic reaction to the plant, so I have never learned to identify it.) Another plant to avoid is the wood nettle, whose leaves are covered with little stinging hairs. Once I rode my bike through a patch of this stuff, and my skin erupted into painful red bumps. Fortunately, the effects from a wood nettle sting wear off in under an hour.
The park also has a robust fungus population. Identifying mushrooms is a skill that I lack entirely; but visitors to the park have registered about two dozen species. The mushroom I most often notice is a Stereum, I believe, which grows on the sides of decaying trees. Indeed, saprotrophic mushrooms (which feed on decaying organic matter) play an essential role in the park’s ecosystem, allowing dead trees and plants to be broken down and returned to the soil. To name just a few of the mushrooms identified by park-goers, there is the dryad’s saddle, chicken of the woods, turkey-tail, resinous polypore, and honey mushroom. Some of these may be edible, but I would not take my chances.
The park’s fauna is even more diverse than its flora. We may start with the arthropods—specifically, my least favorite animal in the park: the tick. There are two main species of tick in this area: the dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis) and the deer tick (Ixodes scapularis). Do not let these names mislead you, for both are happy to bite dogs, deer, or humans. The dog tick is bigger and is completely black, while the deer tick is smaller, with a brown body and black legs. Getting bitten by either is not fun, but it is really the deer tick that you should watch out for, since it can transmit Lyme disease. My dog would inevitably get a few ticks every summer (and got Lyme disease twice), and I have found three or four ticks on myself over the years. It is a good idea to check both yourself and your pets after a walk, especially if you went through a woody area. If you have been bitten, it is wise to watch out for any signs of Lyme disease, which can include a circular rash around the bite.
Coming in second for hazardous bugs are the mosquitos, which can also carry diseases. People in the area have been concerned about West Nile Virus for years now, and more recently there has been worry regarding Eastern Equine Encephalitis. Fortunately, the mosquitoes normally come out around dusk, and are mostly absent during the day. I ought also to mention the possibility of a wasp sting. Once, while walking on the Aqueduct Trail in the park, I accidentally stepped onto a wasp’s nest in the path. The angered insect flew out and stung my legs several times before I could run away—quite painful. But I think the chances of this happening are very low. More annoying than dangerous are the gnats that can sometimes be found swarming, particularly in low-lying areas of the park. Though they are completely harmless, some of them seem to be attracted to the secretions produced by your eyes, and so you can end up endlessly swatting away curious little bugs.
The park is also home to some beautiful insects. My favorites are the fireflies, which come out around dusk in summertime. They fly low to the ground, hovering slowly in search of prey. The light, created with chemicals in the abdomen, is used to attract small insects. Without this lure, the firefly would be quite an ineffective predator, since it is clumsy and ponderous in flight. Indeed, fireflies would be the perfect snack for any insectivorous birds—the easiest bugs in the world to find and catch—if they were not filled with bad-tasting chemicals. Thus they float around in security, lighting up the evening forest like little stars.
Also lovely are the many species of butterfly that flap about, including the majestic monarch butterfly. The best place to see them, in my experience, is the area around Bedford Road, in the fields of Buttermilk Hill. There the butterflies congregate in the hundreds, floating from flower to flower. Another attractive insect is the blue dasher dragonfly, which normally prefers watery areas like Swan Lake. They are graceful fliers, now hovering in place, and now darting forward at great speed—their long blue bodies flashing in the sunlight. A personal favorite of mine are the grasshoppers, which sometimes jump along the paths, their razor-like bodies cutting through the air.
Insects are not merely seen everywhere, but they generate the loudest noises of the park. In the evening the crickets chirp with their wings, creating that comforting chorus of summertime. (Aside from these chirping crickets, however, there is the so-called camel cricket, which is a large, wingless species of cricket. Lacking wings, this species cannot chirp, and it is mostly known for accidentally invading basements.) The big noise makers, however, are the cicadas. The park is home to both the annual and the periodical varieties. The former are responsible for most of the daytime noise in summer, creating a kind of sonic sheet with their buzzing wings. Though constantly heard, cicadas are seldom seen, at least not in my experience. Both cicadas and crickets will stop chirping if you get too close; and in general their sounds are difficult to track down. The periodical cicadas hatch in enormous broods every 13 or 17 years (prime numbers make it difficult for predators to synchronize) and are quite a presence when they appear.
Rather inconspicuous to most park-goers, but fundamental to the park’s ecosystem, are the bees. According to a guide compiled by Sharp-Eatman Photography, over 100 species of bee have been found in the park. Most people, I suspect, will be surprised to learn that there are 100 species of bees in the world, much less in a relatively small area in New York. But bees are an incredibly diverse group. There are several species of bumble bees, carpenter bees, leaf-cutter bees, digger bees, and mining bees, to name just a few common groups. The bees are attracted by the many species of wildflowers found within the park, which include (to quote the guide) “wild azaleas, countless spring woodland bulbs, American white water lilies, four varieties of milkweed and large swatches of dogbane and meadow flowers.” European honey bees are also kept at the Stone Barns, where they help to pollinate the plants on the farm and in the surrounding park.
I have reached the limit of my knowledge of the park’s arthropod life, and yet this short description only scratches the surface. I am sure the park is home to a great many species of ants, spiders, and beetles; but it just so happens that I hardly ever see these creatures. They live their little lives in a small-scale world, vitally important to life in the park, but mostly invisible to people having a nice stroll.
Most visitors, I suspect, are far more interested in the birds. The Rockefeller State Park is also a wonderful place for birdwatching; indeed, it is recognized as an Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society. Over 180 species of bird have been identified within the park’s confines, which is well over twice as many birds as I could probably name. I should admit that I am not myself a skilled birdwatcher; I lack the patience and the good binoculars. But even a casual visitor will likely see a great many interesting avians.
The most common bird in the park may be the humble house sparrow. This bird is not even native to New York, but is an invasive species from Europe. Apparently it was first introduced into New York in an attempt to control the linden moth, and since then the bird has become ubiquitous. This is a shame, since the sparrow is not particularly pretty and its call is a tuneless chirp. The common starling is another species imported from Europe. Now extremely widespread across the continent, the bird was first brought to the United States in the 1890s; it was introduced into Central Park by a group of Shakespeare fans who sought to import every species mentioned by the Bard. This whimsical idea has cost the United States billions in damaged crops, and untold more in damage to native ecosystems.
The starling is—to my eyes at least—a rather ugly bird with a mangy look to it; and its song is not very pleasant either. But the bird does have its delights. In the autumn months, the starlings flock together in massive formations, shifting shape in the air like an ethereal wave. I have watched them take off, swarm, divide, rejoin, twist and turn, and then land—all perfectly in sync. It is wonderful to see.
But now we should discuss some of the park’s native species. My childhood favorite was the American robin, which was named after (but completely unrelated to) the European robin. These are the only birds which can commonly be found on the paths, where they like to look for worms. Also common is the red-winged blackbird, whose few scarlet feathers contrast sharply with its jet-black body. Its song is one of the most distinctive in the park, a tripartite raspy trill. (Describing bird calls in words is always tricky.) Even more brilliant is the cardinal, whose bright red plumage (among the males, at least) is impossible to miss. The blue jay is superficially similar to the cardinal, with its bright color and distinctive head crest. But jays are only distantly related to cardinals, and really belong to the crow family. The beautifully colored eastern bluebird is also unrelated to the blue jay, and is actually in the same family as the American robin.
One of the prettiest birds in the park is the American goldfinch, a petite yellow bird normally found in the more open areas of the park. Even smaller, and even harder to find, are the hummingbirds. In fact, the only reason I know they live in the park is that my brother set up hummingbird feeders in my backyard, and I have seen them fly in to have a snack. Few things in nature as are charming as a hummingbird; they way they move through the air is not quite birdlike (and not quite buglike, either), and the low-pitched hum from their wings is unmistakable.
Among the more tuneful residents of the park is the black-capped chickadee, a small bird (about the size of a sparrow) with a complex and varied song. Its very name (“chickadee”) comes from one of its many calls, and is an immediately recognizable sonic signature. The tufted titmouse is a cousin of the chickadee, somewhat bigger more graceful in appearance, though lacking the chickadee’s elaborate melodies. (Why some birds develop elaborate calls while others stick with simple chirps? Does a chickadee have that much more to communicate than a titmouse? I will let the biologists ponder this one.)
The eastern towhee—a pretty mixture of red, white, and black—has a musical call, with three notes that sound somewhat like an augmented triad. Even more alluring is the call of the wood thrush. Indeed, many have considered the thrush’s song the most beautiful in the country, and I agree. Henry David Thoreau had this to say about this small brownish bird: “The thrush alone declares the immortal wealth and vigor that is in the forest. … When a man hears it, he is young, and Nature is in her spring.” To my ears, the thrush’s song has an odd auditory quality to it, sounding almost like water echoing in a closed chamber, or even like some digital effects on a sound editing program. It is wonderfully soothing, like the soft babbling of a river.
If the thrush is the most beautiful melodist, the mockingbird is the most virtuosic musician of the area. As its name indicates, this bird can imitate a seemingly infinite range of sounds, from the calls of other birds to the whining of car alarms. I should mention that the mockingbird is probably more commonly found in the suburbs surrounding the park than in the park itself, owing to its preference for short grass and open areas. In reasonably short doses the mockingbird’s endlessly shifting song is enchanting; but when one is keeping you awake in the middle of the night, the charm wears off. Strangely, mockingbirds accumulate a repertoire of mimicked bird calls, not in order to trick other birds—who are not easily fooled—but instead to impress potential mates. Evolution is a wonderous thing.
One of the most charming sounds of the forest is not a call, but a rhythmic tapping or rattle. This is caused by the pileated woodpecker, whose large size and red crown make it easy to recognize. This tapping noise is not a byproduct of the woodpecker’s feeding, but is instead created intentionally as a display; the bird raps its beak against a resonant piece of wood, like a hollow log, in order to proclaim its territory. The woodpecker feeds by drilling into the sides of trees with its beak and gobbling up the ants and beetles living within the living wood.
We cannot depart from the world of birds without considering the humble raven. Or perhaps I mean the crow. To be honest, I can hardly tell the difference between the two. Ravens are slightly bigger and have bulkier heads; and their vocalizations are an ugly squawk. (I actually find the song of the American crow to be, by contrast, rather soothing.) In any case, it is the raven that participates in one of my favorite animal spectacles in the park. Ravens are vigorous defenders of their nests, and do not hesitate to attack birds much larger than themselves. Thus, any red-tailed falcons that get too close—whether they are going for the raven’s young, or simply by chance—are likely to be harrassed by one or two angry ravens snapping after them. It is amusing to see the formidable profile of a hawk in flight from the pugnacious ravens, like a F-16 being driven off by a couple Cessnas.
The red-tailed hawk is one of the park’s apex predators. They can be startlingly big—big enough to be mistaken for an eagle (that is, until you see a real eagle). Red-tailed hawks are carnivores whose diet mostly consists of rodents, particularly squirrels, though I do wonder if they ever try to attack stray cats or small dogs. Their call is a high-pitched screech that sounds like a war-cry. Much smaller is the American kestrel, a petite little hawk with muted coloration, which likes to eat large insects and small mammals. Intermediate between these two is the Cooper’s hawk, which in my experience is significantly less common. There may be owls in the park, too—either barred owls or the great-horned owl—but I confess I have never knowingly laid eyes on one.
The park is home to many water birds as well. If you are at Rockwood, looking out at the Hudson, you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a bald eagle. But normally the best place to see water-loving birds is, unsurprisingly, Swan Lake. There you can find the modest duck—in many varieties, including the common mallard duck, with its charming emerald head. The pestilent Canada goose is sometimes present as well, though in mercifully small numbers in the park. (Perhaps the presence of so many carnivores makes the park unsafe for the goose’s young, and so they prefer more human-dominated areas.) Out in the middle of the lake I have seen the black profile of a double-crested cormorant as it dove for fish and then reappeared on the surface.
More graceful avians include the great egret and the great blue heron. Both of these slender creatures tend to stand still in shallow water, waiting to snatch an animal with their long beaks. Coming across a heron—waiting motionless in a river—is one of my favorite moments in the park. It is stunning to see one stretch is long wings and take off. According to the website, the lake is home to “large-mouth bass, crappie, pumpkinseeds, bluegills, and bullhead catfish,” and this is not to mention the brown trout that are stocked every year. And this is not all: the egrets and herons also feast on some of the local amphibians, such as the common snapping turtle or the painted turtle.
As you can see, there are an awful lot of birds in the park. I ought to stop now before this post becomes truly unreadable. And yet I cannot leave off without mentioning the biggest bird of all, bigger than the bald eagle or the great blue heron. This is the wild turkey. They are rather reclusive creatures, and so catching sight of one is not easy. Indeed, I cannot say whether they are often in the park, or only very occasionally. I have only seen a wild turkey once, many years ago, as I walked on a quiet winter day. The startled birds ran off (surprisingly quickly) through the forest and out of sight.
The park has a few reptile and amphibian inhabitants, too, though thankfully they are not normally very visible. We have already mentioned the turtles, who like the water. The park is also home to several varieties of frogs and toads. Visitors have spotted and identified several: the bullfrog, the wood frog, the pickerel frog, the spring peeper, and the American toad. There are even salamanders. Snakes crawl among the underbrush, though thankfully no dangerous ones (well, not dangerous to humans, but lethal to the frogs). There are garter snakes, water snakes, milk snakes, and the tiny brown snake. I have never seen one of these snakes, and I am not particularly anxious to. (Technically, the park lies within the range of the timber rattlesnake, which is venomous, though I have never heard of any sightings.)
Now we come to the mammals of the Rockefeller State Park. We begin with the very smallest, the chipmunk. These adorable little creatures are most commonly seen scurrying about near the ground, usually at the base of a tree. They climb just as well as their larger squirrel brethren, but their burrows and much of their food is located at ground level, so it is not usual to see them in the tree-tops. The grey squirrel, one of the most common species of the park, is over twice as large as the chipmunk. Though so often seen as to be nearly invisible, the gray squirrel is quite an impressive animal. Not many mammals can climb and jump so ably; indeed the gray squirrel is one of the few mammals who can climb down a tree head-first. And if you try to prevent the squirrels from eating from your bird-feeders or fruit trees, you will find them to be wily and clever adversaries. Their name notwithstanding, a significant portion of grey squirrels are entirely black.
Before moving to Europe, I did not know how distinctive chipmunks and grey squirrels are to America. One does sometimes see gray squirrels in Spain, but there they are invasive. In the United Kingdom they have largely displaced the native red squirrel. Another of the squirrel species—an American icon—is the groundhog, which are also called woodchucks. (The name woodchuck has nothing to do with chucking wood, but comes from an Algonquin word.) These normally stay earth-bound, and live in underground burrows. Unlike the grey squirrel, which stores food away and is active all winter, the groundhog gorges itself and hibernates during the lean times. The chipmunk takes a middle road, and falls into a non-hibernative torpor (which is my winter strategy as well).
There are some other rodents to be seen. The meadow vole (more often called a field mouse) makes it home in the park, though it is normally difficult to find. The eastern cottontail rabbit can sometimes be spotted at a distance; they are rather skittish, too. I suppose these rodents must be careful, considering the number of predatory birds circling overhead. Almost all nocturnal animals are not seen in the park, if only because it gets so dark that virtually nobody wishes to be there. Thus we miss the possum, a comically ugly creature that looks like an oversized rat. It is not a rodent at all, however, but a marsupial, the only one to live north of Mexico. This means that the young are born very small (the size of a dime) and reside in their mother’s pouch, just like kangaroos.
Mammals do not just inhabit the trees and undergrowth; they compete with birds for the air. Several species of bats are endemic to the area, and they can be spotted in the waning light of summer evenings. The most common types are the little brown bat and the northern long-eared bat. Personally I like bats, since they help to control mosquito populations; but they can also transmit diseases to humans. The most deadly of these is rabies. Once, when a bat was discovered in—and chased out of—my house, my whole family had to go several times the hospital for the rabies vaccine, just as a precautionary measure. At present, bat populations all over the United States and Canada are threatened by a virulent fungus that colonizes the bat’s skin, a condition called white-nose syndrome. This has had a devastating effect on many bat populations, reducing some by over 90%. It remains to be seen how they will recover from this blight.
One of the most common—and hazardous—animals of the area is the striped skunk. I know they live in the park, since my poor dog was sprayed twice. The smell is powerful and rancid. From far away it can smell vaguely like marijuana smoke, though from up close it is harshly chemical. If you keep your distance, however, skunks are harmless animals who mainly eat insects. Slightly more of a pest is the common raccoon. Once I was surprised when, seemingly out of nowhere, a group of raccoons appeared, pushed over a nearby garbage can, and then carried off their loot into the forest. They are very dextrous and intelligent animals, and able climbers. During a rainstorm I witnessed a raccoon climb to the top of an electricity pole and huddle their for well over an hour. Raccoons, like skunks, are only really dangerous if they are infected with rabies. A police officer shot a rabid raccoon at the top of my street some years ago. If you are unlucky enough to get bitten, you will need to get the vaccine immediately.
The park is also home to many predators. By their nature, these carnivores are quite expert at sneaking around unheard and unseen, and so catching sight of one is an uncommon experience. The red fox prowls around the park, eating pretty much anything it can find, be it bird, amphibian, reptile, or mammal, as well as some seeds and grasses. I have heard of bobcats occasionally appearing in Westchester county, but I believe there are not many; competition with coyotes often drives them away. And the Rockefeller State Park Preserve definitely has coyotes. Some nights, you can hear their high-pitched yelps and howls echoing through the forest. It can be very loud, and quite eerie.
I have only seen a coyote on three or four occasions—always at a distance, and always briefly. The only exception to this was one odd sighting, right in the middle of Tarrytown, of a coyote chasing a domestic cat. The cat escaped by clawing its way up a tree. Coyotes are bigger than foxes—though smaller than most dogs—and are more ferocious hunters. Close cousins of the gray wolf, coyotes prefer fresh meat and are capable of taking down animals as big as deer (but they normally go after immature animals). They are very effective predators, and can kill porcupines and rattlesnakes, as well as many species of birds, including wild turkeys. Coyotes are not pack animals, but instead form pair-bonds, which are probably more stable than most human relationships. Unless they are rabid, they pose no threat to humans.
Coyotes became top dog after gray wolves were hunted out of the region, which was done over 100 years ago to protect livestock. Now the biggest canines in the park are domestic dogs. Another predator that has been eliminated from the area is the cougar (or mountain lion, or catamount—it has many names), which became locally extinct about 200 years ago. Black bears have occasionally been sighted in Westchester County, though I have not heard of any within the park. The lack of predators may make the area a little safer, for humans and for cows, but it did greatly upset the ecosystem.
The most apparent evidence of this is the huge profusion of deer. The white-tailed deer is the biggest animal in the park (that is, not counting the domestic cows); big bucks can get even heavier than most adult humans. They are everywhere, and often they are not particularly skittish around people. Many will not even bother to run away when you walk by. The most flighty seem to be the males with fully-grown antlers, which can be seen starting in late spring. Perhaps they are nervous because the park does allow some limited bow-hunting of deer in one section of the preserve. This is done as a needed control over the deer’s explosive population.
This description, long as it is, does not even come close to fully capturing all of the manifold forms of life within the park. Language is linear, so we must go through these many species as a long list. But life is not a list, not even a long one. Every level and layer is intimately bound up with every other, creating a dense web too complex for us to wrap our minds around. This is the problem of organized complexity. We can readily understand things that are complex but disorganized (like the motions of gas particles) or simple but organized (like the orbit of a planet); but when there are so many variables, all influencing one another in precise and specific ways, we find ourselves grasping in the dark. This partially explains why humans so persistently disrupt ecosystems. We cannot tweak them by simply eliminating the parts we do not like—such as wolves or mosquitos—since every change has ripple effects through the whole system.
To see all of these particulars as one enormous whole is the challenge of the naturalist. But it is also what comprises the real beauty of a natural place. Organized complexity, after all, is what separates a forest from a botanical garden or a zoo, wherein species are divided and labeled. And this is also, I think, why natural spaces are so refreshing to us. Every human-made environment is composed of simple shapes—lines, circles, rectangles—all arranged simply enough for us to easily navigate them. From a suburban neighborhood to the inside of a cathedral, this holds true. Natural spaces betray no such simple geometry or geography. By comparison, nature can appear chaotic or disorganized; and yet if it were truly so we would not find nature so aesthetically pleasing. Rather, natural spaces are highly organized, but along non-intuitive lines; and this lack of obvious arrangement is why, I believe, it can feel so refreshing for us to take a walk in a forest. Sensually and cognitively, it is a richer experience.
Henry David Thoreau famously went into nature and found the meaning of life—or at least, the meaning of his life. I cannot say that the Rockefeller State Park Preserve has been to me what Walden Pond was to him. Yet the park has been a constant, comforting presence in my life, a place of beauty and continuing wonder. Even now, there are still some corners I have yet to explore, and so many plants and animals I have yet to know. Like all of nature, the park can teach many lessons, provided you are a willing pupil. The principles which shaped the park are the same as those which have shaped the entire earth; and so understanding one small plot of land may be the best way to come to grips with the cosmos. If the park has any moral lessons to teach, it is the lesson of all nature: that life goes on. I do find a sort of comfort in the thought that, whatever happens to me, this buzzing, blooming world will continue.
But the park has another lesson, too, and that is the value of cooperation. The Rockefeller State Park Preserve would not exist without the generosity, care, and work of thousands of people—from the original donors of the land, to the volunteers who help to combat invasive species, to the casual visitor who takes care not to litter. Wild places do not simply exist nowadays, but must be actively maintained. It is one of the ironies of our history that we only really began to savor wilderness when much of it had already been destroyed. Now, without places of refuge like the park, we will be condemned to wander among asphalt landscapes of endless surburbia. For our own sake—if for nothing else—we must fight to protect it.
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In a city full of famous art museums, the Metropolitan is undoubtedly the queen. The institution is a behemoth. With a collection containing millions of objects—objects which come from every corner of the world, from ancient times to the present day—the museum has nary a rival in the world for range. And the objects comprising this encyclopedic collection are, inevitably, of the finest quality that money can buy. By now I have seen enough of the great European museums to say confidently that the Met can compete with any of them.
The museum was conceived as a kind of sister institution to the American Museum of Natural History. It was an age when the rich and educated sought to “civilize” the less privileged. Both museums are located near Central Park, a place which itself was designed as a civilizing project—a kind of pastoral refuge from the ills of city life, where the people could learn to appreciate more refined recreational activities: Sunday strolls, picnics, birdwatching, and so on. The Museum of Natural History would bring the light of knowledge to the uneducated, while the Met would show the unsophisticated the value of high art.
The museum’s founders were embarking on a pathbreaking project. There were already plenty of examples of great European museums to learn from. But what would an American art museum be like? When the museum opened in 1872, its collection was modest. Indeed, many of the works it displayed were either prints or reproductions of famous European works. Yet this quickly changed. New York was emerging as the financial capital of the world. Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan were among the city’s residents. Since Europe was still considered the cultural epicenter of the West, these newly-minted super-rich naturally spent their piles of gold in buying up as much European artwork as they could.
The Metropolitan benefited immensely from this confluence of money and ostentatious display. Not only did the museum itself have the budget to purchase high-quality works, but it also increased its collection from gifts and bequests. After all, donating beautiful art to a public museum is a good way to demonstrate wealth and civic-mindedness at once. We ought not to criticize, however. There are times when the vanities of the world manage to produce genuine treasures. And the Met is certainly such a treasure.
At present, the museum’s holdings are so vast and varied that no single person, however knowledgeable, could hope to do justice to it all. It would take a team of professional art historians working for years on end to complete even a basic catalogue of the museum’s works, much less an appreciation along aesthetic grounds. And I am no art historian. So in this post I hope only to give you a superficial tour through this enormous institution. (Much of the information and many of the images come from the Met’s website, which is quite well-made. The people at the museum have done the world a service by publishing high-quality public domain images of their collection.)
We begin at the entrance on Fifth Avenue. The museum is difficult to miss. The building stretches out along several city blocks. Fountains shoot and sprinkle outside, and the sidewalk is always thick with crowds. The building is neoclassical in form, its façade a kind of pale white decorated in a pseudo-Roman style. The steps leading up to the main entrance, lined with imposing double columns, are one of the most iconic spots in New York. There are always food stands parked right below these steps, and usually a street performer—a dancing saxophonist, perhaps—plays for the amusement of those sitting on the steps.
We enter the building, and are faced with a choice: right or left. There are ticket stands on either side. To the left there is a graceful Greek statue of woman, and to the right a stiff Egyptian man seated on a throne. These statues are informative, since the respective galleries for these cultures are located in these directions. For the purpose of getting a ticket, the choice is immaterial: the lines on either side are normally about the same, and usually move pretty quickly.
Now, there was recently a significant change in the museum’s admissions policy. For the past few decades, visitors could pay any amount they liked. Just last year, however, the museum changed its recommended prices to mandatory payments—for everyone except residents of New York State, that is. (Lucky for me, I am still a resident.) Another change, by the way, was the switch from using metal clips to using stickers to identify visitors. I am sure that the Metropolitan has increased its budget by making these changes. But I admit I miss the old, pay-as-you-wish, metal clip Metropolitan. A man from China could pay a dollar, and leave with a nice little keepsake from his visit. I still have some of the old clips in my room.
Anyways, let us now enter the museum proper. I like to begin with the Egyptian section, not just because it is near the entrance, but also because it represents the chronological beginning of the museum’s collection. Here we can ground ourselves in one of the world’s oldest civilizations before we examine anything else.
The Egyptian section is massive and labyrinthine. Unlike the other departments of the museum, the Egyptian department displays everything in its collection—almost 30,000 objects. To make room for all of this, the halls double around one another, making it sometimes confusing to navigate the collection. But it is a worthwhile use of one’s time to get lost in the art. If you proceed carefully through the department, you can take a very satisfying chronological journey: beginning near the entrance, in prehistoric Egypt, and ending up in the same spot, having gone through the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, and finishing in the Roman era.
Now, I love this department, because it has everything. Walking through it, the visitor gets a very complete picture of life in this ancient civilization. Of course there are sarcophagi and mummies, along with amulets, jewelry, and ceramics. Among the most famous of the smaller pieces in the museum is William the Hippopotamus, a beautiful figurine made of faience, which is a ceramic type specific to Egypt. It has a radiant blue color that is delightful to look at.
The museum also has a wealth of larger statues, ranging from the size of a child to the size of a giant. For me, the most beautiful of these is a statue of the pharaoh Hatshepsut. As you may know, Hatshepsut was the only woman to officially become the pharaoh. This presented a challenge for Egyptian artists. The art of Ancient Egypt is distinguished for its astonishing conservatism, preserving the same stylistic features through centuries. A single glance is all we need to know that something is Egyptian. But portraying a woman required innovation, and the artists rose to the challenge. Rather than making her appear masculine, as they did in other works, in this seated statue Hatshepsut appears both feminine and even feline. There is a smooth grace and delicacy to the sculpture which is rare in the usually rigid forms of Egyptian art, and I find it enchanting.
Though not, perhaps, especially beautiful, some of the most illuminating artifacts on displays are sets of models. Made around 1900 BCE, the models were found in the 1930s in a tomb in the Memphite region of Egypt. They show us rare scenes of daily life in Egypt. We can see several boats travelling along the Nile, one of them transporting a mummy, another for hunting. There are also models of more cotidian scenes: a granary, a garden, a house. These models are wonderful little things, since it is as if they were made by the Egyptians for a museum exhibit about Egypt. It is difficult to identify with the people who sculpted enormous statues of god kings, but very easy to see oneself gardening.
The centerpiece of the collection is the Temple of Dendur. The Met actually has large sections of several temples in its collection, from different periods of Egypt’s history, but this is the only complete, free-standing temple in the museum. It is in the center of a large room, surrounded by a little water moat where visitors like to throw coins. Statues of crocodiles and lion-headed gods surround the space. The temple itself is of a fairly modest size, and is from the end of Egyptian civilization. It was built after the conquest of Egypt by the Romans, and commissioned by Augustus himself. While the temple is a lovely work of architecture, what most stuck in my memory were the many graffiti carved into the walls.
When you complete your circuit through the Egyptian section, you will be where you began, right by the entrance. From there, I like to go across the hall and then into the section on Ancient Greece. This part of the museum looks very different. Whereas the Egyptian section is twisting and jam-packed, the Greek section is open and clear. The visitor enters a large hall with a vaulted roof. Free-standing statues are scattered through the space, while friezes line the walls. For any lovers of classical art—with its flowing robes, idealized forms, and restrained emotion—there are dozens of works to admire. While I greatly enjoy the statues, I find myself even more interested in the friezes. Some of these come from Athenian tombs, such as a touching portrayal of a little girl cradling a dove.
The collection contains many excellent examples of art from Classical Athens—art that we readily identify as quintessentially Greek. Besides the statues and freizes, there are many examples of Greek vase art. But the collection also contains works that do not fit this description. Among these are the many sculptures from pre-Classical Greece, which to our eyes can seem more Egyptian than anything. The museum has an excellent example of one of these kouroi: A young man, standing with one foot extended forward. I like the work, since it is an interesting example of a midpoint between Egyptian stylization and Greek realism. The young man is manifestly unreal, and yet the musculature in his limbs and torso is well done. An even older work—from around 750 BCE—is a terracotta vase. Its decoration is very much unlike the red, white, and black images of gods and heroes we normally associate with Greece. Rather, it is covered in a thick pattern of geometrical shapes and tiny like stick-like figures. I quite like it.
The collection of Roman art is perhaps even better than that devoted to Greece. There are several excellent busts of Roman Emperors. I have a long, personal attachment to a bust of Marcus Aurelius in the collection, which to me is the perfect image of a philosopher—calm, wise, detached. I use it as my own symbol now. A much more amusing work is a statue of Trebonianus Gallus. It is a rare example in the Met of art gone wrong. Clearly, whoever made it was not a master. The whole figure is awkward, with a bulging stomach and a head that is manifestly too small. Maybe Rome was not doing so well in the year 250 CE, when it was made.
Statues, being made of metal or rock, naturally preserve very well. But painting is another story. Even though the Greeks had a developed tradition of painting, nothing has survived the ravages of time. That is not the case for Rome, from which we have many well-preserved wall paintings. The Met has an entire room, the bedroom of P. Fannius Synistor, which was buried in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. The art on the walls is really wonderful, showing several architectural and natural scenes. It shows us how the Romans gave a realistic impression of space without using the technique of perspective. Having seen my fair share of Roman wall frescoes and mosaic floors, I must say that they had wonderful taste in interior decoration.
As you can see from this example and the Egyptian temple, the Met is big on re-creating interiors. This is a theme throughout the whole institution, and one of the Met’s most distinguishing features: The visitor is allowed to walk into history.
Before moving on to the next department, I want to mention the wonderful collection of Etruscan art (from Italy before the Roman period) on the balcony above the Roman section. One of the most outstanding pieces in this section is a bronze chariot from around 550 BCE. Having a preserved chariot is quite rare, so it is a treat to be able to see one so exquisitely decorated.
The Greek and Roman section leads direction to the collection of art from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. Of course, one can tell at a glance that this grouping is a kind of mishmash of art from non-Western cultures, which in previous days was called “primitive.” In reality the arts of these three continents have nothing to do with each other; and, of course, the amount of geographical space supposedly represented in these galleries is incomparably more vast than that of Greco-Roman or Egyptian art. That being said, at least the Metropolitan has a fine collection of art from these parts of the world, which are too often ignored.
For my part, it is a great refreshment to go from the world of Greece and Rome to this gallery. Our culture has so internalized those classical forms that they charm us more for their “perfections” than for any surprises they contain. Thus it is a pleasure to sample some of the other great visual cultures from around the world, which really do contain surprises for Western eyes.
The grand hall of the collection (gallery 354) is one of the most spectacular in the museum. From the ceiling hangs an enormous collection of shields from Oceania, arranged into a kind of meta-shield formation. I am always reminded, incongruously, of a spaceship. Large sculptures fill the space below the shields. There are some slit gongs from the island of Vanuatu, which double as huge musical instruments and works of visual art. There are funerary sculptures from Papua New Guinea; called malaga carvings, they are beautiful and highly intricate wooden carvings meant to be used only temporarily to celebrate the dead, and then disposed of. (This certainly goes against the grain of Western thinking, wherein we want our art to be eternal.) The bis poles of the Asmata people, another culture in New Guinea, are used for a similar purpose, and are also beautifully carved and then disposed of.
The adjacent section on African art is equally captivating. During my last visit I was particularly attracted to a small wooden carving of a man, called a Power Figure, made by the Kongo peoples. Bent forward slightly, standing with arms akimbo, the statue has a real intensity when seen in person—the exaggerated form only magnified by the many steel nails emanating from the man’s body. More famous is the Benin ivory mask, a real masterpiece, made by the Edo people of Nigeria—one of the great pre-colonial states in sub-saharan Africa. The mask, which represents a powerful queen mother, is clearly the work of experts working within a vibrant tradition. The mask has an elegance and a graceful polish that make it very satisfying on the eye: each detail is finely crafted, and yet they all work together to make a perfect form.
During my last visit, I was especially interested in the section on pre-colonial American art, since I had just finished listening to an audio course on the peoples of North America. I was delighted to find beautiful examples of geometric pottery from the Ancestral Pueblo culture (fascinating to compare to the geometrical designs from pre-Classical Greece). Among the many sculptures on display, one of the most iconic is a ceramic baby from the Olmec culture, made around 1,000 BCE. It is a wonderful piece, surprisingly lifelike despite its stylized face. The folds of fat and the hand placed idly in the mouth serve to make this sculpture a far more realistic depiction of babyhood than the many portraits of the infant Jesus made over 2,000 years later in medieval Europe.
Moving on in our rapid tour, we come next to the museum’s Department of Modern and Contemporary art. The very fact that the Met has this department is a testament to its uniqueness. I can think of no other museum in the world that has significant holdings of ancient and non-Western art as well as “modern” art. But the Met is devoted to a vision of total universality—the art world’s equivalent of the Museum of Natural History—and so has it all.
The collection as the Met is almost as impressive as that in the MoMA—and that is saying a lot. Though there are so many great works on display, I will restrict myself to mentioning my favorite painting, which is also perhaps the most famous painting in the whole collection: Pablo Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein.
It is an extraordinary portrait, arguably the greatest of the previous century. The painting is revolutionary. Gertrude Stein sits in a kind of abstract, unfinished space. She is not surrounded by her papers and books, but instead sits alone. While previous portraits in European art showed us the heroic and cultured male, handsome and lithe, Stein is hunched-over, short, and tick. Yet her body—mostly concealed under her heavy clothes—has a kind of elemental power on the canvass, even a monumental grandeur. But her face is what attracts the most attention. Rather than faithfully reproducing Stein, Picasso turns her face into a kind of mask. Thus her eyes and nose do not obey the normal rules of perspective and anatomy. Ironically, though this technique necessarily makes Stein’s face blank and inexpressive, the result is a convincing representation of the writer’s presence, of her indomitable energy. There is a charming story that, when told that Stein did not look anything like this portrait, Picasso responded “She will.” He was right: this portrait has helped to define Stein’s image far more than photographs of her.
I will also mention the largest work on display in this Department: America Today, a mural by Thomas Hart Benton. It consists of ten canvasses, and shows in visual form the America of the 1930s. The work was commissioned by the New School of Social Research—a kind of progressive think tank. I quite like the mural, as I do much of the public art created during the Great Depression and the New Deal. Looking at this work, one feels that we modern Americans were successfully creating our own visual language with which to decorate our public monuments—much like the Egyptians and the Greeks. The inclusion of this large mural is also keeping with the Met’s proclivity for immersive artistic experiences.
Next we come to the massive Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts. Once again, the Met excels when it comes to the re-creation of historical spaces. One of the most beautiful rooms in the Met is an entire patio taken from a Renaissance Spanish villa—the Castle of Veléz Blanco. Not only are the carvings on the arches and columns beautiful, but the space is filled with quite lovely statues of mythical, historical, and religious figures. Just as astounding is a study from the Ducal Palace of Gubbio. Every surface is covered in images made using the technique of wood inlay (intarsia, or marquestry), which consists of piecing together little bits of colored wood in order to make a complex image. The amount of time it must have taken to assemble a whole room this way is frankly stupefying. The result is an extraordinary work of immersive art, whose walls symbolize different areas of human activity. I am sure the room itself is a greater accomplishment than whatever happened inside it.
These two rooms only scratch the surface of the department’s holdings of decorative arts. There is everything one would expect to find in the homes of aristocrats and royalty, from elaborate coffee pots to ornate globes. I admit that, however fine these products are, they are generally less interesting to me than the sculptures.
Some of the museum’s best sculptures can be found in gallery 548, which takes the form of a large atrium. On one side of the space, you can even see the brick façade of the museum’s original building (which is mostly buried in the later constructions). There are two outstanding statues in this space. The first is Perseus with the Head of Medusa, by Antonio Canova. It is an extremely fine work of Neoclassicism, achieving the idealized grace of the Greeks and Romans. Simply as a composition, the statue works marvelously, with the gruesome head balanced by the peculiarly barbed sword, making a strong diagonal. The other great statue (in my opinion) is Ugolino and his Sons, by Jean-Baptise Carpeux. This depicts a story taken out of Dante of an Italian count who—along with his sons and grandsons—was imprisoned and starved to death. We see the count, driven almost to insanity through starvation and despair, surrounded by the tortured forms of his progeny.
Continuing on through the museum, the visitor will next reach the museum’s section of Medieval Art. Now, I feel justified in mostly passing over this department, since the bulk of the museum’s medieval art resides in the Cloisters Museum, uptown (an enchanting branch of the Met). Even so, it must be said that the central room of the Medieval Department is a beautiful space, with a high ceiling and high windows, like a cathedral. An ornate grill (from the Valladolid Cathedral, in Spain) stretches most of the way to the ceiling, and charming examples of sculptures, tapestries, and stained glass give the space a properly church-like atmosphere. This last time around I was particularly impressed with the museum’s small collection of Byzantine art.
From here it is appropriate to go straight to the Department of Arms and Armor. As you can imagine, this was my favorite section to visit when I was a young kid, and did much to fuel my youthful obsession with swords and guns. Even now, I admit I find this section extremely impressive, and I have never seen any collection of historical weapons even half as good. The presentation is excellent. The visitor enters a large hall, where medieval flags are hanging from the ceiling. A group of mounted knights ride through the center, while other armored knights stand guard all around the periphery. One feels that one has entered a jousting tournament.
The suits of armor are fascinating and, often, strangely beautiful. They are like abstract sculptures of human forms, or a kind of proto-machine with moving parts. Though you naturally would think that a metal suit would be extremely cumbersome, you can see innumerable little joints made into the armor, giving the wearers a surprising range of movement. The most beautiful of these many suits on display is that made for Emperor Ferdinand I (brother of Charles V). Every piece of metal is covered in ornate designs. Just as wonderful are the Japanese suits of armor on display. Rather than turning their wearers into metallic turtles, this armor is clearly designed for a different sort of fighting—one requiring more lightness and flexibility. The monstrous grimaces on the helmets would be genuinely terrifying if someone was coming at you wearing this.
Right next to this department is the American Wing. This is one of the areas where the Met is really untouchable. Other museums may have finer paintings or sculptures or what have you, but I do not think any museum has such a complete and rich collection of American art. Indeed, the American Wing could be cut off and moved to a different spot, and it would still be one of the finest museums in the country. Its collection is vast, and it is so wonderfully presented. The visitor enters an enormous courtyard full of benches and statues. The glass wall and roof flood the space with light, making the department a welcome relief from the dark medieval section. Bright, colorful stained glass, and an equally colorful fountain, line the walls; and a beautiful bronze statue of Diana, lightly resting on one foot, occupies the center.
The visitor enters the main collection through a kind of pseudo-façade, as if this is an entirely different building. And, indeed, the visitor suddenly finds herself thrown into a richly-furnished home. In keeping with the museum’s penchant for interior spaces, there are a great many recreations of American interiors from different points in the country’s history. Surely, we have not invented anything as close to time travel as this. Proceeding onward, the visitor next finds a strange sort of room. It is in the shape of a large oval, and on the walls there is an enormous painting of the palace and the gardens of Versaille. When standing in the center of the room, the curving panoramic does create a satisfying illusion of actually standing in France. Just as the study in the Ducal Palace of Gubbio, this painting (by John Vanderlyn) must have taken a nauseating amount of time.
I walked up the stairs, and then found myself in what is called “open storage.” These are the chairs, tables, paintings, lamps, and everything else that the museum has but did not have the space to use. So they hang here, in transparent cases. I recommend a visit to this, if only because it gives you an idea of the enormous amount of material any major museum must be holding in storage.
Proceeding onward, we come to the painting gallery. There are far too many excellent works to name. I was particularly happy to see a portrait of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington—both of which used to hang in Hamilton’s home, up in Harlem. More conspicuously, there is the iconic painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware—almost ludicrously heroic. I was also happy to find Frederic Edwin Church’s painting, In the Heart of the Andes. Church was inspired by the naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt, and included as much scientific detail as he could in this painting. Just as famous is John Singer Sargeant’s painting, Madame X, an intentionally risque (at the time) portrait of a society beauty (her real name was Madame Pierre Gautreau).
I was most delighted to learn that the museum has an entire room designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. I am no expert in the design of houses or in interior decoration, but I must say that it is both a welcoming and an animating space. It is easy to imagine myself reading a good novel within, while watching the snow fall out the windows.
This completes our long circuit around the museum’s massive ground floor. If we continue on, we reach the Egyptian section again. So now let us return once again to the Great Hall, and then ascend the grand staircase to the museum’s first floor (or second floor, in America).
Finally we come to the museum’s collection of European Paintings. Now, I must be careful here to avoid getting pulled into an endless catalogue of the museum’s excellent works. Like the American Wing, the Met’s Department of European Paintings could be a self-standing museum, and still be one of the best in the nation. Whether you like Dutch, Italian, French, or Spanish art, you will not leave the gallery disappointed (though German painting is fairly absent).
As you might expect, I am most interested in the Spanish paintings on display. The Met has excellent examples of the three great Spanish masters: Velázquez, El Greco, and Goya. The outstanding work of Velázquez is a portrait of Juan de Pareja, an enslaved man of African descent, which the artist executed in Italy. You will be pleased to hear that the great painter freed Juan de Pareja, who went on to become a skilled painter himself (there is a work of his hanging in the Prado). In any case, when you look at this painting, you do not see a man in bondage. To the contrary, Juan de Pareja appears almost regal with dignity. The painting is beautiful and startlingly realistic. To depict a man of African descent in such a way was a radical gesture on Velazquez’s part.
Goya’s contribution is a portrait of Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga, a very young aristocrat. As usual with Goya, the figure has an odd stiffness, and the face is inexpressive. The viewer’s eye is naturally drawn to the scene at the boy’s feet, where two cats hungrily eye a magpie on a leash. This is a strangely morbid scene for a portrait of a youth, and it becomes all the more eerie when one considers that the boy died only a few years later, at the age of eight. El Greco’s outstanding work is his View of Toledo, the best of the artist’s few landscape paintings. As always, the artist’s signature style is immediately apparent: deep, rich colors combined with a dramatic verticality. This style is perfect for the city of Toledo—which is built on a hill overlooking a river, and filled with sharp towers. El Greco manages to imbue this wholly secular and inanimate scene with a burning spiritual intensity.
The number of excellent French painters in attendance dwarfs the representatives of any other nation. My personal favorite is Jacques Louis David. There is a charming portrait of the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier, who was executed during the French Revolution under false accusations. This is quite a historic loss, considering that Lavoisier is normally considered to be the father of modern chemistry. David’s more famous painting is his The Death of Socrates, a historical scene showing the great philosopher’s final moments. Socrates, who was very ugly and was quite old at the time, is shown as a partially nude Greek hero—with a muscular torso to boot. While I am not sure the painting captures the spirit of Plato’s dialogues, it is a brilliantly theatrical image.
On the subject of French painters, I must also mention The Love Letter, by Jean Honoré Fregonard, a delightfully coquettish image of a young woman receiving a note from her secret admirer. (I use this image in my blog’s newsletter.) I would love to keep going—since paintings speak to use in a modern language, easy for us to appreciate—but I will content myself with a short list of the artists in attendance: Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Vermeer, Ingres, Canaletto, Tiepollo, Turner, Klimt, Monet, Manet, Guaguin, Cézanne, Dürer, Memling, Rubens… Really even the list gets too long. The museum’s holdings of 19th century European paintings is so big, in fact, that the collection is held in a different section of the building.
To get there, you must pass a little hallway devoted to drawings, prints, and photographs. Now, you may be surprised to learn that, counted by individual works, this department is by far the biggest in the museum. But only a fraction of the drawings and prints in the museum’s holdings are on display at any given time. Sometimes they are taken out for special exhibitions, such as one on Michelangelo a few years ago. There, I got to see some of Michelangelo’s schematic drawings for fortresses, when he was briefly hired as a military engineer. Besides being innovative designs, the drawings themselves are beautiful works of abstract art.
Continuing on through the paintings of 19th and early 20th century Europe—where you can admire the great impressionists and post-impressionists—you get to the Department of Islamic Art. During my time in Spain I have come to admire Islamic art for its intricate designs, its geometrical sophistication, and its sense of divine calm. Wonderfully creative patterns decorate everything from tiles, to carpets, to pages of the Qur’an. As an example of the last, there is a stunning illuminated Qur’an from Turkey, whose decoration is just as intricate as the Book of Kells in Dublin.
Representational art is relatively uncommon in the Islamic world, as it is explicitly forbidden by the religion, but there are still some examples in the gallery. A particularly beautiful one is a tile panel from Iran, executed in a style that looks to my ignorant eye as if it could be Indian. A seductively posed woman is being courted by a man wearing a European hat. I wonder who made object, for whom, and where it would be placed, since it seems to so flagrantly flout the strictures of Islamic religion.
In keeping with the museum’s love of historical spaces, this section has the Damascus Room. This is a winter reception room from a palace in Damascus, Syria, made around the year 1700. It is a beautiful space. Shelves display ornate ceramics and the gilded covers of Qur’ans. Panels of lovely calligraphy (bearing messages from the Qur’an) and floral designs decorate the walls, and the floor is covered with geometrical tiles. The ceiling is perhaps the most stunning of all, composed of elaborate woodwork. It is such a sophisticated, elegant space; it must certainly have set the tone for any conversations which took place within.
Next we come to the museum’s relatively small section on the Ancient Near East (Mesopotamia). For the most part these halls are filled with wonderful little objects from long ago, like cylinder seals, jewelry, incense burners, and small-scale statues. Among this last category is a small statue of Gudea, made around 2,000 BCE. It is a work of skilled craftsmanship, showing us a Sumerian king in a rather humble pose. His robe bears an inscription in cuneiform about his accomplishments (typical propaganda). What is striking is the thoughtfulness and even the humility of the king’s gaze and pose. He strikes us as more of a monk than a fearsome ruler. Another outstanding work is the bronze head of an unknown ruler, made between 2300 and 2000 BCE. Though not exactly realistic, I think this work is remarkable for the degree of individualization in the ruler’s features. We are not looking at a generic, stylized male head, but a particular man from 3,000 years ago.
But the real stars of this department are the lamassu: colossal sculptures of human-headed winged lions that flank the hallways. These were made in Assyria, around 850 BCE. Walking through this hallway, flanked by these mythical figures, feels like walking into the past. One detail I particularly like is that the creatures have five legs, as a result of a bit of illusionism. The front two legs are parallel, as if the creature is standing still; yet from the side, an extra leg is added (invisible from the front) to make it look as though the creature is mid-stride when seen from the side. The walls surrounding these stone guardians are covered with friezes in low relief, depicting other mythological scenes. For me, this Assyrian art is as lovely anything in the Egyptian section.
You emerge from ancient times onto the balcony overlooking the Great Hall. Here you can walk across and enter into the Department of Asian Art. This is one of my favorite areas of the museum, partly because of the art itself, and partly for the way that this department is laid out. Clever planning makes the department seem much bigger than it actually is, and walking through it the first time feels like exploring an old palace or temple.
The viewer enters the department by walking into a grand gallery, filled with enormous works of Chinese Buddhist art. There are large stele, bearing inscriptions and carvings, and a huge sculpture of a Bodhisattva. This may, in fact, be the biggest statue in the museum. It is 13’9’’ tall (over 4 m) and must weigh thousands of pounds. It is also quite beautiful, with richly decorated robes. On the wall is an even bigger paintings of the Buddha of Medicine, seated among a large retinue. It is a magnificent way to enter Asia.
From this large hall, one can either further explore Chinese art, on the left, or enter the arts of India, on the right. For the sake of consistency, we can begin with China. The Met’s collection of Chinese Buddhist sculpture is the largest outside of Asia, and more examples can be seen in Gallery 208. There are so many lovely sculptures. One I particularly like is a ceramic sculpture of an Arhat (or a Luohan, as they are known in China), which is a person who has achieved an advanced state of enlightenment. The sculpture is lifesize; and the man’s tired and worn expression is extremely compelling. His robes are still brightly colored, even though this was made over 1,000 years ago.
The Met also has a wonderful collection of Chinese drawings, calligraphy, pottery, and much else. But the most stunning room is the so-called Astor Court: a recreation of a Ming Dynasty-era courtyard. This is just another example of the stunning interiors from around the world collected at the Met. Finished in 1981, this installation was built by hand, using traditional methods; and besides being a beautiful work of art, it represented a landmark in cultural exchange between communist China and the United States. You enter through a round doorway guarded by two stone beasts (one is reminded of the lamassu in the Ancient Near East). Immediately you find yourself in a different world. A sheltered walkway surrounds a garden filled with oddly shaped rocks. These are called Taihu stones; they are formed via water erosion at the foot of a particular mountain in China (Dongting), and they are abstract sculptures in their own right.
At the end of the garden is a large room, designed to be used as a study, I believe. Unlike the great European interiors of the Met, this room does not appear at all ostentatious. Rather it is spare, restrained, and tasteful. As in the Damascus Room, it is impossible not to be awed by the high degree of sophistication and elegance of the room and the adjoining garden. I cannot but help imagining myself as a Ming Dynasty scholar, sitting in the garden and contemplating some intellectual puzzle. The space seems to invite contemplation.
Next we shall enter India and Southeast Asia. But before that, I ought to mention the Met’s small but delightful collection of Korean art. It is all in one room, Gallery 233, and I quite like the space. All of the objects are diminutive, and many have a kind of geometrical simplicity and elegance which gives the space its own distinct aesthetic. But we have no time to stop and savor. We walk from China, through Korea, and into India.
For me, the standout objects in these galleries are the many small figurines of gods. Indian sculpture enchants me for the kind of whimsical energy it often possesses. Though magnificent, the many gods do not seem remote or beyond reach, but rather quite approachable and inviting. These galleries are arranged chronologically, so we begin at around 2,000 BCE—about as old as anything in the Egyptian or the Ancient Near East sections—and move towards the present. To pick just a few of my favorite examples, there is an Avalokiteshvara Padmapani from the 7th century, a Bodhisattva who seems to be coyly beckoning. Or there is a statue of Shiva as the Lord of Dance, wherein the god is shown mid-stride, dancing within a fiery circle.
Another favorite is Yashoda with the Infant Krisha, who is suckling the young diety at her breast. This sculpture is especially resonant for Westerners, since we also have a tradition of representing the sacred mother suckling the divine child. But the style is here so very different. Whereas Mary is de-sexualized as much as possible, Yashoda is nearly naked and her breasts are almost comically large (of course, I am looking at this sculpture as a Westerner). Indian art is, after all, famous for its erotic content. An excellent example of this is a sculpture of a loving couple in a passionate embrace, made in the 13th century. You may be surprised to learn that this was part of the decoration of a temple. Certainly you would never see anything similar on a gothic cathedral!
The last work I will mention is a statue of Ganesha from the 12th century. This elephant-headed god is the bestower of good fortune, and it is customary to make an offering before doing anything important. When I visited a few years ago, I was delighted to find that this practice extended into the museum: there were coins left at the base of the statue.
We still have Japan to cover, but first we must take a little detour. Standing near the end of the section on India and Southern Asia is a beautiful wooden ceiling. This comes from a Jain temple built in the late 16th century. The staircase underneath this roof leads up to a small gallery on the floor above, this one devoted to the arts of Tibet and Nepal. For my part, this is some of the coolest art that I have ever seen. Though thematically related to art in both the Chinese and the Indian sections, the art here has a peculiar intensity not found anywhere else. An example of this is the painting of Walse Ngampa, a wrathful deity of Tibetan Buddhism. The figure has an electrifying intensity, with two arms wrapped around a terrified victim about to be devoured, while its many other arms are outstretched, holding symbolic objects.
When we descend, we can finally make our way to the section of Japanese art. Here, too, we can find some excellent statues. I particularly like the wooden guardian figures, which flank a statue of the Dainichi Nyorai, or the Cosmic Buddha. These guardian figures are formidable. I am always drawn to their fearsome grimaces. Even more wonderful is Ogata Korin’s ink drawing of waves on a folding panel. Here we can see a non-Western tradition of drawing that is intensely sophisticated. The waves do not occupy any kind of realistic space, but instead seem to emerge from nowhere and engulf everything. The lines of the waves are nothing like the blurry colors of Turner’s seascapes, which gives these waves a disturbing sense of solidity; the leading edge of the water appears sharp and even claw-like. It is a wonderful image.
We have already spent hours and hours in this museum, and yet there is still more to see. From the Japanese Department we can move on to the Department of Musical Instruments. This is housed in two galleries overlooking the section of Arms and Armor. I have never seen a collection of musical instrument that even comes close to the Met’s collection. There are superb examples of instruments from around the world: Italian harpsichords, Chinese pipas (similar to a lute), Native American rattles, Congolese horns, and Japanese drums. Seeing them in this context reminds us that instruments can be very beautiful simply as objects. To pick just one extravagant example, there is an Indian taus (a bowed lute) in the form of a peacock. And, of course, we must not neglect to mention the Stradivarius violins.
This gallery also has paintings with musical subjects hanging on the walls. My favorite is Dancing in Columbia, by Fernando Botero, if only because a copy of it has been hanging in my mother’s living room as far back as I can remember. Two balconies connect the two halves of the instrument department. On one of these is a charming old organ, and on the other is a fantastic assortment of wind instruments, arranged as if they are exploding from a central point. It is an evocative representation of a fanfare.
By now we have made our way through most of the major sections of the museum. There is only one place left on our tour: the Robert Lehman Collection.
Robert Lehman was a banker who owned one of the biggest and best private art collections in history. Active for a long time on the Metropolitan Board of Directors, he bequeathed his extraordinary collection to the Met, but on the condition that it not be mixed in with the other departments. Thus, the Met built a special space, attached at the back of the building, almost like a spaceship taking off from the main building. The rooms of the department are furnished to vaguely evoke a private home. Personally, I do not like having this department separate, since I do not see any good reason to do so other than vanity. If Lehman wanted his collection separate, he could have done what Frick or Morgan did, and established his own museum. But, in any case, there are some extraordinary works of art to be found, so it cannot be missed.
Robert Lehman seems to have been most interested in European paintings, and that is what we find in abundance. One of my favorites is The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise, by Giovanni di Paolo. I love the color pallette of the paintings, filled with rich dark hues. But I am most drawn to the representation of the creation of the world: with God holding a series of concentric circles surrounding an image of Eden. Most famous, perhaps, is a portrait by Ingres of the Princesse de Broglie. Ingres’s technique is masterful, brilliantly capturing the rich fabric of her dress and furniture. It is also psychologically subtle, as it shows us a woman poised between shy reserve and self-assuredness.
There are dozens of other great paintings in this collection, and thousands upon thousands of great works in the museum, but this is where our tour must end. I have already written far too much. But the Met is endless—or, at least, it might as well be.
Confronted with such an enormous mass of culture and beauty from all around the world, it is difficult to know how to react. Part of me wonders whether all of these objects really should be here. With the financial resources that the Met possesses, the museum has been able to get nearly anything. But should they? And were all of the objects collected in ways that we would now approve of? Admittedly, the museum is trying to address this last question with their Provenance Project, paying particular attention to works that may have been looted by the Nazis and not restituted to their rightful owners. Personally I wonder about many of the objects in the Department of Oceanic, African, and American arts.
On the other hand, I think it is important that we do have spaces where we can see the human experience as one enormous tapestry. Traveling from Egypt, to China, to Turkey, to Senegal—in short, to nearly every inhabited corner of the world—and seeing these different traditions unfold through centuries of time: one would hope that this might lead to some insight into our human condition. There are some very obvious lessons, the most obvious one being that humans really like to make art. Other common themes are the relationships between art and power, or art and religion. It is all too much to really digest everything. But I hope every visit provides just a little bit more to chew on.
To conclude rather lamely, the Met is a uniquely excellent museum. Not only does it have vast and high-quality collections, but the museum is unique in many respects. As often mentioned, there is the museum’s emphasis on interior decoration and the arts of daily life. More important is the museum’s attempt to be all-inclusive: incorporating art from all over the world, and from every historical period. The Met’s view of art is expansive, incorporating not only paintings and sculptures, but swords, helmets, harpsichords, photographs, and dresses (the Costume Institute is downstairs). It is a kind of universal storehouse of human activity. I will surely keep going as long as my legs will take me.
I stumbled upon the Alexander Hamilton’s house completely by accident. I met a couple of friends from out of town, and in the process of exploring the Upper West Side we came upon it.
The discovery that one of the Founding Fathers’ houses was here, in Harlem, was astounding. The humble wooden house could hardly look more out of place nowadays. Set amidst the landscape of glass, steel, and concrete, the Federal style building looks as if it has been plopped down from another age. And in a way it was. The house has been moved from its original location not once, but twice.
When Hamilton had the house built, in the early 1800s, he was already in the twilight of his career. He had finished his epochal tenure as the Secretary of the Treasury—during which he constructed the nation’s financial system from the ground up—and had been reduced by a series of quarrels and scandals to an ordinary private citizen. To name just two watersheds in his life, he was publically exposed (and exposed himself) as an adulterer, and he also openly quarelled with John Adams, the presidential candidate of his political party, the Federalists. He was a brilliant statesman but a poor politician.
After this semi-voluntary retirement from the life of politics, Hamilton worked as a high-profile lawyer in New York City. Brilliant in everything he did, his career in law was no exception. To escape from the bustle of the city, Hamilton hired John McComb Jr.—the architect who designed NYC’s majestic City Hall, among other things—to build a rustic retreat for himself and his large family (he had eight children). At the time, Harlem was of course nothing like the city it is today. The area was still mostly farms and undeveloped woodland, an ideal spot to build a country house.
Hamilton did not have much time to enjoy his little paradise, however. Just two years after it was completed in 1802, Hamilton was killed in a duel with Vice-President Aaron Burr—another high-profile NYC lawyer, and a long-time rival of Hamilton’s. The property stayed in the family for some decades hence, occupied by his long-surviving wife Elizabeth and their children. But eventually it was sold and, by the late 1800s, it was in foreclosure and doomed to destruction. The building only survived because of the intervention of the St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, which bought the house and had it relocated, to conform with the Manhattan street grid.
This purchase was not for purely disinterested historical reasons, however. The church modified the house so that it could be used for services—a purpose which it served for many years. Eventually a larger church building was constructed, enclosing the old home. Then, in the 1920s, a historical preservation society intervened, buying the property and partially restoring some of its original features and decoration. It was only in the 1960s that it was designated a National Historic Landmark. But it remained hemmed in by the many tall buildings that sprung up around it.
Finally, in 2006, the house was moved to a more open location, in St. Nicholas Park, which was still within Hamilton’s original property. The move was a minor feat of technical achievement, gently cradling the entire structure and shifting it, inch by inch, to its new home. Now it stands in a relatively open space, near a few churches, some brownstown apartments, a playground, a taxi service, and a funeral home. And this curious conjunction of the historical, the mundane, the holy, the profitable, and everything else, is what New York City is all about.
For anyone who has visited Jefferson’s Monticello or Washington’s Mount Vernon, Hamilton’s little home may be something of a let down. Hamilton was never greatly wealthy in life; he owned no slaves—indeed, was part of the Abolition Society—and, though addicted to work, was scrupulously honest in his personal finances. In any case, much of the house’s original furnishings and character were lost in its two moves and its many renovations.
The visitor enters on the ground floor, what used to be the basement. There is a small gift shop near the entrance, with books by and about Hamilton. The rest of the space is a miniature museum. There is a time-lapse video of the epochal re-location of the house, and a short documentary that plays on a loop, giving an overview of Hamilton’s life. His accomplishments are also displayed in a series of informational panels and timelines. My favorite object on display was a mourning scarf—a scarf made and sold on the occasion of his untimely death, for people to honor his life. Amusingly, the scarf gives an incorrect account of Hamilton’s background, saying that he was “descended by his father of respectable Scottish ancestry, by his mother was reputably connected to New York.”
The reality, as you may know, was very different. Hamilton’s father, James, was a complete failure in life, and abandoned Hamilton and his brother when they were very young. (James may not even have been Hamilton’s real father, anyway, as Chernow speculates.) Further, Hamilton’s mother was far from reputable—she abandoned her husband and had Hamilton out of wedlock—and, in any case, died when Alexander was very young, leaving him little in the way of property or connections. Hamilton was, in other words, both a bastard and an orphan, as his musical proudly proclaims. But I suppose it is not polite to mention that at a funeral.
The house’s period rooms are all upstairs, on the first floor, accessible with a small wooden staircase from the basement. The hours of access are extremely limited (on weekdays from 12:00 to 1:00, and from 3:00 to 4:00), which makes visiting somewhat inconvenient. But it does not take much time to see everything. There are three main rooms to visit: the dining room, the salon, and Hamilton’s study (where he must have spent most of his time). The dining room features a long elegant table and is well lit with three tall windows. The salon is where I imagine the family spent much of their time, playing cards and receiving guests. Hamilton’s study is much as one would expect: decorated with maps and well-stocked with books. It must have been far messier and fuller when he was alive. He was an avid reader and inveterate scribbler.
Two notable paintings hang on the walls, one a full-length portrait of Hamilton himself, looking like a sophisticated dandy. There is also a portrait of George Washington, given as a gift to the Hamiltons from the Washingtons (the two men worked very closely together). The two original paintings are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they hang proudly in the American Wing; the paintings here are reproductions. Even more captivating is a life-sized bust of Hamilton, dressed like a Roman statesman and looking quite like one too. According to the guide, Hamilton’s wife considered the bust extremely lifelike, and even spoke to it after his death. It is a wonderful piece, bringing him to life with a winsome and wise smile. (Thomas Jefferson, Hamilton’s great rival, had a replica of this bust in his house in Monticello, placed opposite to his own, so the two would be forever in opposition.)
And that is about all there is to see. If anything, the house is charming because it shows how humble may be the life of an extraordinary historical figure.
But I should not end this post without mentioning another monument next door. Up the hill from Hamilton’s Grange is one of the most attractive college campuses I have ever seen: the North Campus of CUNY’s City College. The entire complex is built in a flamboyant neo-gothic style, designed by the architect George Browne Post (many of whose other important works have been demolished). Everything follows a unified aesthetic, from the elaborate iron grillwork on the gates to the little lamps flanking the entrances. The stonework on the buildings is particularly delightful, with enough subtle variation in color and texture to remain endlessly pleasant to examine. Every detail is well-done, from the wry gargoyles scattered throughout to the ornamented roofs and towers.
The centerpiece of the complex is Shepard Hall—named after a prominent NYC lawyer—which features a central building in the shape of a cathedral, and two curving wings on either side. Unfortunately I could not enter the building, as all the doors were locked. If I had gone inside, I would have seen the monumental Great Hall, a sort of central nave at the end of which is a mural by Edwin Blashfield, the artist who decorated the Library of Congress. In front of this hall is a statue of Alexander S. Webb, a general in the Civil War and the second president of the university. The statue makes him out to look like quite a swaggering military figure, and not exactly a bookish man.
(On the subject of statues, I ought, too, to mention the statue of Alexander Hamilton in front of the Broadway Spanish Baptist Church nearby. Here he looks rather like he does in the aforementioned painting, a heroic dandy.)
To me, the campus is a delightful and inspiring place. Indeed, the only American university campus of comparable beauty I know of is the University of Virginia, designed by Thomas Jefferson. Having gone to a rather unattractive university myself, I am very sensitive to the effect that architecture can have on the mood and atmosphere of an institute of higher learning. The strong verticality of the gothic buildings lifts one up and their historical form inspires a sense of participating in an honorable intellectual tradition.
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New York City is a land of bridges. According to the site, The Bridges of NYC, there are 2,027 bridges in the city—over five times as many as the bridges in Venice. Most of those bridges are small, ugly, and deservedly ignored. But several attract attention, and for good reason. The most famous bridge in the city is, of course, the Brooklyn Bridge. But before getting to that bridge, I will review some of the other 20 bridges that connect the island of Manhattan to Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, or New Jersey.
The largest bridge connected to the island of Manhattan is the George Washington Bridge. The bridge spans the Hudson, and connects New York to New Jersey. If not the biggest bridge in all of NYC, it is the busiest—carrying hundreds of thousands of commuters per day on its two levels. A suspension bridge opened in 1931, the George Washington is not especially beautiful; indeed, it is rather grey and devoid of character. But the bridge is open to pedestrian traffic, and so can provide an excellent view of the Hudson River (though this view is, admittedly, somewhat impeded by the anti-suicide net).
The majority of the bridges into Manhattan are located on the other side of the island, spanning the Harlem River between Manhattan and the Bronx. A traveler on the Hudson Line of the Metro North will pass by or under many of them, including the apparently unnamed railroad bridge that takes the train over the Harlem River, between the Third Avenue Bridge to the south and the Madison Avenue Bridge to the north. Both of these are swing bridges, a design that allows the steel structure to rotate to let boats pass by (though this is seldom nowadays).
As the train goes north, it passes by the Macombs Dam Bridge, which appears to be just another swing bridge, but which is also the third-oldest bridge in the city, having been opened in 1895. Further north are two large bridges, the Alexander Hamilton and the Washington (not George Washington), which rest on enormous steel arches.
After that comes the Broadway Bridge, a somewhat odd-looking lift bridge, whose central span can be elevated to allow for passing boats. When I am waiting for the train at the nearby Metro North Station, I like to watch the Line 1 Subway pass over this bridge, creating an odd metallic echo and illuminating the bridge with blue sparks. And finally there is the Henry Hudson Bridge, another tall and not especially beautiful structure resting on a single steel arch. The infamous Robert Moses had to fight against the protests of the local residents to get the bridge constructed, as a part of his Henry Hudson Parkway plan.
The very oldest and one of the most beautiful bridges in the whole city is also found in this area: the High Bridge. Constructed in 1848, the High Bridge was originally built as a part of the Croton Aqueduct, ferrying water from upstate New York into the city in a long tunnel, carried across the Harlem River on a series of stone archways. The High Bridge’s design and function gave it the appearance of an ancient Roman aqueduct; but the stone columns impeded traffic on the Harlem River; so in 1928 the columns were replaced by a single steel arch, much like the nearby Alexander Hamilton or Washington Bridges. Nevertheless, the bridge—now for pedestrians only—is one of the loveliest in the city, ideal for a walk with a view. The old water tower, designed to pump the water from the Croton Aqueduct uptown, still presides over the Manhattan side of the bridge, looking like a turret from some forgotten castle.
The most impressive bridges in Manhattan are, however, concentrated downtown, connecting the borough with Brooklyn, across the East River: the Manhattan Bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge, and the Brooklyn Bridge. Of these, the last named was the first to be built and remains the crown jewel of NYC infrastructure, a monument of engineering and one of the most significant public works of the 19th century.
When construction began on the Brooklyn Bridge, in 1870, Manhattan and Brooklyn were two different cities. Unification of the boroughs would not come until 1898. Thus, the politics behind the bridge were controversial and complicated, requiring the cooperation of two rather corrupt city governments (“Boss” Tweed, of Tammany Hall, was on the board for the Bridge). Before the bridge was built, the only access across the East River was provided by a handful of ferry companies. For decades commuters relied on these little boats to get to work, as Walt Whitman immortalized in his poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”:
Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose,
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.
The Bridge was designed by John Augustus Roebling, a man of enormous proportions. After studying philosophy with none other than Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in Germany, Roebling moved to the United States to pursue a Utopian vision of a collectivist, agricultural community in Saxonburg, Pennsylvania. When this did not pan out, Roebling turned his attention to engineering, creating daring and ingenious designs of suspension bridges and perfecting the steel cables necessary to build them. He was the natural choice to design and build the Brooklyn Bridge. But, when the bridge was still in the planning stage, Roebling injured his foot, developed tetanus, and died. (A believer in water therapy, he refused conventional treatment and insisted on soaking his injured foot and wrapping it in towels.) This left the project to his more-than-capable son, Washington Roebling.
Washington was already a Civil War hero and, thanks to his travels in Europe, an expert in caissons. A caisson is a sort of massive container, meant to be sunk to the bottom of the river. Water is then pumped out of the bottom chamber, and pressurized air is pumped in, allowing men to dig on the riverbed. They had to dig deep into the river until they hit the bedrock appropriate to carry the weight of the bridge. It was harrowing and dangerous work—deep underwater, under intense pressure, with water constantly seeping in. As the caisson sunk deeper and deeper, requiring higher pressure to keep the water out, the men began to develop the bends when they returned to the surface (or, as it was called then, “caisson sickness”). Since the condition was not understood at the time, the management had no idea how to prevent it. Workers would come up from the heavily pressurized air to sea level in only a few minutes, not nearly enough time for the body to adjust. This left many in agonizing pain, some permanently injured, and a few dead.
Washington Roebling himself was a victim of decompression sickness (though it may have been compounded by stress), leaving him so sickly and weak that he had to communicate all of his instructions by letter and observe the bridge by telescope. Even so, the caissons eventually reached the appropriate depth, were filled with concrete to serve as the foundations, and then construction of the stone towers began—easily the most massive buildings in the city at the time. Then, the wire cables had to be suspended. The board unwisely chose an unscrupulous wire manufacturer, who knowingly provided shoddy products in order to increase his profit. And though the bridge engineers caught on to this ruse, some of the defective wire is still built into the bridge (though not enough to make it unsafe, I am assured). In fact, John A. Roebling’s original design was meant to make the bridge at least six times as strong as necessary, making it possibly the most durable bridge in the city.
Finally, in 1883, the bridge was opened to massive acclaim. It was a technological marvel, a pivotal work of infrastructure, and a tourist attraction—as it remains. Originally the bridge had room for pedestrians, electric street-cars, and horse-drawn carriages, and also two cable-cars that ferried people back and forth. One of the earliest film recordings by Thomas Edison is a passenger’s view from the front of one of these cable cars, as crowds of men in top-hats walk by. (To learn more about the bridge, I recommend David McCullough’s excellent history, from which I am drawing my information.)
The bridge looks rather different now. For one, the cable cars have gone. And the street cars and horse-drawn carriages have been replaced by a sea of yellow taxis and multicolored automobiles. Pedestrian access is via a special walkway, elevated above the road level, going through the center of the bridge. The walkway nominally has both a walking lane and a bike lane, though so many tourists crowd the bridge on any given day that cyclists must fight their way through the crowd—shouting constantly. The view from the bridge has changed quite a bit, too. Far from being the largest structure in the city, the bridge’s towers now appear diminutive against the background of skyscrapers in Manhattan.
But the bridge is still a lovely sight. The gothic arches rise up and into the air, culminating in a solid block of stone that seems oddly ancient in the city of glass and metal. The surrounding steel cables create a pleasing geometric pattern, shifting slowly as one crosses the bridge. From the center of the walkway the cables form a kind of receding net, creating a grid that disappears into a vanishing point, much like a Renaissance painting. And the view of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the East River from the bridge is one of the best in the city. Considering that it is so iconic, so pleasant, and free, the Brooklyn Bridge is a necessary part of any visit to New York.
Yet the bridge’s neighbors also deserve mention. Slightly east of the Brooklyn Bridge is the Manhattan Bridge, an all-metal suspension bridge that used an innovative design which was to prove highly influential. Opened just 26 years after the Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge nevertheless appears modern and unremarkable—wholly functional, with no thought given to aesthetics. Unlike on the Brooklyn Bridge, this bridge’s pedestrian platform is separate, off to one side, and situated below the main span, which somewhat limits the view. I do, however, enjoy the experience of riding the subway (lines B, D, N, and Q) over the bridge—hearing the hard clack of the tracks and seeing the city through the triangular bars.
Further east and north is the Williamsburg Bridge. This bridge looks to the untrained eye rather similar to the Manhattan Bridge. Opened six years earlier, in 1903, it is also an all-metal suspension bridge, appearing nowadays to be plain and utilitarian. In my opinion, however, this bridge is one of the lesser-known treasures of NYC. Like the Brooklyn Bridge, it has a central walkway that gives a nice view of the city (though, admittedly, the view from this bridge is obscured by a thick metallic cage that encloses the walkway). If the bridge is less picturesque, it compensates by being far less crowded than the Brooklyn Bridge. Both times I walked across, the span was nearly empty. The visitor can also observe the subway (lines J, M, and Z) passing underneath the platform, causing a pleasant ruckus and rumbling. I even observed some love-locks on the bridge.
I will end this post by mentioning one bridge that I have personally never seen. The Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge is the longest and largest bridge in NYC, and was also the longest in the world for nearly twenty years (1964 – 81). (The Williamsburg Bridge and the George Washington have both held that distinction as well.) The enormous bridge was built under the auspices of Robert Moses as a way of connecting Brooklyn with Staten Island, and named in honor of the first known European explorer to enter New York Harbor, Giovanni da Verrazzano. Strangely, however, Moses forgot to look up the spelling of that explorer’s name, officially naming the bridge called the “Verrazano-Narrows” (with one z). It was not until 2018, fifty-eight years after its opening, that the name was finally corrected. Now Giovanni can rest in peace.
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