Sitting atop one of the highest points on the island of Manhattan, overlooking the palisades of the Hudson Valley stretching northwards, is the most convincing slice of Europe in New York—perhaps in the country. This is the Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum, specializing in medieval art and architecture.
Like any great museum, the story of the Cloisters begins with a person and his vision. In this case we have George Grey Barnard, a European-trained sculptor and collector, who managed to acquire a large collection of medieval sculptures, pillars, and and tombs during his time in France. He did this by focusing on stones that had been the victims of pillage and war—often repurposed by local populations for mundane needs. This was an especially amazing feat, considering that Barnard—an exuberant and impulsive man—was not wealthy to begin with, and had terrible spending habits which often landed himself on the verge of financial ruin.
It was during one of his periodic pecuniary crises that he was forced to sell his collection to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a man who could hardly have been more different—puritanical, reserved, prudent. But the two men shared a love for medieval art; and Barnard’s collection was the first step towards Junior’s dream of opening a museum in this romantic niche of Manhattan.
Things moved rather swiftly with the world’s wealthiest man financing the project. After the acquisition of Barnard’s collection in 1925, Junior had Fort Tyron Park built around the chosen site (designed by the descendants of the designer of Central Park); then, he had substantial sections from abbeys in Catalonia and France shipped to New York, where they were incorporated into a single structure. The museum was then donated to the Metropolitan Museum, and the park to the city. The result is an oasis of medieval Europe in uptown Manhattan.
It is interesting to compare this museum to the one founded by Junior’s wife, Abby Aldrich: the MoMA. They are a study in contrast. The MoMA sits right in the center of the city, surrounded by activity and noise; its design is sleek and modern, with a vertical orientation and sterile white walls. The Cloisters is situated far from the city center; indeed it is somewhat inconvenient to visit the museum, since it is so out of the way. The surrounding park is quiet and bucolic, a haven from the noise and stress of city life. The museum building itself is an attempt to recreate the past: using traditional materials and techniques to mimic a bygone age. If the MoMA tries to break with tradition, the Cloisters tries to break with modernity. It is a wonder that Junior and Abby got along so well, since they had such diametrically opposed attitudes to art.
The Cloisters is exceptional in that the building itself is one of the main attractions. Whenever possible, the original materials have been integrated into the structure, creating a faux-monastery, complete with quasi-churches and pseudo-cloisters, where imaginary monks perform invisible rituals. There are several ornamented doorways, with sculptures climbing up the sides and crowning the top. Some walls display decorative friezes—Biblical scenes and medieval bestiaries—and the windows shine with colorful stained glass. The cloisters have authentic columns, complete with Romanesque capitals; and there are three gardens where rare plant species pertinent to the medieval mind are grown. (Apparently, the madonna lily is associated with love and fertility.)
As for the museum’s collection, on display are fine examples of every type of medieval plastic art: paintings, altars, carvings, sculptures, reliquaries, sarcophagi, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, and tapestries. For the most part these are not organized by medium or style, but by their architectural setting: they are placed to create a harmonious and authentic experience. Thus walking around the Cloisters is akin to exploring a great cathedral, whose every chapel contains distinct works of art, organized by religious themes rather than academic categories. The final effect is not an emphasis on any one piece in the collection, but on the collection as a gestalt: an integrated, aesthetically captivating space.
Nevertheless some pieces to stand out for special comment. One is the Mérode Altarpiece, whose central panel depicts the annunciation. It is a wonderful example of Dutch realism, showing a celestial scene taking place in a modest Dutch living room. I particularly like the Virgin’s round, plump face, and her carefree expression as she idly reads a book, not even bothering to look up at the angel bearing news of universal significance. In general the interior is convincingly painted—filled with fine detail, especially the book lying open on the table—but the perspective is a little uneven, as you can clearly see when comparing the table to the room. The kneeling figures of the donors are on the left-hand panel, looking appropriately wan and penitent. On the right, Joseph (looking considerably older than his wife) is busy at work as a carpenter; and behind him, through the window, we can see what is obviously a lovely Netherlandish town. (Biblical scholarship was not highly advanced in those days.)
Besides Rockefeller Junior, an important early donor to the museum was J.P. Morgan, who contributed a few items from his incomparable collection of rare manuscripts (most of which, however, he kept for his own museum downtown). Among these are the Cloisters Apocalypse, the Psalter of Bonne de Luxembourg, and the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux. This last is particularly impressive. A “book of hours” is a prayer book, usually made for wealthy patrons, containing prayers appropriate for different times of the day. In this case, Jeanne d’Evreux was the third wife of king Charles IV of France (reigned 1325-28); and the book was executed by the Parisian artist Jean Pucelle, who was a witty inventor of drolleries (the little designs that frame the text in an illuminated manuscripts). In any case, the book is a terrific example of gothic illumination.
Yet my favorite work—and I suspect the favorite of many others—is the famed Unicorn Tapestries. This is a series of seven tapestries, depicting the hunt, capture, and (possible) rebirth of a unicorn. Its provenance is mysterious: First recorded in the possession of La Rochefoucauld family many years after their creation, then looted during the French Revolution (reputedly used to cover potatoes), the tapestries were ultimately acquired by Rockefeller Junior, who adored them and could scarcely bear donating them to the museum. But eventually his charity prevailed over his aesthetic greed, and now the tapestries hang in the museum for all to see.
What is immediately striking is the quality of their workmanship and preservation. I have seen a fair number of tapestries by now, and most are not nearly as detailed nor as vibrant. Scholars debate nearly everything about the works—their meaning, their relationship to paganism and Christianity, and even the order in which they should be seen. Nevertheless some basic narrative is obvious. A group of hunters sets out in the forest; they encounter the unicorn by a well, surrounded by other beasts; they attack; the unicorn defends itself, killing a dog with its horn and kicking a man; but the unicorn is surrounded, killed, and brought back to the castle (apparently with its horn missing). But there is one tapestry that is difficult to account for, showing a unicorn standing inside a fenced enclosure, alive and with horn intact. Where does this image fit in? Should it go first or last? Does the unicorn come back to life?
This last interpretation makes some sense, considering that the unicorn was used as a symbol for Christ during the Middle Ages. Still, the metaphor of hunting a unicorn seems odd for symbolizing the path to Christian salvation. Are the hunters supposed to be those seeking Christ’s wisdom, or is this rather a metaphor for the passion and death of Christ? I can hardly give a coherent answer; but the ambiguity only adds to the tapestry’s magnetic power. Yet even as images alone, the series is compelling: the lush forest, the atmosphere of fantasy, the dynamic encounters with the unicorn.
I am spilling words on these exceptional works, yet I feel I am failing to do justice to this museum—whose effect is never dependent on the excellence of a single piece. Indeed you might say that the building itself is the greatest work on display. Despite being a melange of elements—incorporating churches and monasteries from different eras and different regions—the Cloisters convincingly brings the visitor into the Medieval mindset: of chivalry, romance, nobility, and, most importantly, Christianity. Indeed, arguably the architectural eclecticism of the museum accurately captures the feel of medieval religious structures, which were often built over hundreds of years and incorporated several different mediums and styles.
So if you have any interest at all in the Middle Ages, I highly recommend taking the A train uptown (190th street station) to visit this shrine to a bygone age.
I have always been prone to conservative tastes in music, literature, and art. I remember having long discussions in high school about the emptiness of contemporary music and the inanity of modern art (at the time, I knew close to nothing about visual art, ancient or modern). Every painting I encountered from the 20th century only confirmed my prejudices—using a minimum of technical skill to create images that were either incomprehensible or simply dull. At the ripe age of eighteen I mourned the decline in standards and the decadence of our culture.
Luckily, my tastes have broadened somewhat since then (though not as much as could be desired), and I have come to cherish the Museum of Modern Art as one of the great museums in New York—indeed, of the world.
Like many New York landmarks, the MoMA is a product of the Rockefeller family. Specifically, it was conceived and funded by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, along with two of her friends.
Abby was the wife of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who himself had a great love of art. However, he and his wife had diametrically opposed tastes. Junior was fond of Chinese porcelain and medieval art (which led him to develop the Cloisters Museum, uptown), while his wife was enamored with modern art. This occasioned not a few marital squabbles, since the straight-laced and puritanical Junior considered modern art to be degenerate and scandalously uninhibited. To add insult to injury, Abby wanted to demolish their old home to make way for the museum. Nevertheless, Junior offered the requisite financial support for his wife’s project, and so the MoMA was born. It opened in 1929, just a few days after the financial crash (while Junior was busy dealing with Rockefeller Center); and this opening marks a watershed in the institutional acceptance of modern art.
Upon entering the MoMA, the visitor should go all the way to the top, the fifth floor (American style), and then work her way down. Nearly all of the museum’s most famous paintings are to be found in this gallery, so it is best to go with fresh eyes.
Almost immediately you will find the most famous painting in the collection: Starry Night. Like La Gioconda in Paris or The Birth of Venus in Florence, Starry Night is always surrounded by a swarm of buzzing tourists. Predictably, this detracts from the viewing experience. Much of the pleasure of a great painting consists in minute observation; and this is doubly true of Van Gogh’s works, which are so thick with paint that they are nearly tactile. In any case, I need hardly say that Starry Night is one of the great images of Western Art, as instantly recognizable as Guernica or the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The swirls in the night sky have been as overanalyzed as Mona Lisa’s famous smile: as turbulent manifestations of the artist’s epileptic visions, or as a profound insight into the physics of nebular star formation, or as an allegorical representation of Christ.
While I think Starry Night is undeniably among Van Gogh’s best, I admit that overexposure has diminished my enjoyment of the painting. It is like hearing a song played one hundred times on the radio: even if it is a great song, it will lose interest eventually. In any case, the painting is exceptional in many respects. Unlike the majority of Van Gogh’s mature work (characterized by the artist’s strong commitment to observation), it contains several imaginative elements. For one, the village in the distance is an invention: it was not visible from his window at the monastery in which he was staying. More striking, the swirls in the sky seem to be a purely imaginative detail—not only invented, but fantastical. Are they clouds, wind, or a spiral galaxy? Nothing quite seems to fit, which is strange in a painter so obsessed with working from nature.
The final result is a painting whose effect is somewhat different from Van Gogh’s other mature work. The Starry Night Over the Rhône, for example, is typical of the artist in that, despite not being “realistic,” it evokes the sensation of an actual starry night. The Starry Night in the MoMA, however, evokes a quite different feeling: that of a cryptic, quasi-mystical utterance.
Another famous painting in this gallery is Henri Rousseau’s The Dream. It features a nude European woman reclining on a couch, in a reclining pose reminiscent of many European female nudes, such as Titian’s Venus of Urbino or Goya’s The Naked Maja. But she is not in a living room, but deep in the jungle, surrounded by exotic birds, tropical plants, two lions, and an African person playing the flute. The style is exaggerated and cartoonish, not exactly dreamlike but heavily stylized. The woman’s portrayal, for example, is almost Egyptian in its perspective: her body facing forward but her head entirely in profile, with both of her braids somehow in front of her chest. My favorite aspect of the painting are the large, hypnotic eyes of the lions, which serve to make the animals seem terrified rather than terrifying.
However, I must admit that, on the whole, I do not find the painting terribly captivating to look at. I do appreciate it as a kind of satire of bourgeois dreams of the exotic: the gentile French woman, dozing in her salon, lost in daydreams of the lush forests of the Africa. And perhaps the snake tail sticking out from the bushes, and the fruit hanging on the tree above, tell us that this imaginary Eden is liable to implode when faced with actual knowledge.
In the next room there are several works by Picasso, including what I consider to be, after Guernica, his greatest: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. (In this case, Avignon refers to a street in Barcelona where prostitutes would congregate, not to the city in France.) It is a brutal, disturbing work. Picasso painted it in 1907, when he was still relatively obscure and was embroiled in a rivalry with the older Henri Matisse. At the time there was widespread interest in so-called “primitive” art, such as that of sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania, and pre-Roman Iberian sculpture. The painter Gauguin (who died in 1903) also contributed to this interest, since he had spent the last ten years of his life on the island of Tahiti, and had cultivated a “primitive” style in his late works. (This can be seen in Gauguin’s The Seed of Areoi, also at the MoMA.) Picasso combined this interest in the exotic with his admiration of Cézanne, whose daring landscapes pioneered the geometrical simplification that would become the basis of Picasso’s mature style. (The MoMA features several excellent works by Cézanne, including The Bather.)
The result is a painting utterly unlike any other in Western art. Five nude prostitutes gaze at the viewer, who is supposed to be a potential customer in their brothel. But there is not a hint of sensuality about these ladies of the night. Indeed, the extreme distortions of their bodies, and the mask-like form of their faces, transforms them into threatening monsters—particularly the two women on the right, whose faces bear the obvious influence of African art. The women have been literally objectified: reduced to distorted, two-dimensional placards. But the objectification turns them into objects of fear rather than desire; their curves are sharpened into knife-blades, their frontal gazes—traditionally a sign of invitation—are instead frightening blanks, devoid of any discernible emotion.
Compare this work with Matisse’s Le bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life), completed just the year before; it shows us a colorful landscape full of voluptuous nudes, luxuriating in sensual pleasure. This is the ever-beguiling fantasy of sex. Picasso shows us the reality beneath the fantasy, the ugliness that we push into the shadows. For the relationship between the viewer as client, and the prostitutes gazing back, is dehumanizing for both parties. The women are visibly dehumanized—turned into thin masks, which perform their sexual function without pleasure or pain, without lust or hatred, but only a blank apathy. For his part, the client’s desire for sex becomes yet another financial transaction, performed mechanically—without enthusiasm and even without real desire—to fulfill mundane biological urges.
Perhaps I am reading too far into the painting, but for me the image represents the consequences of a repressive sexual morality: wherein a single man’s only opportunity for sex is the brothel, which in turn fuels a market that preys upon vulnerable women, pulling them into a cycle of poverty and abuse. Yet this is only one of an endless list of interpretations, as the helpless critic struggles to make sense of this pitiless image.
It was not a long way from these distorted forms to Picasso’s major breakthrough: cubism. Several cubist works of his hang nearby, as well as those of his partner in cubism, Georges Braque. I must admit that these works of “high” cubism always leave me cold: they are monochromatic and chaotic images, with at most the purely intellectual interest of a crossword puzzle. But there is no denying that cubism was the most influential movement of the period; through the painters’ experiments with perspective and abstraction, a new idiom was developed, a pictorial language that Picasso (among others) would later use to great effect.
Not far from here is a room mostly dedicated to works by Marcel Duchamp. Now, Duchamp is one of the most influential figures in 20th century art; in his program, The Shock of the New, Robert Hughes dedicates ample time to his work, and most of what he says is quite positive. For my part, I have been unable to penetrate this artist’s work, in part because he seems to represent what I generally dislike about modern art: namely, its abandonment of aesthetic qualities for intellectual games or self-involved irony.
An example of this is his piece To Be Looked at (From the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour. It consists of two panes of glass with a magnifying lens mounted in the middle. On the glass is a geometrical design of a three-dimensional pyramid. The glass was unintentionally cracked during transport, which greatly appealed to Duchamp’s sense of random creation. I can see that the piece is a sort of ironic comment on science and perspective; the design and the lens suggest the meticulous representation of space, and yet it is a mere parody—the image through the lens is distorted and fuzzy. It is also a sort of ironic comment on the act of seeing in a gallery, since the viewer must dedicate a frankly unrealistic amount of time to experience the visual distortions induced by the lens. In other words, the whole point of this work, which uses symbols of seeing scientifically, is to see badly. Yet is it interesting to look at?
Another example of Duchamp’s work is Three Standard Stoppages. He made this by dropping a meter-long thread onto sheets of glass, so they it fell in haphazard shapes, and then gluing the threads to the glass. Afterwards, he made wooden “rulers” (whose length is less than a meter, since the thread is curved) using these shapes. The idea (or so the MoMA audioguide explains) is to show the arbitrariness and the boringness of the standard meter, as opposed to the spontaneous naturalness of these shapes. This is a fine idea; but again I do not see the point of creating a work of art which only serves as the prop for an argument. I remain old-fashioned enough to think that it should be beautiful in itself; this is one of my many intellectual shortcomings.
A room nearby is dedicated to the work of Giorgio de Chirico. Indeed, the MoMA has perhaps the world’s greatest collection of this elusive artist’s work, including his most famous painting: The Song of Love. Like so many of Chirico’s paintings, it is a baffling image: a rubber glove hangs from a wall, next to a beautiful antique bust (of Apollo?), with a green ball on the ground in front—all of this in a cartoonish urban landscape. Like many, I can only hazard a guess of what this all means. I suppose that the powerful juxtaposition of the bust and the rubber glove is suggestive of different interpretations of the human body—one a unique idealized image, another a prefabricated utilitarian object—indicative of the many cultural manifestations of the same underlying reality. But, really, whatever interpretation we choose to impose, the image persists; and it is memorable.
Another memorable image is Dance (1) by Henri Matisse. The work in the possession of the MoMA is a preliminary work for a decorative panel in the Heritage Museum, Saint Petersburg. If you keep in mind that this naive image was created in 1909, you can get an idea of how revolutionary it must have been. For there is not a hint of realism in the work; not only do the figures lack detail, but their postures are impossible—anatomically and perspectively. The landscape consists of two blobs of color, slashed across the canvass. And yet it is an utterly convincing image of joyous celebration. The freedom from realism is transformed into a freedom of all restraint, a kind of basic delight in movement and release. The painting is also a convincing demonstration that childlike can produce lasting art.
I have a much more negative opinion of another so-called childish piece in the collection, White on White, by Kazimir Malevich. Malevich was the creator of the Suprematist movement, which emphasized the use of basic geometrical shapes—squares, circles, lines, and so on—with a black-and-white color scheme. White on White consists of an off-white square positioned diagonally in a white canvass. Neither this painting nor any other of the Suprematist works on display produce even the slightest iota of emotion in me; they are not visually interesting or intellectually stimulating.
But I should not pause to cast aspersion, but should dwell on the paintings that I do like. Among these is, naturally, Claude Monet’s wonderful painting of water lilies, stretched out on an enormous canvass (well, actually three canvasses). In the later part of his life, Monet retreated into his own estate; here following Voltaire’s advice, he cultivated his own garden. This became his artistic haven, where he would sit for hours, working. The most famous and stunning results of this aesthetic quest are these enormous representations of the surface of his lily pond. (Monet made several of these; most are collected in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris.) The work is unmoderated aesthetic bliss: the swirling colors are so inherently peaceful and pleasant that they induce a sort of meditation, an artistic absorption in color and light.
I see that I am rattling on and on, as I tend to do, so I will restrict myself to two more paintings. But be advised that this list is only representative of my tastes, and does not adequately reflect the wealth of beauty on display.
As a somewhat begrudging fan of Dalí, I was delighted to finally see his Persistence of Memory. This image is so famous that it requires no description. Nevertheless, I think it is worth pausing to savor this painting’s brilliance. For no painting I know is such a convincing depiction of time. Contrast this work with another whose subject is time: The Ages and Death, by Hans Baldung. This painting, which hands in the Prado, represents time by showing its effect on the female body. It is an exceptional painting, well executed and well conceived; but it has none of the haunting power of Dalí’s work. For here time itself ages—it melts and droops pathetically. In Baldung time is universal, inescapable, and adamantine; but for Dalí time itself takes place in a larger environment—that suggested by the rocky landscape—and is itself subject to change. This leads us to ask: what is ultimate, after all?
The last painting I will mention is Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31, 1950. Admittedly, giving the name of a certain Pollock seems silly, since I at least would be at a complete loss to pick one out of a slideshow. Nevertheless I do want to single out this painting, and Pollock’s work generally, for its extraordinary energy. Though superficially random, any amount of inspection will reveal that, in fact, Pollock exerted an extreme level of control over his paint drippings. The result is a sort of explosion of human movement, an exploration of gesture, a kind of visual dance, where the overlapping colors create a rhythmic sensation, and the blobs of paint sticking out of the canvass make it nearly tactile.
If she is at all like me, the visitor will be quite exhausted by the end of this gallery. Yet this floor, although it contains the majority of the MoMA’s most famous works, is only a small fraction of its total exhibitions. On the next floor down are the more contemporary works, from 1940 to 1980. I will pass over this gallery in silence since, for me, visual art after the Second World War is hit or miss—and usually the latter. Below this, on the third floor, is a rotating special exhibition on architecture. When I went last year it was a fascinating exposition dedicated to Frank Lloyd Wright; this year it is dedicated to communist Yugoslavian architecture. On the second floor (European first floor) the collection continues from 1980 up to the present. Finally, on the ground floor is the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller sculpture garden, a peaceful place full of bizarre statues, plants, and benches, which is perfect for having a short rest.
This does it for my virtual tour of the MoMA. It is well worth a visit, not only because of its wonderful collection, but because it is one of the most significant institutions that governed artistic taste in the 20th century. Next, I will examine a museum founded by Abby Aldrich’s conservative husband: the Cloisters.
Just as royalty and nobles have played a crucial role in Europe’s art, providing money and stability to artists, in American history very rich patrons have played an equally important role in the establishment of cultural institutions. From Carnegie, to Frick, to the Rockefellers, great business tycoons have used their enormous wealth to bring culture to the masses; and in this respect J.P. Morgan is no exception.
Unlike the above-mentioned robber barons, Morgan was not an industrialist; his specialty was money itself. A son and eventually a father of a banker, finance was in Morgan’s blood. He had dealings with every major player in business and government of the age, and was instrumental in the creation of the era’s major conglomerates: General Electric (which hailed from Thomas Edison), United States Steel (from Carnegie, Schwab, and Frick), and AT & T (from Alexander Graham Bell)—to name just a prominent few. A large man with a deformed nose, he struck the unflappable John D. Rockefeller as moody and impulsive. But this iconic money-changer and pharaonic materialist was not bereft of an appreciation of higher things.
The Morgan Library & Museum sits right in midtown Manhattan, on Madison Avenue and 36th street. The main building looks quite similar to the Frick: a severe, grey, neoclassical structure. Adjoining this is an attractive brownstone building; and the complex is completed with a sleekly modern—and rather discordant and tasteless—box of an entryway, built in 2006 to help organize the space. This is where the contemporary visitor enters and pays.
No photos are allowed inside the complex, so I am forced to rely on my paltry memory.
As one would expect, the house is richly furnished. The original entrance hall is gorgeously decorated, with Renaissance-style wall frescos and Pompeian motifs; even the floor is attractively patterned. Anyone visiting the banker would know immediately that this was financial royalty. Morgan’s study, where he made decisions that shaped the economy, is a deep shade of scarlet—the rug, the wall paper, the furniture. Morgan himself, with his handlebar mustache sitting under his bulbous nose, presides over the fireplace in the form of a portrait. Few rooms give such an indelible impression of power.
The next room accessible from the entrance hall was, I believe, previously the librarian’s office; now it contains a fine sampling of Morgan’s impressive collection of Babylonian cylinder seals. These are small circular objects made of hard stone, about an inch long, inscribed with delicately carved reliefs. They were used as a sort of signature or official seal, by rolling the seal over soft clay to create a horizontal image. Dozens of these seals were on display in the room. Since the seals themselves do not look like much, they were shown alongside an impression made with the seals, wherein the images can be clearly seen. These typically involve scenes of gods and royalty, and are quite beautiful works of art. Certainly it is a much more elegant way of indicating ownership and approval than illegibly scribbling our names.
From here I went to the central attraction of the museum: the library itself. Even if it had no books at all, it would be a beautiful space—the ceiling as richly decorated with allegorical friezes as El Escorial’s royal library. Three floors of oaken bookcases line every wall up to the ceiling, each one filled with venerable volumes covered by a protective screen. On the ground level there are display cases that showcase some of the library’s treasures. And these are beyond anything I had expected.
Here is the finest collection of manuscripts and rare books that I had ever hoped to see. To begin with, there are three Gutenberg Bibles, the first book published with moveable type in Europe, one of the most iconic books in history. While the invention of printing was, no doubt, a great advance in the history of our species, it must be admitted that the Gutenberg Bibles look rather plain next to the older, handmade ones nearby. The most famous example of these is the Morgan Bible, or Crusader Bible, a brilliantly illuminated Bible showing scenes from the Old Testament, but depicted as if it had occurred in medieval France. (Thus it is easy to mistake the images for depictions of the crusades.) The images are chaotic and violent, but no less compelling for being so; and seeing it such vivid illustrations between the cover of a book does make one a little nostalgic for the days when books were handmade.
The most ornate book in the collection—and the first in the Morgan Library catalogue, MS M.1—is a book of the gospels from the 9th century, around the reign of Charlemagne. (I admit that I cannot remember if I actually saw this book in person, but I did see it in a documentary that mentioned the library.) The cover is a mass of ornately decorated gold, encrusted with precious jewels. The amount of material wealth devoted to this single volume beggars belief—though it does seem a little ironical to decorate a book about Jesus of Nazareth, arch-enemy of the money-changers, so resplendently. While I am on the topic of ironies, I must also add a point made by the journalist Alistair Cooke, that while these super rich tycoons—Carnegie, Frick, Morgan—were buying up the treasures of Europe, they were benefiting from waves of European immigrants willing to work long hours for low wages. And so these robber barons exploited the huddled masses of Europe to buy up its treasures.
But it is difficult to be indignant for very long when you are looking at such beautiful books. The Morgan Beatus, for example, is a brilliantly illuminated copy of the Commentary on the Apocalypse by Beatus of Liébana, with bright yellows and reds and oranges, showing us a world redeemed and a world aflame. Then there is the Hours of Catherine of Cleves, a wonderful example of gothic illumination. As with so many other illuminated manuscripts, the mind boggles at the amount of time it would have taken to paint a single one of these ornate pages, much less a whole book of them. An example of this is the Farnese Hours, illuminated by Giulio Clovio over a period of nine years. Clovio was a friend of the young El Greco, during his early years in Italy, and the Greek painter created a portrait of the old Italian master, pointing to this masterpiece of Renaissance illumination. The book was completed in 1546, 100 years after the Gutenberg Bible was printed, already the waning years of the art of illumination.
Still more exciting than these beautiful books, for me, were the original manuscripts on display. These are the notebooks and pieces of paper where authors and composers first wrote down their masterpieces. Among these is Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, with his edits still preserved, as well as nine novels by Sir Walter Scott, including Ivanhoe. Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, Lord Byron, and William Makepeace Thackeray also are in attendance; and in music there are handwritten examples from Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, and even Bob Dylan (the latter obviously not acquired during Morgan’s lifetime). It is thrilling to see the preserved handwriting of these men (and yes, they are mostly men), since they can appear so unreal behind the printed page. The artists become living, working, fallible souls when you can see them scribbling and scratching out. Even the most iconic works of art were the process of trial and error.
I must say that I was stupefied by the end of my visit. The collection had exceeded my every expectation. Few places are as inspiring as a beautiful library. The museum is a magnificent tribute to the ways that we have preserved and transmitted our culture—in all its manifold facets. From the Babylonian cylinder seals to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” humans continue to scribble, print, draw, paint, and inscribe our art and ideas for the benefit of people in distant times and faraway places.
But there was still one more thing to see. The Morgan has a temporary exhibition space, and when I visited this was dedicated to an exhibit on Henry David Thoreau. This was a stroke of luck, since I had recently finished rereading Walden.
Considering the scanty possessions that Thoreau left behind, the exposition was astonishingly complete. There was Thoreau’s writing desk, over a dozen volumes of Thoreau’s diaries, and Thoreau’s walking stick (notched so that he could measure things on his walks). Also present was every original photograph (there are only two, admittedly) taken of the man. The exhibit was filled with information about his life and extracts of his journals. Seeing his humble collections gathered all in a heap—his scribbled and illegible handwriting, his beat up desk, his pocket-sized images—spoke more eloquently of his life’s project than all the fanciful phrases he ever assembled. And just as with the original manuscripts, seeing his original possessions helped to turn Thoreau from a distant voice into a living, breathing person.
As a child in Manhattan, growing up on the Upper West Side, I visited the Museum of Natural History nearly every week. It is a little boy’s paradise: dinosaur bones, stuffed lions and elephants, and my favorite—the whales. Later, in high school and college, I developed a taste for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was first drawn to the Arms and Armor room—swords and guns, another boy’s paradise—and then progressed to the Egyptian and Greek antiquities. It takes little sophistication to enjoy cursed mummies and violent gods.
But it was not until I moved to Europe, and began visiting art museum’s here, that I developed an appreciation for sculpture and painting. Thus it was only during one of my summer trips back home to New York that I finally visited one of the finest art museum’s in the city: the Frick.
The Frick Collection is housed in the former mansion of Henry Clay Frick, who was one of the great robber barons that dominated the Gilded Age of America. He made his fortune by selling coke (the carbon fuel, not the drug), and achieved industrial dominance by partnering and eventually merging with Carnegie’s steel company. Despite his success and wealth, he is a difficult man to admire. Like many tycoons, he was adamantly opposed to organized labor, and played a key role in repressing the Homestead strike—a violent confrontation in which 9 strikers and 3 pinkerton detectives were killed, and which caused a major setback to the labor movement. He was so hated by laborers, in fact, that the anarchist Alexander Berkman tried to assassinate him. The attempt failed (Frick would die in 1919, at the age of 69, of a heart attack) and Berkman spent 14 years in jail as a consequence, where he wrote a famous memoir of his experience.
But whatever Frick’s defects in the realm of social justice, no one can accuse the man of bad taste. He accumulated superlative works of art during his lifetime; and, fortunately for us, he donated his house and his collection to the public upon his death, to be used as a museum. Along with Rockefeller and Carnegie, Frick is yet another example of a robber baron who managed to be both cutthroat and civic minded.
The museum sits across from Central Park, on 5th avenue and 70th street, about a 10 minute walk south from the Metropolitan. From the outside the mansion is not especially impressive: a squat neoclassical building, the color of granite. It has none of the conspicuous stateliness of Andrew Carnegie’s old mansion, located just up the road (it is a part of Cooper Union now). But the inside is not nearly so restrained: each room is richly decorated, with the finest furniture, chandeliers, mirrors, and wallpaper that money could buy. I have walked through my share of palaces in Europe, so I am used to seeing affluent interiors; but I still found myself gaping as I walked through the house. In the giddy years before income taxes, the robber barons could accumulate more wealth than Old World despots.
But of course the absorbing interest of the museum is not the interior decoration, however sumptuous, but the paintings on display. Though relatively small, the Frick has one of the finest collections of old masters in the city—perhaps in the country. Relatively few works by Velazquez are available outside of Spain. New Yorkers are fortunate: the Metropolitan has a handful, the Hispanic Society has three, and the Frick has one—a portrait of Felipe IV. Typical of Velazquez, it is a masterful work: we feel we are standing right in front of the king. The Spanish monarch’s magnificently regal outfit—painted with such delicacy that it is almost tactile—contrasts sharply with the awkward and gangly figure who wears it, with his monumental Hapsburg chin sticking out below his curled mustache. Most impressive of all, Velazquez manages to imbue this unpromising figure with a certain kingly dignity—his eyes calm, thoughtful, careworn, but in control.
The other two members of the Spanish triumvirate are also in attendance: Goya and El Greco. I especially like the former’s contribution to the collection: The Forge. It is an excellent example of Goya’s ability to convey strenuous action while preserving the harmony of the composition. The stocky figures, contorted with effort, nevertheless combine to form a solid triangle in the center of the painting. I also enjoy the gloomy, almost liquid blackness that engulfs the figures, emphasizing their solitary grandeur.
The Dutch masters are also here in force. Frick managed to get his hands on three Vermeers. My favorite of these, Officer and Laughing Girl, shows all the hallmarks of his style: an interior room lit from a side window, with a homely girl in the center and a detailed map in the background. In this case the girl is chatting with a soldier, seated with his back to us. Is she being courted, or is there something more scandalous afoot? From a purely technical perspective, the most extraordinary feature of the painting is the map, which is so beautifully and accurately rendered as to beggar belief. Rembrandt is here, too, with two works. One of these is a self-portrait, showcasing himself as a florid gentleman with a sword strapped to his hip. The other paintings is rather more mysterious: The Polish Rider. It shows us an armed man in slightly exotic garb, mounted on horseback. Scholars cannot decide who this person is supposed to be; he is called “Polish” because of the style of his hat and dress; but beyond that there is little but guesses.
We can also see a work by the greatest of English painters, J.W. Turner. The Harbor of Dieppe is entirely typical of his style: a bright yellow morning, a shimmering sea, and a large perspective with dozens of figures and boats. Nothing about the painting’s content is profound or especially moving. Its appeal is mainly to the eye—it is a joy to behold, since Turner captures so perfectly the warmth and the brilliance of a summer sunrise. Standing in front of the painting, you can almost feel the sun on your skin. How can paint be made to glow so intensely? In this glorious landscape of light—Turner paints the sun twice, in the sky and reflected in the sea—we can also sense the magic of all ports of travel: a place where different corners of the earth mingle, a gateway to the wide world, beckoning us towards the beyond.
In the interest of brevity, I will skip over many other worthwhile paintings to get to the two great masterpieces of the collection, both by Hans Holbein. They hang on either side of the great fireplace in the center of the mansion. To the right is a portrait of the English politician Thomas Cromwell, and to the left is the Renaissance humanist Thomas More (famous for inventing the word “utopia”). The two were adversaries in life. Cromwell aided Henry VIII in his quest to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn, which resulted in England’s break with the Catholic Church; meanwhile, More remained loyal to the Pope and opposed the new marriage. Despite this opposition, the two men shared the same fate: beheaded by the order of the king. More was beheaded for opposing the establishment of the Church of England, and Cromwell because he helped arrange the king’s next marriage (after Boleyn was duly decapitated) to the German princess Anne of Cleves (who did not please the king, but who escaped execution). These were dangerous times for love.
The two portraits are masterful. Each detail is so sharply defined that you can lean in very close without noticing the brushstrokes. Both men sit in sumptuous rooms, and Holbein obviously delighted in painting the fabrics of their gowns, the tablecloth, the cushions. And, as in any great portrait, the personalities of the sitters shine through. Cromwell appears suspicious, scheming, intelligent, and alert; he is a man grasping for power and influence, and wary of all impediments. More’s portrait is a study in contrast. He is dignified and focused. Unlike Cromwell, who gazes sideways with narrowed eyes, More stares straight ahead. His eyes are soft and sensitive, almost like a poet’s, and yet the expression is far from naive; it is, rather, experienced and far-sighted. It is easy to picture such a man dying for his principles, just as it is easy to picture Cromwell plotting to bolster his influence with the king. The two portraits are complemented by Holbein’s portrait of Henry VIII himself, which I have seen many times in the Thyssen in Madrid. As you stare past the corpulent face into his black beady eyes, you can tell that this was not a man to be trifled with.
I left the museum deeply impressed. By any standard the Frick has a marvelous collection of paintings, all the more remarkable for being here in America and for being showcased in a historical mansion. Whether you are a tourist or a New Yorker, I urge you to visit.
New York is a city bent on the future. Every new generation overtops the next, in the relentless march skyward. This is especially apparent when we compare two of the cities landmarks which are right across the street from one another: St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Rockefeller Center.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral
St. Patrick’s is not the first Catholic cathedral in the city of New York. It replaced a building that is now called St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral (nowadays merely a church), which is still standing, further down town. It is easy to see why the authorities wanted the old structure replaced: it has none of the grandness and grandiosity that the cathedrals of great cities are supposed to have. Construction began on the current cathedral (the land had long been owned by the church) in 1858, and was completed twenty years later. When it was finished the towering spires must have dominated the landscape from miles around—since what is currently midtown Manhattan is far north of the former population center. Nowadays, of course, the gothic spires look almost dainty compared to the highrises nextdoor.
The cathedral presents an impressive face to passersby on the sidewalk below. Designed in a resplendent neo-Gothic style, where pointed arches push relentlessly skyward, its orientation is entirely vertical. This is the classic aim of gothic architecture: to draw the looker’s gaze towards heaven. But now, ironically, the cathedral has the opposite effect: it provides relief from the relentlessly vertical structures of midtown Manhattan. The city block on which the cathedral stands is a breath of air in an otherwise claustrophobic space, a note of contrast in an otherwise monotonous wall of buildings. And besides what it gains from its surroundings, the cathedral’s façade is lovely in itself—dense with decoration and design, so very different from the walls of concrete and glass that normally encase the sidewalk.
Visiting the cathedral is free. To enter, you must only let the people in front check your bags. The interior is no less impressive and harmonious as the exterior. Indeed, it is almost too harmonious. Much of the loveliness of European cathedrals consists, for me, in the fact that they were built over a long period of time. The buildings were shaped by several generations of workers and artisans, using different materials, in different styles, with different techniques. As a result the visitor can really feel the time that has gone by in the cathedral, can sense how the building played an integral part in the community’s life for hundreds of years.
The visitor to St. Patrick does not get this sensation, since the whole aesthetic is unified. The same materials, the same styles, and the same techniques were used throughout the space. The decoration on the chapels, the walls, the choir, the altar, and the stained glass is all of a piece—very well done, but somehow sterile when added together. Another element that adds to this sensation is that the builders of St. Patrick had modern tools and technology to work with; and as a result, much of the artwork has a kind of manufactured perfection that is simply not seen in old cathedrals. Of course this is the trouble with any revivalist art: in seeking to replicate the artwork of the past, without going through the trouble needed in those days to make it, the revivalists produce only a sort of empty copy: superficially perfect and yet lacking in emotional power.
If I am being harsh on St. Patrick’s, it is only because I am comparing it with some of the great cathedrals I have had the pleasure of seeing: Toledo, Prague, Chartres. But this is an unreasonable comparison, since St. Patrick’s was not made in analogous circumstances. And even the harshest critic must admit that, all told, it is a lovely building—pure, bright, balanced. I feel refreshed every time I visit, and grateful every time I walk by on the street.
Across from St. Patrick’s Cathedral is another New York landmark: Rockefeller Center. This building complex—19 distinct buildings in all—is centered around a plaza, made famous by the massive Christmas tree placed there every year. Thousands of workers commute here every day—to clean, to sell, to sit behind a desk—and thousands more tourists come to experience one of the best views of New York, on top of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the tallest building in the center.
Though I have lived in or near New York City my whole life, I had not visited the Top of the Rock until this very year. This is a common occurrence: residents neglect the great monuments and attractions of their own cities, only to seek them abroad. It is a little strange, since seeing the sights of one’s own city is cheaper and easier than going elsewhere; what’s more, it provides an opportunity to learn about local history, which enriches the experience of living in a place. Yet there are good reasons that residents stay away. Tourist attractions are crowded and expensive. The Top of the Rock is a case in point: it costs $36 for a visit that will likely last under an hour; and the visitor will likely be elbowing crowds half the time. A certain mindset is necessary to justify the expense with the experience, a mindset that is common enough while traveling but rare during workaday life.
But my time spent living abroad has turned New York City into a quasi-foreign town, which I can enjoy like any other tourist. So even though I was put off by the price, I decided to visit.
I bought my ticket online, which comes with an entrance time. At the designated hour I walked through the doors, went up the stairs, passed through a metal detector, and got in the line for the elevators. On the walls were images and panels of information, explaining some of the history of Rockefeller center. The line moved too quickly to really delve into the story, but I happened to know some of the from reading Ron Chernow’s biography of the Rockefeller paterfamilias. Rockefeller was not a project of the Oil magnate, however, but of his son, John D. Rockefeller, Junior. A man deeply involved in charity, with the world’s largest fortune at his disposal, Junior wished to help the Metropolitan Opera relocate. Thus he bought this plot of land from Columbia University in 1928.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, the stock market crashed a year later and the Great Depression ensued. The Metropolitan Opera could not relocate, so Junior was stuck with a massive development in a sinking economy. To avoid going bankrupt himself, Junior had to compromise on his principles. A hater of modern art, a lifelong teetotaler, and certainly a prude, Junior nevertheless approved designs for an Art Deco building complex complete with Radio City Music Hall, where patrons could enjoy alcohol while they contemplated dancing girls. Thus there are some notable artistic works on display, such as the Atlas statue across from St. Patricks and the Prometheus statue in the Plaza’s fountain. Despite this and other adornment, however, the buildings themselves are quite plain and brown.
After I passed these information displays I was herded to the elevator. The employees did a good job in keeping the crowds moving and organized, but even the best crowd control is not a pleasant experience. Admittedly, they tried to alleviate the discomfort: the woman who operated the elevator drummed on the walls and told jokes. The elevator itself was also memorable. It shot up to the top floor sixty-fifth floor in under a minute; and as we were elevated, images were projected onto the clear glass ceiling, while sound effects played. It was an audiovisual experience.
Once at the top, I found myself in an enclosed space with balconies. By following the signs I ascended up to the outdoor observation decks. And there it was—New York City, for miles all around. It was a typical summer day in the city: hot, muggy, overcast. The humidity in the air diminished the visibility somewhat, making things in the distance appear vague and grey. Still, the view was astonishing.
If I looked north I could see Central Park, with the Great Lawn, the Reservoir, and the Metropolitan Museum. On the left flowed the Hudson, with the George Washington Bridge in the far distance; and on the right I could see the Harlem and the East rivers. This view must have been more impressive in the past, since lately a spate of skyscrapers have been constructed in the space between Rockefeller Center and Central Park. The tallest of these, at 432 Park Avenue, is a residential apartment building that is even taller than the Empire State Building. Indeed, if you discount the antenna on top of the One World Trade Center, it is the tallest building in New York. Its huge height (1,398 feet, 550 feet taller than 30 Rock) is accentuated by its thinness, which looks almost unsafe. Two similarly tall and skinny buildings are going up directly north of 30 Rock, which will not improve the view.
The view south is even more impressive. Front and center is the Empire State Building, towering over its surroundings. The ability to see this iconic structure from a level height is why 30 Rock, and not the Empire State Building itself, is the best view of New York. (30 Rock is not nearly so pretty from the Empire State observatory.) Beyond, down near Wall Street, the One World Trade Center stands like a ceramic blade; and if I squinted I could just make out the Statue of Liberty in the harbor. On a clear summer day, or better yet on a clear summer night, the view would be perfect. (But sunset tickets costs extra.) The views to the east and west are not quite so interesting: On one side is Queens and Brooklyn, and on the other is New Jersey.
One thing that becomes immediately apparent from up high are the centers of real estate development. The tall buildings of New York are concentrated mainly at the southern tip of Manhattan and in midtown, from about 36th street upwards, with a notable gap in between these two areas that stretches from the Village to the Empire State Building. The newest concentrations of skyscrapers are, as I said before, between Rockefeller Center and Central Park, and also in the new Hudson Yards developments on the west side. Proceeding further north, the building size abruptly drops off in the area next to, and north of, Central Park.
I stayed on the roof for about an hour, enjoying the new perspectives. Pedestrians were nearly invisible on the sidewalks below, and the cars looked smaller than toys. Even St. Patrick’s Cathedral, directly underneath, looked dainty and delicate. The steady hums of air conditioners on the tops of neighboring buildings was clearly audible, as they fought against the summer heat. Helicopters flew by, traveling up and down the rivers, almost at eye level. I could not regret spending almost $40 to get up here. It is refreshing to see familiar things from a new perspective. Suddenly an imposing and monolithic place was turned into an oversized jungle gym.
(I decided to split my original post for ease of navigation. Continued from part one.)
Further north in the Hudson, as the train passes through the marshes at Cold Spring and then hooks along the edge of Hudson Highland Park on its way to Beacon, the passenger will see something striking through the window. Standing on an island in the Hudson, conspicuous and incongruous, is a castle.
Or perhaps I should say a former castle, since it is distinctly a ruin now. Only the outer walls remain, its insides gutted and empty. Ivy climbs up the surface and the green shade of trees can be seen through the empty window frames. Even so, it is an impressive sight, with its battlements and crenellated walls standing proudly over the Hudson, like something out of a fairy tale.
But it is clear, upon reflection, that this structure could never have been an actual castle, despite appearances to the contrary. Putting all tactical considerations aside—castles were obsolete during almost all of our history—its brick walls are thin and high, totally unsuited to defensive architecture. (To see what I mean, visit Castle Clinton in Battery Park, which has thick, squat walls, durable and difficult to hit with canon fire.)
Like many passengers on the train, I idly wondered “What is that?” as we passed, my mind drifting off to remote possibilities. When I asked my mom later, she told me that it was built by a rich American with a European wife, who wanted to make her feel at home in the New World—or at least, that’s the story she heard. I was satisfied with this rumored explanation for a time. But upon my return from Spain, I decided to dig a little deeper into the castle’s history. And, as so often happens, the truth is far more interesting than the myths.
Unless you have a boat and don’t mind being penalized for trespassing, the way to visit the castle is on a tour with the Bannerman Castle Trust. These tours depart from either Newburgh or Beacon, two historic towns that are themselves worth visiting. You can choose to go by ferry or kayak. (In a recent homicide case, which made national headlines, a woman was convicted for criminally negligent homicide when she left her fiancé to die in the Hudson after his kayak capsized near Bannerman Island. I took the ferry.)
Beacon is especially convenient for those traveling by train, since the dock is right next to the Hudson Line station. My first visit to Beacon was to climb Mt. Beacon (or Beacon Mountain, take your pick). Standing at over 1,610 feet, or 467 meters, it is the highest peak of the Hudson Highlands. Not very tall, I know, but the climb up is surprisingly steep and arduous; the view, however, is worth it. There are even some ruins—remains of the ski resort that used to occupy its summit. Now, only a shattered brick building and some rusted machinery, used to haul cable cars up the mountain, are left of this vacation spot.
Beacon is most known, however, for another rehabilitated place. Dia:Beacon is a museum of modern art housed in a former Nabisco box-printing factory. Unfortunately, I have yet to go, but I plan to. There are also a few great restaurants in Beacon. A recent NYTimes article singles out Meyer’s Olde Dutch and Kitchen Sink Food & Drink.
In all this, you can get a flavor of the Hudson Valley’s history. Previously a thriving industrial center and a destination for vacationers and resorts, places like Beacon saw a period of decline as other destinations became more appealing and as factories closed throughout the Hudson. Now, Beacon is on the rise, reborn as a kind of hipster paradise of local food, modern art, and scenic trails. And with the tour to Bannerman Castle thrown in, Beacon is a real jewel on the Hudson.
Our tour left at two in the afternoon. About forty people lined up at the water, and then crossed a wobbly dock to board the ferry. As I said, the tours are given by Bannerman Castle Trust, the same organization that is responsible for the castle’s preservation. They are a genial and jovial bunch who obviously enjoy what they do.
The boat began its short journey to the island. To our left we could see the Newburgh-Beacon bridge, a surprisingly pretty cantilevered steel construction. It was a sunny day and the river was full of boats. Jet skis and cigarette boats zoomed past, making a terrible racket, and kayakers waded in the shallows. Along the way, we passed two antique vessels, a Mississippi paddle wheeler and a sail sloop, and all the passengers waved to each other—people are generally friendlier at sea, I suppose. (The sloop was the Clearwater, the boat built as part of Pete Seeger’s campaign to clean the Hudson.)
The castle seemed to rise out of the sea as we neared. By its juxtaposition, the Hudson Valley was transformed into an alpine lake or a Scottish loch in my eyes. We docked and shuffled out, and the tour guides split us into two groups. Thus commenced an excellent two-hour tour, which explained a history that was far more interesting than I dared hope.
Though commonly known as Bannerman Island, its true name is Pollepel Island. ‘Pollepel’ is one of those place-names that baffle explanation. Our guide told us that his preferred hypothesis was that the island was named after the Dutch word for a wooden spoon, which was also the name for the contraption that deposited misbehaving sailors on the island as punishment. There is also a legend about a girl named Polly Pell, who was stranded on the island and rescued by a brave lad, who she then married—a story which, like all tales of romance, our guide assured us is baseless and false.
In any case, the really interesting history of the island begins in 1900, when it was purchased by Francis Bannerman VI (1851 – 1918).
Bannerman has one of those appealing, Andrew Carnegie, rags-to-riches stories from the nineteenth century. Like Carnegie, Bannerman came to the United States from Scotland, a poor boy in a poor family. After a series of odd jobs, his father ended up in the scrap industry. Then, when the Civil War broke out, Bannerman’s father went to fight for the Union side, forcing the younger Bannerman to quit school and work for the family business. At night, he made extra money by traveling around the New York harbor in a little rowboat, using a hook to dredge up chains and rope that ships had sloughed off into the water, in order to sell them for scrap.
Later, the younger Bannerman started his own scrap company. He found a profitable—and at the time entirely novel—avenue for business in selling old military equipment. You see, after a war is concluded, all sorts of goods—rifles, swords, bayonets, canons, black powder, uniforms, and even canned foods—can be purchased very cheaply. Then, when another war breaks out, it can be sold at lower prices than new equipment, while still making a nice profit. Bannerman didn’t only sell to bellicose governments, however, but became a leading supplier to collectors, bands, vaudeville acts, rodeos, movie producers, circuses, and theater groups. Bannerman’s illustrated catalogue are still regarded as the gold standard by collectors of antique war equipment.
After doing business in several different locations in Brooklyn, Bannerman opened his main shop in Manhattan, at 501 Broadway. But the city government very sensibly decided that it was unsafe to have so much military equipment, including several tons of explosives, in the middle of a major city; so they made him move it out. This is why Bannerman purchased Pollepel island for his armory—it is isolated and therefore safe. The location had another advantage. Since the island is in full view of the train, and since the Hudson, at that time, was crawling with merchant ships, Pollepel was an excellent place to advertise his business from. Hundreds of potential customers would be passing by each day. This is also why Bannerman invested in such ornate architecture. A castle is certainly more eye-catching than a billboard.
Bannerman died in 1918, of “overwork,” as the New York Timesobituary said, using one of those euphemisms of the previous era. At the time, he was donating large amounts of equipment to the Allies fighting the First World War. His business model became seriously compromised a few years earlier, when a change in the laws imposed stricter regulations on the trading of explosives—which is good news for the rest of us.
If Bannerman had lived two years more, he would have seen the wisdom of the New York City government in banishing him to the island. For in 1920, one of the powder houses blew up. It was a massive explosion, reportedly breaking windows for miles in all directions—or so said our guide—and blowing a chunk of the wall hundreds of feet across the Hudson onto the train tracks, blocking the train for hours. Bannerman’s wife, Helen, narrowly avoided death (the hammock she had been laying on was hit by flying debris, but she had just gone inside), and her eardrums were ruptured by the shockwave.
Under the direction of Bannerman’s sons, the business carried on for a time, until eventually, in 1967, the island was purchased by the State of New York for parkland. Despite the family’s attempts to sell off their massive store of supplies, there was still much left, some of which was taken by the Smithsonian Museum. The island was opened to the public the next year. But then the next phase of damage to the island occurred. In 1969, the buildings caught fire in a colossal blaze, perhaps an act of arson, destroying everything except the outer brick and concrete walls. After that the island was off limits to the public, for the sensible reason that the remaining structures were unstable and could collapse.
Many years later, in 1993, the Bannerman Castle Trust was founded, which worked with the State of New York to preserve and promote the castle. They have made great strides. Kayak tours, hard-hat tours, and finally, in 2003, walking tours were introduced. The dock where the ferry lands and the stairway that leads up to the island were built under their direction, as was a bridge connecting the two highest peaks of the island (which cadets in West Point helped to construct). They also organize volunteer teams of gardeners, who have created some really splendid gardens on the island. And this is not to mention the historical work.
Thankfully, nobody was hurt when, in 2009, a big section of the outer walls collapsed. To prevent further damage, the walls are held up by long metal braces. Still, it’s worth asking how much longer the structure will last without substantial repairs.
Despite the explosion, the fire, and the collapse—and partially because of them—the castle is magnificent. For me it was a dreamlike experience to be standing near it, since I have been fantasizing about visiting this island since I first laid eyes on the ruin. The façade of the building has many charming architectural ornaments, such as the semispherical balls that run along the top. A resourceful man, Bannerman used vintage bayonets to reinforce the concrete.
The castle isn’t the only structure on the island. On the second highest point—Bannerman was afraid of lightning strikes, so he didn’t build on the highest—is the house in which he and his family stayed. This building was only very recently rehabilitated; only a few years ago, it was covered in ivy. The house is built in the same vein as the castle, a fanciful exterior concealing a homey interior. Now it is a sort of mini-museum, full of old images and informational panels.
In the water surrounding the island, there are still further remnants of Bannerman’s business. During the island’s heyday, Bannerman constructed an artificial harbor, or breakwater, around the island. Now only a few stone towers remain, peaking out of the water. Doubtless more are submerged just under the waves, a hazard for passing boats.
The Bannermans only stayed on the island during summers. But a superintendent, Leonard Owen, stayed all year long; and his daughter, Eleanor, grew up on the island, commuting to school by sled during winter. Two of the historians of the island, Barbara and Wesley Gottlock, recently turned her memoirs into a children’s book. (These two authors also collaborated on the Images of America book on the island, which I relied on for this post.) Bannerman’s daughter, Jane, is still alive and active in the Trust.
Well that’s the story, or at least the quick version. When I began learning about these ruins, I had no idea that they would contain so much history. Perhaps I should stop being so surprised that the world, once examined, is a tremendously interesting place. Ruins are not just food for the imagination. Every ruin, even the humblest, is the product of human hands, and bears the traces of humans dreams and disappointments.
(I have broken up my original post into two separate posts, for ease of navigation. You can find part two here.)
The train ride on the Hudson Line, from Manhattan to Poughkeepsie, must be one of the most scenic in the United States. The ride has both natural and artificial beauties along the way. The Hudson Valley itself is magnificent, with the palisades across the shimmering waters; and this is doubly true in autumn, when the trees turn their fiery hues. Occasionally you pass a sail boat or a freight barge in the river, or a team of rowers diligently practicing in the Bronx. The train also takes you under the High Bridge, the new Tappan Zee Bridge, and the Bear Mountain Bridge, three engineering feats. A careful rider can even catch a glimpse of Sunnyside, Washington Irving’s old home. (Irving was very annoyed when they built the railroad right next to his house.)
Among all this, the most striking landmarks along the way are, for me, the ruins. Specifically, two ruins: the Yonkers Power Plant and Bannerman Castle.
Ruins have a power to fascinate that is difficult to account for logically. They are the same structures that exist, in unruined form, all over the place. The difference between a ruin and a proper structure, architecturally speaking, is pure defect: the ruins have lost their integrity and utility. And yet ruins have been captivating the artistic imagination since at least the Romantic era. Their battered and broken forms have provided inspiration for Shelley’s poems, Byron’s travel sketches, and Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings. It was the ruins of Rome that shaped the Renaissance in Italy, and those same ruins that inspired Edward Gibbon to memorialize Rome’s decline and fall.
What is it about ruins that is so compelling? There are many answers. One is that ruins allow us to visualize time. We see how time’s tooth rusts metal, cracks foundations, and crumbles stone. We see what rots away and what petrifies in place. Ruins also allow us catch a glimpse of a world without humans, the world we would leave behind if we all mysteriously disappeared. We can see the natural world slowly reclaiming buildings and walls, as plants and animals invade the empty space. Perhaps we feel what Shelley felt when contemplating the fate of Ozymandias: that humanity’s urge for immortality is futile and vain, since everything eventually decays.
For all of these reasons, and still others, ruins have an undeniable power—as attested by the many photographers, amateur and professional, who go out of their way to document them. This is my little contribution.
The Yonkers Power Plant
The Hudson Valley has been many things since its water began to carve a channel through the earth: wilderness, scenic escape, suburbia.
One hundred years ago, the valley was an artery of industrialization, dotted with factories and warehouses, noisy with barges and freight trains. The Hudson Valley was also one of the great centers of brick production, its soil baked and sold far and wide, which is why so many of its old buildings are brick. But we are long past the industrial age, and these buildings no longer house factories or store goods. Nowadays they house fine restaurants, cafés, or even libraries, such as the Irvington Public Library, which is in the old Lord and Burnham factory building.
The most impressive of these old factory buildings is still in use: the Domino Sugar Refinery, in Yonkers. Originally built in 1893, this refinery still produces three million pounds of sugar per day. It is one of Domino’s three major refineries, the last major sugar refinery in the Northeast, and a major source of employment within Yonkers. With an old, hulking brick building standing aside newer metal conveyer belts, this refinery is the sister of the more famous one in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which closed in 2004 and was mostly demolished in 2014, except for some buildings given landmark status.
But the grandest ruin of the industrial age sits a few miles north. This is the Yonkers Power Plant, which stands on the river side of the local Glenwood train station. With its smokestacks scolding the sky hundreds of feet in the air, the plant is hard to miss. I often saw it on my commute to the city and wondered, what is it doing here? Why was there such a massive building rotting, empty and neglected, by the side of the tracks?
The answer comes down to power. When the trains began running in the 1840s—connecting faraway places and disturbing Washington Irving’s peace—they were running on steam. By the early 1900s, the railroad was prepared to switch to electricity, using the newly designed third rail. The problem was that, at the time, the municipal electrical grid was not powerful or dependable enough to supply the power. Thus the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad, which owned the Hudson Line back then, built their own power plants. The Yonkers Power Plant was situated along the river for several reasons: to be close to the tracks, to take advantage of the water to cool the machinery, and to make it easy to supply the plant with coal, which was delivered by ship.
The power plant was built by the architectural firm, Reed and Stem, who also collaborated on Grand Central Station. (Charles A. Reed was related by marriage to the president of the New York Central railroad, which doubtless helped him get commissions.) The plant opened in 1907, and ran on coal, which was brought by barge to the boiler room below. The steam generated by the boiler was used to power several massive turbines on the floor above. This power, generated in alternating current, was changed into direct current for the trains by rotary converters. (These rotary converters, by the way, are the only heavy machinery still in the factory; the rest was sold for scrap metal.)
By the 1930, it no longer made financial sense for the railroads to be in the power business, so in 1936 the plant was sold to Edison Light and Electric (a subsidiary of Con Edison) and converted to run on oil. This was not a long term solution either, since the plant’s relatively small size (relative to more modern power plants, that is) made it inadequate to New York’s massive power needs. So in 1963, the plant was closed. It was eventually sold to a private owner, who mostly let nature and teenagers have their way. The plant acquired the name “Gates of Hell,” for supposedly being the place where gangs held ritual inductions. Over the years, it became overgrown and covered in graffiti (some of it quite good). Meanwhile, proposals to transform the plant into apartments did not pan out.
(By the way, I am mainly relying on the excellent website, Hudson Valley Ruins, for this information. Their page on the power plant also has many great pictures.)
Most recently, the power plant was purchased by an entrepreneur named Lela Goren, who announced a plan to convert the plant into an arts exhibition center. The building will be renovated in two phases, which will cost $150 million all together, and finished sometime in the next decade. Work began in 2013. The grounds have already been substantially cleared of rubbish and debris, and the walls are being stabilized. I am pleased to learn, from this NY Times article, that Goren plans on keeping much of the industrial aesthetic, even the graffiti.
On a sunny summer afternoon I visited the plant for myself. I stepped off the train at Glenwood Station and craned my neck upward at the redbrick wreck. Despite the work the Goren Group had already done, the place is still visibly a ruin. All the windows are smashed; ivy climbs up iron beams; and an eerie silence pervades the building.
Glenwood is a local station, and few people use it. Aside from the old plant, Glenwood’s main attraction is the Hudson River Museum, which focuses on the river’s ecology. That day, I was the only person standing on the platform. A fence surrounds the old plant, covered in “Do Not Enter” and “No Trespassing” signs, assuring the prospective intruder that video cameras are surveilling the property. Even so, standing there alone on the platform, with nobody else in sight, it was difficult to resist climbing into the ruin. I would not even have had to climb the fence, since a stepladder was helpfully leaned up against it. The ruin still has its visitors.
But I’m no daredevil, so I contented myself with patrolling its perimeter. Yet through the gaping windows I could glimpse the cavernous interior space, which many have compared to a cathedral nave. Indeed, compared with a gothic cathedral, the power plant is an exceedingly light, airy structure, with thin walls and plentiful windows. The towering brick façade, combined with the thin steel girders of the building’s innards, make it seem as if an elephant body is being suspended from chicken bones.
The plant consists of two buildings, the main plant and a substation next door. The substation is where the rotary converters transformed the current from alternating to direct, so the trains could use it; from there the current was sent to the rail tracks. An attractive metal footbridge connects the two buildings. Outside, a metal tower still stands, rusted and overgrown, which I believe used to hold the wires. On the southern side of the station there’s a little park. From here you can see how the station juts out into the Hudson. This must have been to enable the use of the Hudson’s water in the boilers; and, indeed, the boiler room still floods during high tide, I believe.
I can see why Lela Goren saw potential in the plant, since its location is as attractive as the building itself. Across the river you have an excellent view of the Hudson Palisades. Looking northwards, you can see the Hudson Valley all the way up to the Tappan Zee. Looking south, Manhattan comes into view, a silhouette behind the George Washington Bridge.
From this vantage point, with the city in the distance, the river ferrying boats along its glimmering waves, it is difficult to believe that this wonderful brick building was made to simply to supply electricity to trains. It was truly a different time. At its peak, the Yonkers Power Plant could generation 30,000 kilowatts, or 30 megawatts. To put this in perspective, the Indian Point Nuclear Plant in Croton, the Robert Moses Power Dam in Niagara Falls, and the Ravenswood Generating Station in Queens can all generate over 2,000 megawatts. We have come a long way. But unfortunately for us, not one of those is even one-tenth as beautiful as the Yonkers Power Station.
When Washington Irving published “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in 1820, he forever blessed—or cursed—my hometown, turning a modest cemetery in an otherwise unremarkable village in the Hudson Valley into a tourist attraction. Maybe he knew this himself, for he chose to get himself buried in that cemetery, which has since grown to a sprawling size and has gained other prestigious bodies.
One of my cousins told me and my brother, when we were both young and impressionable, that you should hold your breath when driving past a cemetery so that you don’t breathe in the evil spirits. Neither of us were superstitious enough to believe that, but it made for a fun game in otherwise boring car rides. Yet holding my breath for the entirety of the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, as we drove down Route 9, was always a painful challenge. The cemetery is vast—or, at least, it felt vast as I turned red, and then purple, and then blue.
Every year around Halloween, when the fall foliage is at its most vibrant—“It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,” said a friend from Spain who saw the New York foliage for the first time—this normally sleepy town is overrun with tourists from the city, all of them to see this famous cemetery. The cemetery is a ten-minute walk from the Philipse Manor station on the Hudson Line, making it an easy trip for urbanites. There are free tours in the morning and evening, and on the weekends there are souvenir shops set up at the entrance. In the fall, closer to Halloween, you can buy freshly grilled sausages and drink mulled wine as you inspect the burials. They lock the gates at 4:30 pm daily.
The Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is sandwiched between Route 9, where cars continually buzz by, and the Croton Aqueduct, a trail that runs through the Rockefeller State Park preserve. The cemetery was built around, but is not affiliated with, the historic Old Dutch Church. This is a lovely stone and wooden structure, built in the 1700s near a pre-existent graveyard. The burial grounds of this church, going back to the Dutch ownership of New York, must be one of the oldest in the country. There are still tombstones written in Dutch on the property; and over the years, trees have grown up and nearly engulfed graves within their trunks. The Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns still holds services in the church every Sunday, where the congregation sits on its lovely wooden pews.
The Sleepy Hollow Cemetery itself was established much later than the church, in 1849, and is non-denominational. The website says that Washington Irving had a hand in its creation, or at least its conception. The size of the cemetery is about 90 acres. Thirty-nine thousand people are buried there, about twice as many as the current populations of Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow combined. As an old brochure put it, the cemetery is a veritable city of the dead. And it is still growing. Across a wooden bridge that spans the babbling Pocantico River are the recent burials, where funerals and mourners are most often seen, and where construction equipment still busily digs new graves.
This wooden bridge, pretty and quaint with tree-trunk guardrails, is often mistaken for the bridge from Irving’s legend; but it did not exist in his day. The real location of that bridge is near the Old Dutch Church, where a sign marks its former location. Nowadays the Pocantico River is spanned by a monstrous concrete bridge in that place, which allows the busy Route 9 to cross over the water unimpeded.
When I was in high school, a friend of mine told me that his father, who worked for the cemetery, found the body of a young man who hung himself from the wooden bridge. Indeed, for many years, in the water underneath that bridge, a stone plaque was clearly visible—although unreadable—which seemed to confirm the story. But now the plaque is gone—did it get washed away?—and I can’t find any information about the suicide online, which makes me wonder if the story was true.
The Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is not a somber place. It is as beautiful and inviting as the finest park. I was surprised to learn that, in Spain, cemeteries have no greenery within; they are stone courtyards where bodies are interred in granite shelves and tombs. Our cemetery is almost as heavily wooded as the forest nearby, full of cedars, sycamores, and oaks, European beeches with scarlet leaves, and tiny Japanese maples whose seeds have blown into the park next door and begun to grow in the wild. There are so many bushes and ferns that the cemetery has become very popular with the local deer, who slip in through a hole in the chain-link fence. Once, in the dead of winter, I even surprised a couple of coyotes stalking around the graves, who promptly retreated to the forest.
The graves and mausoleums of the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery only add to its beauty. It is as much a statue garden as a graveyard. The monument of John Hudson Hall (1818 – 1891)—about whom I can’t find a thing—was, according to this site, crafted by the famous Beaux-Arts sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens; and indeed it does have a striking resemblance to one of his works, Amor Caritas. I am inclined to believe that the famous sculptor was involved, considering the extreme fineness and delicacy of the angel’s robe.
The monument to Owen Jones (died 1884), a successful dry-goods dealer in the 19th century, features a life-sized and lifelike statue of the late merchant. Somewhat nearby is a monument to Edwin Lister (1829 – 1889), who owned a fertilizer company. Lister’s monument has a stately bust of the deceased entrepreneur, and an excellent statue of a mournful woman eternally leaning on the grave.
These monuments reminds me of the Pyramid of Cestius in Rome. That pyramid is the pharonic mausoleum of a rich Roman aristocrat, which coincidentally stands near the simple graves of John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley—just as Jones’s and Lister’s graves stand near the simple graves of more famous men. It seems there are two ways of making one’s tomb a visiting place: accomplish something great, or invest in an elaborate monument.
The only statue to be marked on the official map (available for free at the entrance) is the so-called “Bronze Lady.” It is a twice-life-size statue of a seated woman. Her eyes are sad and downcast as she looks mournfully at the mausoleum in front of her. This is the tomb of Samuel Thomas (1840 – 1903), a relatively obscure Civil War General. The sculpture is a work of Andrew O’Connor, Jr., a sculptor of considerable reputation in his day. According to the inscription at its base, it was smelted in Paris by a famous company, the Rudier Foundry, which also made works for Auguste Rodin.
This statue was the subject of a New York Times article called “The Other Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and deservedly so. For several generations now, local kids have been telling ghost stories about the metal woman, reporting that the statue cries and weeps at night. Even when I was in high school, a whole century after the statue was installed, kids told stories about it. The story I was told was that, if you snuck into the graveyard at midnight, spit in her eye, spun around three times, and then looked into the little hole in the mausoleum door, you would be blinded for life. I never tried the experiment, although I have looked through the hole in daylight and wasn’t able to make out anything in the pitch darkness of the tomb. The legends are still going strong, if I can judge by the coins that are frequently deposited on her laps.
At least one more general is buried in the cemetery: Daniel Delavan (1757 – 1835). His military service goes back even further, to the American War of Independence. His actions in that war may not have been remarkable—since I can’t find anything about him—but his grave certainly is. A near life-size statue stands atop a large pillar, tall enough to be seen from my neighbor’s backyard. This pillar is surrounded by still more figures, including a moving sculpture of an angel cradling a crucifix. You can tell how old these statues are at a glance, since they’re so weather-beaten and eroded from the rains and years.
Accompanying its two generals, the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery has a Revolutionary and a Civil War Memorial. The former is rather simple—it was erected long after the war concluded—and consists of a small stone obelisk with the names of the soldiers inscribed. The Civil War Memorial is more impressive, with a bronze statue (now carbonated and green) of a Northern soldier, striding with his musket and bayonet over a platform that bears the names of the fallen buried there. Cemeteries and wars march side by side.
A review of the surnames of the burials here gives a taste of the ethnic makeup of the town in days gone by: Foster, Grave, Heartt, Knower, Bull, Clark, Coffin, Underhill, Newman, Newton, Small, Risk, Hackett, Hyatt. Apparently English was the dominant group—something that is certainly not true nowadays. Most graves have scant information about the people they mark. A name, a birth year, and a death year are the only facts that endure in the stone. There are some exceptions to this. One is the grave of Frederick Trevor Hill (1866 – 1933), which is an attractive plaque installed into a rocky outcrop, that informs us that he served on the American Expeditionary Force during World War I.
The Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is a sea of names, read and soon forgotten. But several famous names stick out. Washington Irving is, of course, the most famous denizen of the cemetery. His tombstone is simplicity itself, a rectangular slab with a rounded top. If flags were not flanking his grave, most visitors would probably walk right by it. A family man in life and in death—he supported his brother and his nieces when they fell on hard times—Irving is buried in a family plot. As the first internationally famous American author, his funeral was a national event. It was the subject of a Harper’s Magazine cover. So many people crowded into the Christ Episcopal Church for the event that they feared the floorboards would break.
After Washington Irving, the most notable person buried in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is Andrew Carnegie (1835 – 1919). Carnegie was apparently confident of immortality, since he did not create an ornate tomb for himself. His grave is a cross, about six feet high, isolated in a little grove. The cross is decorated in patterns that remind me of the Book of Kells. In the little footpath to the grave, there’s a plaque with a small portrait of Carnegie, as well as a list of the institutions he founded.
Carnegie was certainly an inspiring philanthropist, eventually donating 90% of his wealth to various charities. And he had the means to do it. Carnegie was one of the richest Americans who ever lived—and thus one of the richest people in history. A hugely admirable man, Carnegie’s reputation was slightly tarnished by his support of Henry Clay Frick (of the beautiful gallery in New York City) in Frick’s attempt to break the power of the unions in Homestead, Pennsylvania—a conflict which culminated in the death of seven strikers and three strike-breakers.
It is somewhat ironic, then, that the famous union organizer, Samuel Gompers (1850 – 1924), is buried about one hundred feet away. His grave embodies the principles of his life. Even more simple than Carnegie’s, it is a plain gray tombstone. He is not buried in a family plot; the tombstone is set amidst other burials. And it was not paid for by himself or his heirs, but by the union he helped to establish: the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Gompers was a labor organizer, who helped to join the competing guilds and small craft unions into a powerful organization, and his grave is a fitting tribute to his commitment to his fellows.
Up the hill from Gompers and Carnegie is a decidedly immodest tomb: that of William Rockefeller (1841 – 1922). William was the younger brother of the richer and more famous John D. Rockefeller. Notwithstanding his role as second fiddle, he was still fabulously wealthy, since he co-founded Standard Oil with John. William’s tomb is a massive white mausoleum, at least twice as large as the next biggest in the cemetery. The urge that actuated pharaohs to build the pyramids—the urge to monumental immortality—seems to re-emerge whenever wealth is concentrated into the hands of few, powerful men. William Rockefeller’s former residence overlooking the Hudson, Rockwood Hall, is now a State Park. The massive mansion has been torn down, but the stone walls and groundwork remain, and the view is worth the millions he must have paid for it.
Also among the opulent captains of industry buried in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is Walter Chrysler (1875 – 1940). His mausoleum is a kind of neo-Roman structure with Doric columns in front. The mausoleum is located at the very end of the cemetery, its entrance turned away from the road. I must admit that this tomb always strikes me as ugly. Although it emulates a noble Roman temple, it is clearly machine-made, with inhumanly sharp angles; and the gray concrete used in the building is drab and unattractive, especially when compared with the marble originals. My father, a longtime resident of the town, admitted the other day that he has never visited the cemetery. Considering that he is a big fan of Chrysler cars, perhaps he ought to come and give homage.
Near the gap in the chain-link fence, used by deer, coyotes, and the occasional human to pass from the cemetery to the Old Croton Aqueduct, is buried Elizabeth Arden (1878 – 1966), the famous cosmetic entrepreneur and founder of the eponymous makeup company. Arden’s grave is astonishingly modest—so much so that it is very easy not to notice it. She is buried under a tombstone with the name “Graham,” which is her real name (“Elizabeth Arden” is a pseudonym). Looking down at the little plaque, it is hard to believe that, at one time, she was one of the richest women in the world.
A short ways away is the last grave identified on the cemetery map, that of the Helmsleys. Harry Helmsley (1909 – 1997) was yet another fabulously wealthy man, a prominent real-estate owner in New York City whose company once owned the Empire State Building. His wealth notwithstanding, he is nowadays primarily remembered for his second wife, Leona Helmsley (1920 – 2007), the famous “Queen of Mean.” Leona was a sort of proto Donald Trump—a quick-mouthed, tyrannical, arrogant, proudly rich New York real-estate baroness, who is remembered for saying “We don’t pay taxes; only the little people pay taxes.” This quote was brought to the public’s attention during a trial for tax evasion, which resulted in her conviction and imprisonment for 19 months (the rich always get light sentences, mysteriously).
The Helmsleys’ mausoleum is very similar to Chrysler’s—a Roman inspiration—except that it is slightly bigger. I find this tomb almost equally unattractive; but if you walk up to the door and peer through, you can see a lovely stained-glass window on the other side of the structure, with an image of the Manhattan skyline illuminated in the darkness of the tomb.
As you can see from these examples, the tombs we build for ourselves can say a lot about our values. Our graves and mausoleums represent our stance on posterity. Carnegie wanted to be remembered for his charity; Rockefeller, Chrysler, and Helmsley for their power and wealth. Gompers apparently paid little heed to his grave, perhaps feeling that his work was more important than his immortal reputation. For many of us, I suspect, our anxieties about our posthumous reputation stems from anxieties about the ultimate value of our work. Compare, for example, the tombs of Owen Jones and Washington Irving. The dry-goods dealer invests enough money to preserve his likeness for future generations, while the lionized writer can rest easy in under a plain headstone.
To the eyes of a cold logician, graveyards are nonsensical places. Why invest precious space and hard-earned money on a stone over a dead body? Why place bodies in expensive coffins that delay decomposition? Surely, it would be more sensible to bury our dead in unmarked mass graves, just like they do on Hart Island, and let them return their nutrients to the soil. Why build a monument or preserve a dead man’s name? The dead can make no use of their reputations; they are deaf to the tears of their relatives, and are well beyond caring whether they are remembered or not.
But I suspect that few among us could be so “sensible.” For death is not just a problem of logistics, expense, and disposal: it is an existential problem. Every culture that has ever thrived has had to confront the problem of death in some way. How can we reconcile human finitude with human striving? Why invest in the future if, inevitably, we won’t be a part of it? Death is traumatic, not just to friends and family but to communities. There must be communal rituals for death, acceptable stages of grief and routines of mourning, if a culture is to persist. These rituals allow the community to rally around the afflicted and to help pull them up, and allow the grief-stricken to put their pain in a wider context. Seen in this light, cemeteries are eminently sensible places.
Both Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and the legends that grew up around the Bronze Lady illustrate something the anthropologist Victor Turner said about rituals. Rituals create what he called “liminal” spaces, spaces of transition and transgression, where boys can be girls and where social norms can be flouted, and where the living and the dead can mingle. These psychological “spaces” are essential for great transitions: from single to married, from boy to man, from living to dead. Cemeteries are an example of such liminal spaces, a meeting ground for this world and the next, which is why we call them “haunted.” Haunted places allow mourners to make “contact” with the deceased and then to retreat to their normal world. Cemeteries thus play an essential psychological and ritualistic role, essential to the community.
Yet there is an existential danger in death rituals, too. When there is a routine for death, it makes mortality easier to ignore and to push into the background. In a way, rituals remove some of the terror of death by depersonalizing it: every mourner and every funeral follows the same procedure, and every corpse is buried in the same ground. But death is always personal, and can never be routine. For every person is radically unique, and death will only visit you once. And as Heidegger reminded us, when death is ritualized, we risk forgetting that our lives are singular opportunities, limited and unrepeatable, and thus risk living inauthentically. In our quiet moments, most of us feel immortal; and with time stretched out indefinitely before us, there is little pressure to act on our deepest desires.
My own walks through the cemetery illustrates this double dilemma. Most of the time it is easy to forget that the names on the tombstones were, once, actual people, living and breathing, with their own ideas and perspectives and quirks, just as individual as I am. As a result, it is also easy to forget that, one day, I will be nothing more than a name on a tombstone—and maybe not even that. There is, to be sure, something positive in this forgetting. If we went around all day dreading our death, we would be miserable creatures; and if we were constantly obsessed with the potential death of our loved ones, we could hardly form any kind of relationship.
But we do need to be periodically reminded that life is limited, or we take things for granted. Real appreciation of life requires this delicate balance between awareness of our mortality and an absence of crippling dread. An occasional memento mori will suffice, I think, to prevent complacency.
Cemeteries accomplish both functions for us: they give us a place for our rituals, and they serve as perennial monuments of mortality. This was illustrated for me just the other day, as I strolled among the graves. I was drifting along when I noticed a tombstone with toy cars resting on its base. These were the same Hot Wheels that I used to play with as a kid. On the tombstone was a name, and below it the inscription “Beloved Uncle.”
Here was a private tragedy on public display, an uncle mourned by his nieces and nephews, children who lovingly placed these toys on his resting place. My insides twisted into a knot as I looked down on the grave. I felt pity, but also a twinge of dread—the flashing certainty that, one day, I would be a beloved somebody—or even an un-beloved somebody—and that this day might, for all I know, be soon.
The Old Croton Aqueduct trail runs behind my house, and I’ve been walking along its tree-shaded way for well over a decade now. As a kid, I thought “aqueduct” was just a name, until my mom told me that, buried underneath the pebbly ground, there is a tunnel that used to carry water to New York City from Croton, a couple dozen miles north. Even so, it never occurred to me to learn about the aqueduct. This a striking but common phenomenon: we travel to foreign cities and go on tours, but neglect the history in front of our eyes. It wasn’t until I began traveling abroad that I started to realize the scale and significance of the old aqueduct—along with the Brooklyn Bridge and the Eerie Canal, it is one of the major engineering feats of nineteenth-century New York—and so I set myself to investigate it.
The first step was to walk the whole thing. This is not an easy stroll. The original aqueduct ran about 40 miles from the Croton Reservoir down to Manhattan. The water first reached the Receiving Reservoir, which is now the Great Lawn in Central Park, and then traveled further along to the Distributing Reservoir in Midtown Manhattan on 42nd Street. On this spot now stands the iconic main branch of the New York Public Library, and you can still find remains of the old reservoir’s foundation in the library basement. An imposing structure inspired by Egyptian architecture, this distributing reservoir used to be something of an attraction. People would come to stand atop its walls, for what was then one of the best views of Manhattan.
After the aqueduct was phased out of service in the 1960s, a large chunk of the land—26.2 miles of trail, to be exact—was donated to New York State, to form a historic linear park that stretches from Croton, through Ossining, Scarborough, Tarrytown, Irvington, Dobbs Ferry, all the way down to the Bronx. I didn’t manage to walk the whole way, but I walked most of this distance, first going south to Yonkers and then north to Croton.
For most of the way, the Old Croton Aqueduct is a dirt or grass path, about ten feet wide or narrower, with a well-worn channel in the middle. It goes through some historic areas, taking the walker alongside the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, through the park of Lyndhurst (former residence of Jay Gould, railroad baron), and near Sunnyside (former residence of Washington Irving), and into the wonderful Rockwood Park (former residence of William Rockefeller). The trail is not always so scenic; sometimes you are basically walking through people’s backyards, and there are a few intervals where you have to exit the trail and walk through a neighborhood to get to the next stretch.
The walker will notice a few structures along the way. The most common are the ventilators, which are hollow stone cylinders with a shaft that allowed fresh air to reach the water below. These were installed to prevent pressure from building up inside the tunnel. Less frequent are the weirs, square stone buildings with metal sluice gates inside that could be dropped like a guillotine to divert the water in case repairs were needed. (And since the growing population of New York put heavy strain on the aqueduct, they frequently were.) These are situated above rivers, into which the water could be redirected. There is one above the Pocantico River in Sleepy Hollow, another in Ossining over the Sing Sing Kill, and another in the Bronx over the Harlem River.
In Dobbs Ferry stands one of the old Keeper’s Houses, where the aqueduct’s superintendents used to stay. There used to be six of these along the aqueduct, but the one in Dobbs Ferry is the only one that still stands. It is an inconspicuous white house now, but not long ago it lay completely in ruins; the restoration was just completed in 2016, by the combined efforts of the Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct, a non-profit volunteer organization dedicated to the aqueduct, and the State of New York. This house is open on weekends and is well worth a visit. It contains many exhibits about the aqueduct, with historical photos, engineering drawings, and maps, and also has several short documentaries you can watch.
Up north in Ossining there is a stone bridge that carries the aqueduct over the Sing Sing Kill. (“Kill” comes from a Dutch word, meaning “river,” and is used in several place-names in New York.) A few times a year, The Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct give free guided tours that actually bring you inside this bridge. I recently went on one, and I recommend the experience. A group of about two dozen visitors descended through the weir into the aqueduct. The old sluice gate is a rusty mass of metal now. But the aqueduct tunnel itself, made of brick and waterproof concrete, has held up remarkably well. The only marks of wear are some cracks in the walls from running the aqueduct at full capacity. It made me giddy to think that I could walk through that dark and dank tunnel all the way to New York City.
Below this bridge, there is an elevated walkway (a “greenway”) where you can stroll alongside the Sing Sing Kill. This was just opened last year, in 2016, and is astonishingly lovely. From this you can see the spillway, which brought the water from the aqueduct into the river during repairs. As the guide noted, the water would spray out with such force that it scoured the bank on the other side of the river.
From the information available in the Keeper’s House and the Ossining Visitor Center—from permanent exhibitions and documentaries on display—I pieced together the history of this great work. The original aqueduct and dam were commissioned in the 1830s after it became apparent that New York badly needed more water. Outbreaks of yellow fever and cholera killed thousands; and the Great Fire of 1835 destroyed hundreds of buildings, largely because the fire department lacked the water to put it out. Manhattan is an island of marshy ground surrounded by brackish water, and before the Croton Aqueduct was built the only water supplies were local wells which could be easily polluted.
The man primarily responsible for planning and engineering the original aqueduct was John B. Jervis, who must be one of the great engineers of 19th century America. He had political as well as engineering challenges to surmount. The land needed for the tunnel cut through hundreds of properties, mostly farms, each of which required an individual settlement. Meanwhile, the two political parties of the time, the Whigs and the Democrats, were squabbling over funding. Upon completion of the project, Jervis rode in a rowboat through the tunnel all the way from Croton to New York. I don’t know how long it took him, but it takes the water 22 hours to make the journey. This slow speed was intentional, by the way, since it minimized wear on the tunnel.
The largest structure of the original aqueduct stands on the southern end. This is the High Bridge. Opened in 1848, this is the oldest bridge still standing in New York City. It originally resembled a Roman aqueduct, with tall stone arches carrying the water high overhead, just like the famous aqueduct in Segovia. Indeed, one remarkable thing about the Croton Aqueduct is that it uses the same principle the Romans used all those centuries ago—namely, gravity—transporting the water on its 40 mile trip with a slight incline, 13 inches per mile. The bridge had to be built so high (140 feet) to maintain this slope. The water tower Jervis designed still stands on the Manhattan side of the High Bridge, looking like the turret of some bygone castle. (This tower was needed to pump water to some areas in the Bronx, which lay above the Aqueduct’s slope.)
In the 1920s people began to complain that the bridge’s arches were an obstacle to ships traveling through the river, so the middle stone pillars were demolished and replaced with a long steel arch. The bridge was officially closed to the public in 1970, apparently because of vandalism, and wasn’t opened until 2015—an astonishingly long time, if you ask me. (There are some excellent panels on the High Bridge, with illustrations of its history. I have attached the images at the end.)
As you can see from the High Bridge, the scale of the Old Croton Aqueduct is undeniably impressive: stretching about four times longer than the Aqua Appia in Rome (although, to be fair, I think the Romans built several aqueducts longer than the Croton Aqueduct), and requiring whole landscapes to be reshaped. The aqueduct was constructed by 4,000 laborers, mostly Irish, who made a dollar or less for ten-hour days. Having thousands of single men, with plenty of drink available (enterprising farmers began converting their barns into bars), predictably caused some ruckus. But it was a good job for the recent immigrants.
The opening of the aqueduct was something of a sensation. At the time, the Croton Aqueduct was one of the biggest engineering projects in the United States, only surpassed by the Eerie Canal. And the effect of the aqueduct on city life was scarcely less important than the canal’s. With a reliable source of clean water, the city began to expand at a remarkable rate. The original aqueduct was built with a maximum capacity of 60 million gallons a day. The engineers thought this would be enough water to supply the city for hundreds of years. But it wasn’t long until the ever-growing population of New York outstripped the capacity of the aqueduct. Indeed, it was largely thanks to the increased supply of fresh water that the city was able to grow so quickly.
Thus the aqueduct, designed to be used for centuries, was supplemented in 1890 by the New Croton Aqueduct, a larger tunnel that runs parallel to the old one. The Old Aqueduct stopped delivering water to the city in the 1950s. The New Croton Aqueduct is still in use—although it, too, has since been supplanted. The Croton watershed now delivers about 10% of NYC water. The majority of the water comes from the Catskill Watershed further north, ferried to the city by the Catskill and the Delaware Aqueducts. This latter tunnel, by the way, is the longest tunnel anywhere on earth, stretching 85 miles. New York is a thirsty city. (The current daily water supply of NYC is 1.3 billion gallons.)
Not only the original aqueduct, but the original Croton Dam was also replaced in the late nineteenth century. Jervis designed the original dam with an innovative S-shaped spillway to reduce damage from floods. But good luck seeing it now. Today, Jervis’s dam is underwater, submerged under the expanded Croton Reservoir, only visible in times of severe drought.
For my part, I don’t regret this loss, since that dam was replaced by the New Croton Dam—a grand monument of the previous century. Made of cyclopean stones, standing at almost 300 feet tall, and stretching to 2,188 feet (almost the exact altitude of Madrid, coincidently) the dam is still immensely impressive. It is also beautiful, with the stair-like spillway allowing water to cascade down to the river below in an artificial waterfall. This dam was begun in 1892 and completed in 1906. Whole communities—cemeteries, churches, and farms—had to be moved to make way for the expanding reservoir. Standing on top of that dam, hearing the rushing water below you, does a better job than any statistic of conveying how much water a major city like New York needs.
As part of my research, I also read the book in the Images of America series about the construction of the New Croton Dam. The story of this construction is told with dozens of old photographs, with commentary by Christopher Tompkins. You don’t exactly get a linear narrative this way; but the images alone are worth the price. It baffles the mind to think of what these men accomplished—redirecting a river, and erecting a structure 300 feet tall with cut stones, flooding an entire valley and displacing many communities—and all this using technology that looks, to my eyes, scarcely more advanced than what the Egyptians used. That’s an exaggeration, of course: the dam workers had steam shovels to excavate and railroads to bring stone from the quarry. But I can’t imagine how difficult it would have been to move those massive stones in a time before modern cranes, using only wooden derricks and pulleys and counterweights.
It is amazing to me that so much history—an engineering feat and a chapter in the history of New York—lay buried right behind my house, and that I’ve been walking along this trail for so many years, oblivious. Don’t wait until you travel to learn about history, to explore and go on tours. Take Thoreau’s advice: “Live at home like a traveler.”
These images are taken from informational panels on the High Bridge.