I stumbled upon the Alexander Hamilton’s house completely by accident. I met a couple of friends from out of town, and in the process of exploring the Upper West Side we came upon it.
The discovery that one of the Founding Fathers’ houses was here, in Harlem, was astounding. The humble wooden house could hardly look more out of place nowadays. Set amidst the landscape of glass, steel, and concrete, the Federal style building looks as if it has been plopped down from another age. And in a way it was. The house has been moved from its original location not once, but twice.
When Hamilton had the house built, in the early 1800s, he was already in the twilight of his career. He had finished his epochal tenure as the Secretary of the Treasury—during which he constructed the nation’s financial system from the ground up—and had been reduced by a series of quarrels and scandals to an ordinary private citizen. To name just two watersheds in his life, he was publically exposed (and exposed himself) as an adulterer, and he also openly quarelled with John Adams, the presidential candidate of his political party, the Federalists. He was a brilliant statesman but a poor politician.
After this semi-voluntary retirement from the life of politics, Hamilton worked as a high-profile lawyer in New York City. Brilliant in everything he did, his career in law was no exception. To escape from the bustle of the city, Hamilton hired John McComb Jr.—the architect who designed NYC’s majestic City Hall, among other things—to build a rustic retreat for himself and his large family (he had eight children). At the time, Harlem was of course nothing like the city it is today. The area was still mostly farms and undeveloped woodland, an ideal spot to build a country house.
Hamilton did not have much time to enjoy his little paradise, however. Just two years after it was completed in 1802, Hamilton was killed in a duel with Vice-President Aaron Burr—another high-profile NYC lawyer, and a long-time rival of Hamilton’s. The property stayed in the family for some decades hence, occupied by his long-surviving wife Elizabeth and their children. But eventually it was sold and, by the late 1800s, it was in foreclosure and doomed to destruction. The building only survived because of the intervention of the St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, which bought the house and had it relocated, to conform with the Manhattan street grid.
This purchase was not for purely disinterested historical reasons, however. The church modified the house so that it could be used for services—a purpose which it served for many years. Eventually a larger church building was constructed, enclosing the old home. Then, in the 1920s, a historical preservation society intervened, buying the property and partially restoring some of its original features and decoration. It was only in the 1960s that it was designated a National Historic Landmark. But it remained hemmed in by the many tall buildings that sprung up around it.
Finally, in 2006, the house was moved to a more open location, in St. Nicholas Park, which was still within Hamilton’s original property. The move was a minor feat of technical achievement, gently cradling the entire structure and shifting it, inch by inch, to its new home. Now it stands in a relatively open space, near a few churches, some brownstown apartments, a playground, a taxi service, and a funeral home. And this curious conjunction of the historical, the mundane, the holy, the profitable, and everything else, is what New York City is all about.
For anyone who has visited Jefferson’s Monticello or Washington’s Mount Vernon, Hamilton’s little home may be something of a let down. Hamilton was never greatly wealthy in life; he owned no slaves—indeed, was part of the Abolition Society—and, though addicted to work, was scrupulously honest in his personal finances. In any case, much of the house’s original furnishings and character were lost in its two moves and its many renovations.
The visitor enters on the ground floor, what used to be the basement. There is a small gift shop near the entrance, with books by and about Hamilton. The rest of the space is a miniature museum. There is a time-lapse video of the epochal re-location of the house, and a short documentary that plays on a loop, giving an overview of Hamilton’s life. His accomplishments are also displayed in a series of informational panels and timelines. My favorite object on display was a mourning scarf—a scarf made and sold on the occasion of his untimely death, for people to honor his life. Amusingly, the scarf gives an incorrect account of Hamilton’s background, saying that he was “descended by his father of respectable Scottish ancestry, by his mother was reputably connected to New York.”
The reality, as you may know, was very different. Hamilton’s father, James, was a complete failure in life, and abandoned Hamilton and his brother when they were very young. (James may not even have been Hamilton’s real father, anyway, as Chernow speculates.) Further, Hamilton’s mother was far from reputable—she abandoned her husband and had Hamilton out of wedlock—and, in any case, died when Alexander was very young, leaving him little in the way of property or connections. Hamilton was, in other words, both a bastard and an orphan, as his musical proudly proclaims. But I suppose it is not polite to mention that at a funeral.
The house’s period rooms are all upstairs, on the first floor, accessible with a small wooden staircase from the basement. The hours of access are extremely limited (on weekdays from 12:00 to 1:00, and from 3:00 to 4:00), which makes visiting somewhat inconvenient. But it does not take much time to see everything. There are three main rooms to visit: the dining room, the salon, and Hamilton’s study (where he must have spent most of his time). The dining room features a long elegant table and is well lit with three tall windows. The salon is where I imagine the family spent much of their time, playing cards and receiving guests. Hamilton’s study is much as one would expect: decorated with maps and well-stocked with books. It must have been far messier and fuller when he was alive. He was an avid reader and inveterate scribbler.
Two notable paintings hang on the walls, one a full-length portrait of Hamilton himself, looking like a sophisticated dandy. There is also a portrait of George Washington, given as a gift to the Hamiltons from the Washingtons (the two men worked very closely together). The two original paintings are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they hang proudly in the American Wing; the paintings here are reproductions. Even more captivating is a life-sized bust of Hamilton, dressed like a Roman statesman and looking quite like one too. According to the guide, Hamilton’s wife considered the bust extremely lifelike, and even spoke to it after his death. It is a wonderful piece, bringing him to life with a winsome and wise smile. (Thomas Jefferson, Hamilton’s great rival, had a replica of this bust in his house in Monticello, placed opposite to his own, so the two would be forever in opposition.)
And that is about all there is to see. If anything, the house is charming because it shows how humble may be the life of an extraordinary historical figure.
But I should not end this post without mentioning another monument next door. Up the hill from Hamilton’s Grange is one of the most attractive college campuses I have ever seen: the North Campus of CUNY’s City College. The entire complex is built in a flamboyant neo-gothic style, designed by the architect George Browne Post (many of whose other important works have been demolished). Everything follows a unified aesthetic, from the elaborate iron grillwork on the gates to the little lamps flanking the entrances. The stonework on the buildings is particularly delightful, with enough subtle variation in color and texture to remain endlessly pleasant to examine. Every detail is well-done, from the wry gargoyles scattered throughout to the ornamented roofs and towers.
The centerpiece of the complex is Shepard Hall—named after a prominent NYC lawyer—which features a central building in the shape of a cathedral, and two curving wings on either side. Unfortunately I could not enter the building, as all the doors were locked. If I had gone inside, I would have seen the monumental Great Hall, a sort of central nave at the end of which is a mural by Edwin Blashfield, the artist who decorated the Library of Congress. In front of this hall is a statue of Alexander S. Webb, a general in the Civil War and the second president of the university. The statue makes him out to look like quite a swaggering military figure, and not exactly a bookish man.
(On the subject of statues, I ought, too, to mention the statue of Alexander Hamilton in front of the Broadway Spanish Baptist Church nearby. Here he looks rather like he does in the aforementioned painting, a heroic dandy.)
To me, the campus is a delightful and inspiring place. Indeed, the only American university campus of comparable beauty I know of is the University of Virginia, designed by Thomas Jefferson. Having gone to a rather unattractive university myself, I am very sensitive to the effect that architecture can have on the mood and atmosphere of an institute of higher learning. The strong verticality of the gothic buildings lifts one up and their historical form inspires a sense of participating in an honorable intellectual tradition.
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New York City is a land of bridges. According to the site, The Bridges of NYC, there are 2,027 bridges in the city—over five times as many as the bridges in Venice. Most of those bridges are small, ugly, and deservedly ignored. But several attract attention, and for good reason. The most famous bridge in the city is, of course, the Brooklyn Bridge. But before getting to that bridge, I will review some of the other 20 bridges that connect the island of Manhattan to Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, or New Jersey.
The largest bridge connected to the island of Manhattan is the George Washington Bridge. The bridge spans the Hudson, and connects New York to New Jersey. If not the biggest bridge in all of NYC, it is the busiest—carrying hundreds of thousands of commuters per day on its two levels. A suspension bridge opened in 1931, the George Washington is not especially beautiful; indeed, it is rather grey and devoid of character. But the bridge is open to pedestrian traffic, and so can provide an excellent view of the Hudson River (though this view is, admittedly, somewhat impeded by the anti-suicide net).
The majority of the bridges into Manhattan are located on the other side of the island, spanning the Harlem River between Manhattan and the Bronx. A traveler on the Hudson Line of the Metro North will pass by or under many of them, including the apparently unnamed railroad bridge that takes the train over the Harlem River, between the Third Avenue Bridge to the south and the Madison Avenue Bridge to the north. Both of these are swing bridges, a design that allows the steel structure to rotate to let boats pass by (though this is seldom nowadays).
As the train goes north, it passes by the Macombs Dam Bridge, which appears to be just another swing bridge, but which is also the third-oldest bridge in the city, having been opened in 1895. Further north are two large bridges, the Alexander Hamilton and the Washington (not George Washington), which rest on enormous steel arches.
After that comes the Broadway Bridge, a somewhat odd-looking lift bridge, whose central span can be elevated to allow for passing boats. When I am waiting for the train at the nearby Metro North Station, I like to watch the Line 1 Subway pass over this bridge, creating an odd metallic echo and illuminating the bridge with blue sparks. And finally there is the Henry Hudson Bridge, another tall and not especially beautiful structure resting on a single steel arch. The infamous Robert Moses had to fight against the protests of the local residents to get the bridge constructed, as a part of his Henry Hudson Parkway plan.
The very oldest and one of the most beautiful bridges in the whole city is also found in this area: the High Bridge. Constructed in 1848, the High Bridge was originally built as a part of the Croton Aqueduct, ferrying water from upstate New York into the city in a long tunnel, carried across the Harlem River on a series of stone archways. The High Bridge’s design and function gave it the appearance of an ancient Roman aqueduct; but the stone columns impeded traffic on the Harlem River; so in 1928 the columns were replaced by a single steel arch, much like the nearby Alexander Hamilton or Washington Bridges. Nevertheless, the bridge—now for pedestrians only—is one of the loveliest in the city, ideal for a walk with a view. The old water tower, designed to pump the water from the Croton Aqueduct uptown, still presides over the Manhattan side of the bridge, looking like a turret from some forgotten castle.
The most impressive bridges in Manhattan are, however, concentrated downtown, connecting the borough with Brooklyn, across the East River: the Manhattan Bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge, and the Brooklyn Bridge. Of these, the last named was the first to be built and remains the crown jewel of NYC infrastructure, a monument of engineering and one of the most significant public works of the 19th century.
When construction began on the Brooklyn Bridge, in 1870, Manhattan and Brooklyn were two different cities. Unification of the boroughs would not come until 1898. Thus, the politics behind the bridge were controversial and complicated, requiring the cooperation of two rather corrupt city governments (“Boss” Tweed, of Tammany Hall, was on the board for the Bridge). Before the bridge was built, the only access across the East River was provided by a handful of ferry companies. For decades commuters relied on these little boats to get to work, as Walt Whitman immortalized in his poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”:
Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose,
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.
The Bridge was designed by John Augustus Roebling, a man of enormous proportions. After studying philosophy with none other than Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in Germany, Roebling moved to the United States to pursue a Utopian vision of a collectivist, agricultural community in Saxonburg, Pennsylvania. When this did not pan out, Roebling turned his attention to engineering, creating daring and ingenious designs of suspension bridges and perfecting the steel cables necessary to build them. He was the natural choice to design and build the Brooklyn Bridge. But, when the bridge was still in the planning stage, Roebling injured his foot, developed tetanus, and died. (A believer in water therapy, he refused conventional treatment and insisted on soaking his injured foot and wrapping it in towels.) This left the project to his more-than-capable son, Washington Roebling.
Washington was already a Civil War hero and, thanks to his travels in Europe, an expert in caissons. A caisson is a sort of massive container, meant to be sunk to the bottom of the river. Water is then pumped out of the bottom chamber, and pressurized air is pumped in, allowing men to dig on the riverbed. They had to dig deep into the river until they hit the bedrock appropriate to carry the weight of the bridge. It was harrowing and dangerous work—deep underwater, under intense pressure, with water constantly seeping in. As the caisson sunk deeper and deeper, requiring higher pressure to keep the water out, the men began to develop the bends when they returned to the surface (or, as it was called then, “caisson sickness”). Since the condition was not understood at the time, the management had no idea how to prevent it. Workers would come up from the heavily pressurized air to sea level in only a few minutes, not nearly enough time for the body to adjust. This left many in agonizing pain, some permanently injured, and a few dead.
Washington Roebling himself was a victim of decompression sickness (though it may have been compounded by stress), leaving him so sickly and weak that he had to communicate all of his instructions by letter and observe the bridge by telescope. Even so, the caissons eventually reached the appropriate depth, were filled with concrete to serve as the foundations, and then construction of the stone towers began—easily the most massive buildings in the city at the time. Then, the wire cables had to be suspended. The board unwisely chose an unscrupulous wire manufacturer, who knowingly provided shoddy products in order to increase his profit. And though the bridge engineers caught on to this ruse, some of the defective wire is still built into the bridge (though not enough to make it unsafe, I am assured). In fact, John A. Roebling’s original design was meant to make the bridge at least six times as strong as necessary, making it possibly the most durable bridge in the city.
Finally, in 1883, the bridge was opened to massive acclaim. It was a technological marvel, a pivotal work of infrastructure, and a tourist attraction—as it remains. Originally the bridge had room for pedestrians, electric street-cars, and horse-drawn carriages, and also two cable-cars that ferried people back and forth. One of the earliest film recordings by Thomas Edison is a passenger’s view from the front of one of these cable cars, as crowds of men in top-hats walk by. (To learn more about the bridge, I recommend David McCullough’s excellent history, from which I am drawing my information.)
The bridge looks rather different now. For one, the cable cars have gone. And the street cars and horse-drawn carriages have been replaced by a sea of yellow taxis and multicolored automobiles. Pedestrian access is via a special walkway, elevated above the road level, going through the center of the bridge. The walkway nominally has both a walking lane and a bike lane, though so many tourists crowd the bridge on any given day that cyclists must fight their way through the crowd—shouting constantly. The view from the bridge has changed quite a bit, too. Far from being the largest structure in the city, the bridge’s towers now appear diminutive against the background of skyscrapers in Manhattan.
But the bridge is still a lovely sight. The gothic arches rise up and into the air, culminating in a solid block of stone that seems oddly ancient in the city of glass and metal. The surrounding steel cables create a pleasing geometric pattern, shifting slowly as one crosses the bridge. From the center of the walkway the cables form a kind of receding net, creating a grid that disappears into a vanishing point, much like a Renaissance painting. And the view of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the East River from the bridge is one of the best in the city. Considering that it is so iconic, so pleasant, and free, the Brooklyn Bridge is a necessary part of any visit to New York.
Yet the bridge’s neighbors also deserve mention. Slightly east of the Brooklyn Bridge is the Manhattan Bridge, an all-metal suspension bridge that used an innovative design which was to prove highly influential. Opened just 26 years after the Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge nevertheless appears modern and unremarkable—wholly functional, with no thought given to aesthetics. Unlike on the Brooklyn Bridge, this bridge’s pedestrian platform is separate, off to one side, and situated below the main span, which somewhat limits the view. I do, however, enjoy the experience of riding the subway (lines B, D, N, and Q) over the bridge—hearing the hard clack of the tracks and seeing the city through the triangular bars.
Further east and north is the Williamsburg Bridge. This bridge looks to the untrained eye rather similar to the Manhattan Bridge. Opened six years earlier, in 1903, it is also an all-metal suspension bridge, appearing nowadays to be plain and utilitarian. In my opinion, however, this bridge is one of the lesser-known treasures of NYC. Like the Brooklyn Bridge, it has a central walkway that gives a nice view of the city (though, admittedly, the view from this bridge is obscured by a thick metallic cage that encloses the walkway). If the bridge is less picturesque, it compensates by being far less crowded than the Brooklyn Bridge. Both times I walked across, the span was nearly empty. The visitor can also observe the subway (lines J, M, and Z) passing underneath the platform, causing a pleasant ruckus and rumbling. I even observed some love-locks on the bridge.
I will end this post by mentioning one bridge that I have personally never seen. The Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge is the longest and largest bridge in NYC, and was also the longest in the world for nearly twenty years (1964 – 81). (The Williamsburg Bridge and the George Washington have both held that distinction as well.) The enormous bridge was built under the auspices of Robert Moses as a way of connecting Brooklyn with Staten Island, and named in honor of the first known European explorer to enter New York Harbor, Giovanni da Verrazzano. Strangely, however, Moses forgot to look up the spelling of that explorer’s name, officially naming the bridge called the “Verrazano-Narrows” (with one z). It was not until 2018, fifty-eight years after its opening, that the name was finally corrected. Now Giovanni can rest in peace.
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To follow up my previous post about two notable uptown churches, here are two of the most famous and historic churches in downtown Manhattan.
Standing in the shadow of the One World Trade Center is one of the most historic and quiet buildings in the city: St. Paul’s Chapel.
Few buildings can so powerfully evoke the history of New York and of the United States as a whole. The chapel was completed in 1766, making it the oldest church in Manhattan and the only church on the island which dates from pre-Revolutionary times. Indeed, the church is so old that it dates from a time when New York was not the financial center it is today, but a provincial city in a relatively unimportant colony far away from the centers of power and commerce.
Unlike the city’s two cathedrals, therefore, St. Paul’s is a rather humble construction, dwarfed by the surroundings skyscrapers. From the outside, the church’s most striking features are its neoclassical portico and its large central bell-tower (when it was first built, St. Paul’s was the tallest building in New York—consider that). In design it is Georgian, modeled on the much larger St. Martin-in-the-Fields, in London. Unlike its pale English counterpart, however, St. Paul’s is grey and brown, since it was built using the local schist and brownstone.
The inside is, if anything, even less ostentatious than its exterior. If anything, the chapel’s whitewashed walls and spare decoration evoke a kind of ethereal purity, above all worldly riches. Only two works of art call our attention: an early painting of the Seal of New York and the Great Seal the American Seal (featuring a bird which looks far more like a turkey than an eagle, as Benjamin Franklin would have liked). Nearby a plaque is dedicated to the memory of George Washington, who would come here to pray in the early years of his presidency, when New York City was briefly the nation’s capital. Alexander Hamilton, some years before that, had drilled in the churchyard during the Revolutionary War.
The church has played a role in far more recent American history, however. During the horrific attacks of 9/11, the church served as an impromptu shelter for emergency workers. Firefighters and police officers slept on the pews, while volunteers prepared meals by the hundreds. The church became known as “The Little Chapel that Stood” during the ordeal, since it suffered no serious damage during the attacks. A small chapel in the back of the church commemorates this dark time, preserving some of the mementos that citizens left on the fences of the church as a memorial.
Behind the church is a graveyard, among the oldest in Manhattan. Among others, here is buried Richard Montgomery, a general during the Revolutionary War who was killed during an unsuccessful attack on Quebec.
St. Paul’s chapel, as its name indicates, is not a stand-alone church. Rather, it is a “chapel of ease” for those who found going to the parish church too far from the port, and thus too inconvenient. This explanation is a bit difficult to swallow, however, considering that St. Paul’s is literally a five-minute walk from the parish church: Trinity.
Trinity Church is, unquestionably, the most important church in NYC history. It has been around from the beginning. It was first opened in the closing years of the 17th century, serving as the parish church of the Church of England in what was then a small, provincial city, only recently transferred from Dutch to English control. The first church building, which I suppose was likely an impressive structure, burned down in 1776 during the Revolutionary War, shortly before Manhattan was evacuated by Washington’s troops and ceded to the British. A second building was erected in its place, where (like St. Paul’s chapel) Washington and Hamilton came to pray during NYC’s brief stint as the nation’s capital. But severe weather fatally damaged that building, too.
The church that stands today is the third version, which was finished in 1846. For many years its spire was the tallest structure on Manhattan, indeed in the United States—something that is difficult to believe nowadays, as the church is crushed to insignificance among the giant skyscrapers of Wall Street. In style it is gothic revival, though its design is muted and humble as compared with, say, St. Patrick’s Cathedral further uptown. What it lacks in splendor it makes up in simple beauty, which is difficult to find in Manhattan. Yet it is ironic, of course, that what was once the greatest building in New York City is nowadays charming for its small size.
The interior of Trinity is even more understated than its exterior. The gothic vaulting and pointed arches do not give their usual impression of extreme verticality, and in fact the space is inviting and human-scaled.
My most vivid memory of Trinity was when I was interviewing for my first job. The company was on Wall Street (though it was not in finance). I arrived quite early and wanted to kill some time before entering the building; and as it was raining, Trinity provided the perfect escape. I was desperate for a job and this was my first real interview, so you can imagine how nervous I was. I sat in one of the pews and read Ecclesiastes in one of the bibles, a chapter whose heroic fatalism helped to calm me. Meanwhile, a group of choral singers had set up near the altar and begun rehearsing, which allowed me to hear the church’s wonderful acoustics. It was a great way to calm down before the interview. I still did not get the job.
As with St. Paul’s Chapel, Trinity is surrounded by a graveyard, also one of the oldest in the city. By far the most famous burial is Alexander Hamilton (1755 – 1804), one of the most influential intellectuals and statesmen in the founding of the United States. His death was as dramatic and memorable as his life: shot down in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr, across the Hudson in New Jersey. His grave is fairly simple: a rectangular base topped with a pyramid, which duly lauds his memory. Next to Hamilton is buried his wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, who survived her husband by fifty long years. Alexander’s son, Philip, who died in a duel two years before his father, is also buried here.
Much further uptown, at 155th street, is another churchyard managed by Trinity Church. It is on the former estate of John James Audubon, and includes many famous burials, including Audubon himself. I have not visited yet, but I plan to.
For anyone in the area of Battery Park or Wall Street, these two churches provide a much-needed relief from the rush of suits and ties, the inhumanly vast buildings, the often hostile weather, and the relentless city noise. What is more, they are vessels of New York City history, nearly as old as the city itself.
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New York provides an architectural feast, especially if you do not mind straining your neck. Not least among the city’s treasures are its many churches. I have already discussed Saint Patrick’s, the city’s Catholic cathedral, easily one of the grandest buildings in the city. But Saint Patrick’s is not the only cathedral in New York.
Further uptown is a cathedral of even grander proportions: Saint John’s. This is a behemoth of a building, certainly the largest church building in New York City and arguably in the entire country. (The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, in Washington D.C., covers more area but contains far less volume.) And the building as it exists now falls far short of the original plan. Neither of the cathedral’s front towers has been completed, nor has the enormous tower that was to stand over the midpoint of the building. Indeed, after a fire destroyed the north transept in 2001, the cathedral has even lacked a crucifix floorplan. This has led it to be informally dubbed St. John the Unfinished.
Even with all of these parts missing, however, it is a giant church. Not to be outdone by the Catholics, the Epicopalians conceived the project as a way to rival or even surpass St. Patrick’s. This cathedral, too, is built in an elaborate neo-gothic style that mimics the great cathedrals of France and Spain. Its hulking façade, with its three enormous doors sitting underneath pointed arches, beckons the visitor from the streets of modern Manhattan to a seemingly medieval world. All of the decorations carefully maintain this illusion, from the frilly spires, to the ornamental carvings, to the friezes of Biblical scenes above the doors. Even the monumental brass doors are covered in art, showing scenes from the life of Christ and representations of the four evangelists. Aside from the cathedral’s manifestly incomplete state, the only thing that breaks the illusion is the appearance of grey discoloration from car exhaust.
The inside is fully in keeping with this aesthetic. Enormous pillars hold up a vaulted ceiling, while stained glass windows allow colored light to drift inside. The visitor is greeted by a beautifully carved wooden choirstall, holding an image of Christ against a golden background. (This is a real 15th century German work, on loan from the Metropolitan.) The cathedral even has a sort of poor man’s version of the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. As far as I know, there are no actual poets buried in this section of the church; instead, small tablets bearing the names and brief quotes of famous American authors cover the floor. According to the plaque, the idea was inspired by a rector in the church of Washington Irving in my hometown, Tarrytown.
All this is true to the style of highfalutin European cathedrals. Closer inspection, however, reveals a church very unlike those it imitates, even St. Patrick’s downtown. Saint John the Divine was conceived as a different sort of institution, a “Democratic Church,” as it dubs itself, open to any and all who would like to come. True to form, the rainbow colors of LGBT pride were displayed prominently near one altar. And this is not a pose. To pick just two examples of the church’s progressive tendency, the cathedral hosted a performance by Diamanda Galás meant to raise awareness of the AIDS epidemic, and displayed Edwina Sandys’ statue, Christa, a portrayal of Christ as a woman (unsurprisingly, a very controversial work).
All of this is world’s apart from the staid, traditional activity of St. Patrick’s. On the other hand, it is free to walk into the Catholic cathedral, while visitors of Saint John’s have to pay.
Adjacent to the building is an attractive little green space, known as the West 111th Street People’s Garden. Here is located the building of the Cathedral School, a K–8 school for children of any faith; and during the summer it is common to see flocks of children in summer camp parading by. Nearby is the Peace Fountain, a sculpture by Greg Wyatt supposedly portraying the battle between the Archangel Michael and Satan, and the triumph of good over evil. Yet to me the statue looks like an angel strangling a curious giraffe. In any case, the odd sculpture provides a nice illustration of the cathedral’s less orthodox attitude towards traditional themes.
To get to our next church, we must walk a good twenty minutes or so. The pleasantest route takes us directly through the main campus of Columbia University. Founded in 1754 as King’s College, Columbia is the oldest university in New York, and one of the best in the world. Suffice to say that everyone from Alexander Hamilton to Barack Obama have studied there. The campus leaves no doubt as to the honor, splendor, and pretensions of the institution. The grandiose Butler Library, for example, is adorned with the names of great thinkers and writers: Herodotus, Plato, Shakespeare, Tacitus, Voltaire… Directly opposite is the Low Memorial Library, another stately neoclassical edifice; and on the steps leading up to its entrance is the statue of Alma Mater, a symbol of the university, made by the same sculpture who designed the Lincoln Memorial, Daniel Chester French.
The thirsty or hungry traveler may also take a small detour to stop at Tom’s Restaurant, a diner used in the exterior shots of Seinfeld. (Though the outside looks exactly like it does in the show, the inside looks nothing like the fictional Monk’s Cafe.) It is a nice place to have a coffee.
The walk further uptown takes us alongside Riverside Park, and through some quite swanky neighborhoods, with upscale apartments attended by liveried doormen. It is an appropriate setting for a church intimately connected with wealth: Riverside Church.
Riverside Church was the idea of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Curiously, this was not the first Rockefeller church that I visited. Much closer to my home, Rockefeller helped to establish the Union Church in Pocantico Hills, a lovely stone building with beautiful stained-glass windows by Marc Chagal and Henri Mattise. Riverside Church is much grander in scale, with an enormous bell tower that rises high up above the rest of the building, and which makes Riverside the tallest church building in the United States.
So big is the tower, in fact, that the actual church seems insignificant by comparison, though it is by no means small. The interior consists of a single nave, again neo-gothic in design, filled with pointed arches and stained glass. Architecturally, it is more perfectly composed, more pure of form than Saint John’s, which lends it a rare tranquility and grace. It is simple and beautiful. John D. Rockefeller was motivated to found the church partly out of a dissatisfaction with the Baptism of his youth. He wanted a more modern church, which is why Riverside is nondenominational, and also why great figures of science are carved into the decorations, including Galileo, Newton, and even Darwin.
Riverside Church is like Saint John’s in its history of progressive activism. Indeed, the church arguably has an even stronger connection to social reform. Most famously, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a major speech against the Vietnam War here, in 1967; and there are still photographs of him on the bulletin board. A far more humble mark of the church’s ethos is the bathroom sign, which declares “Anyone can use this restroom regardless of gender identity or expression.” The church is still an epicenter for advocacy on many fronts, from anti-torture, to immigrants’ rights, to support for the HIV-positive. It is a model for a humanitarian church.
It is hardly sensible to visit Riverside Church without visiting the monument next door. Within a few hundred feet of the church doors is the tomb of Ulysses S. Grant, hero of the Civil War and 18th President of the United States. It is the largest and grandest tomb of an American President, an enormous neoclassical structure complete with Greek columns and domed ceiling. Even though his presidency has been widely regarded as a failure, he was an immensely popular figure at the time of his death; his funeral drew one and a half million spectators. This explains the grandiose design of his final resting place, which is highly reminiscent of Napoleon’s tomb in Les Invalides.
Nowadays, the tomb is a quiet and largely ignored corner of New York, with a handful of tourists respectfully poking about at any one time. Yet it is well worth a visit. Grant is interred in a massive granite coffin, alongside his wife in an identical sarcophagus. The coffins are below the floor level, visible through a hole in the floor, where they rise up from the lower level on a platform—again, much like Napoleon’s tomb. The visitor can descend and walk around the coffins, pausing to admire the busts of other Civil War generals, such as William Tecumseh Sherman. On the upper level, flanking the staircase, are two side chapels with historical flags from the war. And up above a mosaic depicts the surrender of Robert E. Lee to Grant. One could be forgiven for thinking that Grant was a general alone, and not a president, from the evidence of his tomb.
Here is where I will end my little tour, which can take as little as a couple hours. Separated by only a few blocks are the largest and the tallest churches in the United States—not to mention a historic university and an enormous tomb. But Saint John the Divine and Riverside Church are, for me, far more than architectural delights. They are living institutions, still engaged in the proper work of religion: to improve the lives of their congregations.
More people are alive now than ever before, and yet the dead still outnumber the living. Many, perhaps most, of those dead are buried beneath our feet. It is unclear whether there are more interments than inhabitants in all of New York City, but it seems at least possible, considering that over five million people are buried in Queens—over twice that borough’s population. Calvary Cemetery alone holds three million bodies, making it the largest cemetery in the country.
Queens became an epicenter for burials in the 19th century, when land scarcity in Manhattan led citizens to look further afield. The state government took a cue from Pere Lachaise, the magnificent Parisian cemetery located far outside the city center. They eventually decided to convert barren and useland land near the Queens-Brooklyn border into an array of cemeteries. According to Keith Williams, bodies in Manhattan were disentered in the dead of night, to be ferried over to their new home across the river; and many were doubtless destroyed in the process.
The city was badly in need of a park around this time. Neither Central Park nor Prospect Park would be open until the 1870s. It was partly for this reason that the beautiful Green-Wood cemetery, which opened in 1838, became so popular. Indeed, the cemetery was such an attractive place to stroll about that, by the 1860s, it had scarcely fewer visitors than Niagara Falls. Though mostly neglected by tourists nowadays, it is still a lovely respite from the noise of city life, not to mention a repository of the city’s history.
I visited the cemetery on a scorching day in August. The air was humid and heavy. My clothes were soaked through with sweat, and the sun beat down harshly in the open space of the cemetery. Autumn or spring is preferable. I entered through the monumental neo-gothic gate at 25th street—a delightful work of architectural exuberance by Richard Upjohn, one of the founders of the American Institute of Architects.
Once inside, the cemetery is as rustic and attractive as a park, with roads winding through grass lawns and scattered trees. The tombstones are distributed somewhat sparsely and unevenly in this immense green space. The majority are simple graves, no more than a foot or two tall, with some more imposing obelisks thrown in. Here and there one finds a statue, in bronze or stone, and some of the wealthier families have their mausoleums built into hillsides. Near the entrance at 25th street is one of the original ponds; and nearby is the cemetery chapel, a noble structure modeled after the work of Christopher Wren. Even more beautiful, perhaps, than the cemetery itself is the view that it provides, with several vantage points offering an excellent look at the Manhattan skyline beyond the river.
Green-Wood Cemetery holds over 560,000 “permanent residents” (as the website calls them) and a great many of them are famous. Indeed, a list of the prominent burials in the cemetery reads like a who’s who of notable 19th century New Yorkers. We have Henry Ward Beecher (1813 – 1887), a preacher who during his lifetime was among the most famous men in America. Brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe (the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), Henry was himself an abolitionist and later on a champion of women’s suffrage. However, his immaculate image became somewhat tarnished during a highly publicized adultery trial.
Another dead titan from this age is William M. Tweed (1823 – 1878), known as “Boss” Tweed, the corrupt and powerful leader of Tammany Hall. After years of stealing millions of taxpayer money, he was exposed and thrown into prison. On the stand, with nothing to lose, his confessions shocked the nation. He hoped for an early release; but that was not to be. Tweed did manage to escape custody once, sneaking across the Atlantic aboard a Spanish vessel; but he was apprehended in Vigo, Spain, by the local police (who had nothing other than a rough sketch to go on). He eventually died in an American jail.
Green-Wood cemetery, though never affiliated with any religion, has prided itself through the years on its respectability, prohibiting all executed criminals, and all who died in jail, from burial within its esteemed grounds. But Tweed, never one to play by the rules, posthumously circumvented this rule and found himself underground for the long sleep.
To discuss all of the notable people sunken in the dirt would take me from now until my own funeral. But I might mention two great musical giants to be found there, Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990), most famous for West Side Story, and Elliot Carter (1908 – 2012), one of the pre-eminent American composers of the last century, who lived all of 103 years. Yet another of the cemetery’s residents may have had a greater influence on music than either of these composers: Henry Steinway (1817 – 1871), founder of Steinway & Sons. His son, William (1835 – 1896), is there too, who played an important role in the development of Queens. In fact, the 7 train stills runs under the East River in the so-called Steinway tunnel, which William commissioned for his own shipping and transportation.
We may also find some men of the Revolutionary era, such as William Livingston (1723 – 1790), a New Jersey governor who signed the Declaration of Independence, and DeWitt Clinton (1769 – 1828), New York governor who oversaw the building of the Erie Canal. Indeed, the cemetery itself has a deep connection to the Revolutionary War, since it occupied a sight of a major engagement in the Battle of Brooklyn during the opening stages of the war—when invading redcoats routed Washington’s ragtag army, in a colossal defeat for the rebels.
But the cemetery is not just a collection of famous bodies. A more somber monument is that raised to the victims of the Brooklyn Theater Fire, a conflagration which killed nearly 300 people in 1876. Of the victims, some 100 whose bodies were scorched beyond identification were interred in a common grave here, marked by an obelisk. About twice as many people died in this disaster as in the more famous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. It was the third-deadliest fire in American history.
Even if you have no interest in the dead, Green-Wood is worth visiting for its greenery. In fact, Green-Wood is a notable arboretum, and its map also has the location of some notable trees—such as American Chestnuts and large Camperdown Elms. Life prospers where death appears to reign.
On that note, let us leave the Green-Wood cemetery and travel back across the East River, to Manhattan, and then onwards north to the Bronx. Here we will find another enormous and noteworthy cemetery: Woodlawn.
Opened during the Civil War, in 1863, this cemetery received some of bodies removed from overcrowded Manhattan. It has since grown to vast proportions, and is now the resting place of over 300,000 people. While not as inviting and park-like as Green-Wood, and while not providing such an excellent view of Manhattan, the cemetery is quite attractive in its own right. What is more, Greenwood is the final resting place of some of the most iconic figures in American history.
I visited on a cold winter day, last January, with my father. My priority was to see the tomb of Herman Melville (1819 – 1891). It is a simple and indeed humble tombstone, with nothing but an empty scroll of paper as decoration. This was surprising to me. For my money, Moby Dick is the Great American Novel, and Melville our greatest novelist. Yet Melville himself died in relative obscurity. After early success writing potboiler seafaring novels, Melville’s reputation sank once he turned to more serious work; and starting with Moby Dick, he was a critical and financial failure. It was only some decades after his death that his star began to rise again. For any struggling writers (such as myself) his story provides a depressing truth, slightly tempered by the hope that posterity can be kinder than contemporaries.
My father’s hero is also in this same cemetery: Miles Davis (1926 – 1991). A bass player and jazz lover, my dad has been talking to me about Miles Davis all my life, especially Davis’s landmark album, Kind of Blue; so it was gratifying for us both to finally visit him. Davis’s grave is a large tombstone, so highly polished as to be almost mirror-like. The first two measures of one of Davis’s compositions, “Solar,” are inscribed on the tombstone. Curiously, Davis is referred to as “Sir,” which as I learned was because he was inducted into the Order of Malta (in a ceremony in the Alhambra in Granada).
It would be hard to name a musician so influential in the history of jazz. Yet there is one buried right next to Davis: the Edward Kennedy Ellington, better known as “Duke” (1899 – 1974). Ellington has a claim to being the supreme composer of jazz tunes—many of which have become standards in the repertoire—and, indeed, I think he can be justly considered one of the master composers in any genre of the last century, for his music went far beyond the conventional boundaries. His grave is a small plaque in the ground, set before a large tree and flanked by two stone crosses.
Nearby, up the hill, is the conspicuous grave of Illinois Jacquet (1922 – 2004), an important saxophonist; and not too far off lies Coleman Hawkins (1904 – 1969), another great saxophone player, and further on Max Roach (1924 – 2007), the great bebop drummer. Woodlawn does not, however, cater solely to jazz musicians. Also interred is Irving Berlin (1888 – 1989), the Russian-born Jewish composer who helped to define American music, all while being unable to read music and only being able to play in the key of F sharp. Even if you know nothing of Berlin, chances are you can sing at least one of his songs.
Two major figures from the history of New York City are also here in Woodlawn. Fiorello La Guardia (1882 – 1947), the short Italian sometimes called the “Little Flower” who was arguably the city’s most influential mayor. He sits under an elegant tombstone, which states simply: “Statesman, Humanitarian.” Buried within the community mausoleum is someone perhaps even more influential in the city’s history, Robert Moses (1888 – 1981), the subject of the landmark biography The Power Broker. Moses was a power broker indeed, responsible for the building of parks, roads, public housing projects, and bridges. In the process, Moses displaced hundreds of thousands of the poor and destroyed whole communities. He died with his reputation in tatters, yet having fundamentally shaped New York in the twentieth century.
Woodlawn, too, is an arboretum, with some beautiful trees on its grounds. Unfortunately for me, January was not the best time to appreciate this. Nor was the bracing breeze of that January day any more pleasant than the oppressing heat and humidity of the day in August when I visited Green-Wood.
In spite of this, I greatly loved my visits to these two resting grounds. Indeed, cemeteries are some of my favorite places. They are storehouses of history, and sites of homage to those who have shaped our world. They are also places of peace, an escape from the bustle of the surrounding city, providing us a space to contemplate how our own lives might be remembered. I recommend a visit.
This past Friday I went to Bethel Woods for the fiftieth anniversary of the Woodstock Music Festival. Ringo Starr and his All Starr band was headlining. Each of us had a special connection to the event. My mother grew up nearby, and was able to attend one day of the original concert, seeing Joe Cocker perform “With a Little Help from My Friends.” My brother and I, meanwhile, had gotten into the music from the sixties in high school, and had watched the Woodstock film many times. We had even seen Richie Havens, who opened the original festival, twice—once here in Bethel Woods. Besides that, all of us are devoted Beatles fans.
My mother stressed for months preceding the event. There were so many instructions—parking passes, when to arrive, what you can take in, and so on. She had called the organizers several times in order to make sure that we were properly prepared. Even so, when we arrived (after taking the same back roads my mother had taken, fifty years ago) we were promptly informed by a state trooper that we needed an additional parking pass, the “green one,” even though we already had one they had mailed to us. To get it, we had to drive over a mile to the information tent, asking for directions several times along the way (the original trooper forgot the name of the road, which was Huckle Puddy).
This done, we circled back and were finally allowed into the parking lot, being waved on by dozens of attendants. The walk to the venue took us past a great many signs, each one adding to the ever-increasing list of prohibited items and activities. No weapons, of course, or “any object that may be used as a projectile” (quite a broad category), nor professional cameras, posters, banners, selfie sticks, iPads, or lawn chairs. If you wanted to bring a camera, it could not have an interchangeable lens. If you wanted to bring a bag, it had to be plastic and transparent, allowing the staff to easily see what was inside. Among the list of permitted items were umbrellas, strollers, and “two 20oz. factory sealed bottles of water per person.” On the list of prohibited items were musical instruments.
Before going inside, we had to pass through metal detectors (no precaution can be omitted in the age of mass shootings), and then have our tickets scanned. After a slight wait, we were allowed inside.
The Bethel Woods Center for the Arts is a cultural complex located on the original grounds of the 1969 Woodstock Festival. The site was opened partially to combat the economic downturn of the region. Years ago, the Catskill Mountains were a popular vacation spot for those living in New York City, especially in the summer when the city became unbearably hot. But events conspired to make this option ever less popular. The widespread use of air conditioning made it unnecessary to escape to the mountains, and the rise in cheaper air travel made destinations further afield more popular. Resorts and hotels closed down, leaving the region devoid of an economic heart.
Bethel Woods has several venues, including a small indoor one (where I saw Richie Havens) and the outdoor pavilion, big enough (with lawn space) for around 10,000 people. (Since you cannot bring in your own lawn chair, you must rent one from Bethel Woods if you sit on the lawn.) This is where Ringo was to perform. The complex also has a museum dedicated to the sixties: counterculture, Vietnam War protests, the Civil Rights Movements, and so on. I visited this museum back when I was in high school, and I remember an old Volkswagen Bus on display, as if it were an antique horse-drawn carriage or a space shuttle.
On this day there were tents set up all around the space, selling knick knacks, Woodstock paraphernalia, and overpriced food and drinks. A single can of beer cost $14. There were a couple cordoned-off bar areas that only catered to visitors with special tickets, who sat behind the barrier on plush chairs drinking overpriced drinks. People wearing tie-dye shirts and bell bottom jeans, with flowers sticking out of colorful bandannas, strolled around sporting bags and other merch that featured the iconic Woodstock symbol, a guitar with a dove perched on it. The average age has increased quite a bit since the first festival, though not quite by fifty years. In general the crowd was overwhelmingly white—more so, I suspect, than the original crowd, if I can judge from photos and videos. Despite threatening rain, it was a fine, sunny day.
When the original Woodstock Festival was held, this land was a dairy farm, owned by Max Yasgur. Like the anniversary concert, the original one was planned to make money. In today’s dollars, tickets for all three days cost well over $100. About 200,000 attendees were expected. But the organizers had difficulty finding a venue. The town was opposed to the concert, even though the organizers lied and said that only 50,000 would come. By the time they secured Max Yasgur’s farm, three days before the concert, they did not have enough time to build the fences. The event became, de facto, free; and more than 400,000 people came. Logistically it was a nightmare, with massive traffic jams, insufficient food, water, and toilets, and muddy fields caused by the rain. What prevented the event from becoming a calamity was a spirit of cooperation and camaraderie that prevailed among the concert-goers.
In short, the event became an iconic moment in the counterculture movement of the sixties. And though it was, financially, a disaster for the organizers, the 1970 documentary of the festival more than recouped the expenses.
Nothing I could write would capture the amazing energy of the original festival better than the documentary. While the youth were boiling over with indignation at the horrors of racism and the Vietnam War, they were simultaneously filled with an extraordinary hopefulness, actuated by the belief that music and love could herald in a better world.
No event, then, could be further in spirit from the original festival than the anniversary concert. Hippiedom has passed from counterculture to kitsch. If the original event was a logistical disaster, this one was impeccably planned. If the original event did not turn a profit, this one certainly did. The hippies were filled with a do-it-yourself ethos; they thought that they could escape the perils of commercial culture by creating things by hand, by getting back in touch with nature, by cooperating rather than competing with each other. Now, hippie garb can be bought at the gift shop, for inflated prices; and Bethel Woods transparently squeezes its visitors, by prohibiting them from bringing anything from home into the event.
The original attendees slid around on the mud and bathed in the river; they entertained themselves with drum circles. You cannot bring a guitar or a drum into Bethel Woods, and to see the music you sit on either a rented lawn chair or within the concrete pavilion. The hippies tried to reject capitalism. Now, two jumbo-trons beside the stage play commercials and display ads before, between, and after the show. And the contrasts did not stop there.
The first band to play was Blood, Sweat, and Tears, who in another iteration had played at the original festival. The band’s line-up has changed quite a bit over the years; and nobody currently in the group was present at Woodstock. In fact, the current vocalist, Keith Paluso, was years away from being born in 1969. The 30-year-old singer rose to fame as a contestant on the NBC show, The Voice; before that, he informed us, he had been a park ranger in Tennessee. “So don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t be anything you want,” he said to a cheering crowd. But I wonder if the hippies of 1969 would have thought that being chosen on a corporate TV show by a cast of super-rich celebrity judges was a really inspiring origin-story.
The band played well, sticking to its signature style of jazz-rock—a fusion of exotic harmonies, elaborate solos, and a steady backbeat. Paluso said that they played nearly the same set as the band did fifty years ago (though their set wasn’t captured on the documentary).
The next to perform was Edgar Winter, brother of the famous guitarist Johnny Winter, and famous in his own right for the hit song “Frankenstein” in the seventies. The aging rocker played with a power trio, guitar, bass, and drums, while he switched between synthesizer, saxophone, and timbales, all the while singing in his surprisingly powerful falsetto (he’s 72 years old, after all). His act featured a lot of jamming, with Winter playing call-and-response with each of the instrumentalists in turn, scatting a lick and having the player repeat it. I thought it was a little much.
Finally Ringo came out, accompanied by his All Starr Band. The idea of this band is that Ringo gathers together former members of prominent rock groups, and each of them performs songs from the high points of their careers. It is like a retirement home for aging rockers. The current line-up features Colin Hay, of Men at Work; Hamish Stuart, of Average White Band; Steve Lukather, of Toto; and Gregg Rolie, who played with Santana at the original Woodstock. During their set, then, Colin Hay sang “Land Down Under,” Hamish Stuart sang “Pick up the Pieces,” Steve Lukather sang “Rosanna,” and Gregg Rolie sang “Evil Ways.” Ringo, for his part, sang several of his hits from the Beatles, including “Yellow Submarine” and “With a Little Help from My Friends,” as well as some hits from his solo career, like “Photograph.”
Ringo was charming as ever, effortlessly funny even if occasionally sounding out-of-tune, such as when he asked “Are there any young girls in the audience?” before singing “You’re Sixteen.” In the age of Jeffrey Epstein, this does not sound like an innocent question. The other members played and sang well, too, delivering a crowd-pleasing performance. I was happy to see Ringo, not only since I think he was one of the keys to the Beatles’ success (despite his reputation, his drumming was innovative and crucial to the band’s sound), but also because this meant that I had seen both living Beatles (having seen Paul McCartney in Yankee Stadium, years ago). For a man of 79, he looks and sounds great.
While I do not wish to disparage the music of the anniversary, I think it also illustrates a major shift since the days of Woodstock. Rock music used to be the affair of amateurs, who figured out how to play and sing by themselves. Nowadays, rock music has been professionalized. The musicians at this concert played with a technically immaculate polish that was very different from the original generation of musicians. As a contrast I might offer Richie Havens, a man with no musical education who created an entirely original way to play the guitar, tuning it to an open chord, barring it with his thumb, and strumming like a madman. Or I might mention Jimi Hendrix, whose self-taught style has remained basically inimitable. The guitarists who played at the anniversary, by contrast, were studied professionals, capable of playing flawless blues solos, jazz chords, or funk riffs. They could sound like anyone, in other words, except themselves.
So what are we to make of this immense contrast? In truth, it is not surprising that the youthful hippie culture puttered out. People get older, more successful, more integrated, and more conservative. Besides, such an outpouring of naïve hope was perhaps unsustainable. In any case, as a method of social change, the hippie way was rather self-indulgent and hedonistic, hoping that drugs and dancing was enough to change the world.
The change also illustrates the immense power of the culture to absorb a counter-culture, commercializing everything to the extent that it loses its teeth and even its identity. We actively buy into this commercialization. Money is basically irresistible.
Yet for all the naiveté, the fuzzy thinking, the hedonism, and the self-righteous nonsense of the hippie movement, it is difficult not to regret the disappearance of that immense, hopeful energy, that impossible dream of ushering in a new world. Now we have many of the same problems as the hippies had—foreign wars, racism, exploitative capitalism—but without the spirit of cooperation, inventiveness, and optimism that might allow us to push back. For Woodstock was not about the trappings of hippiedom, or even ultimately about the music. It was about a dream.
There is no place in New York City to which I have a more intimate connection than the American Museum of Natural History. I practically grew up inside its walls. For a nerdy boy on the Upper West Side, it was the perfect place for a weekend outing. My mom recalls taking me there and letting me run around in the big Hall of Ocean Life, while she enjoyed a beer at the refreshment stand. (They do not sell beer anymore.) My dad took me plenty of times, too, and then followed up the visit with a meatball subway sandwich.
Kids still love the museum. The natural world, after all, is far more accessible than the highfalutin world of art. A child who is still figuring out the basics of the world around her has no need of elaborate images to reconnect her to her senses. And it is fortunate for our society that the museum is so accessible to children. Judging from the case of Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, or Neil deGrasse Tyson (as well as myself) the fascination exerted on youthful visitors to the museum often matures into a fascination for the natural world and a respect for the power of human reason. And you do not need to be a child to feel this twin amazement at world without and the intelligence within. I feel it every time I visit.
You can enter the museum from several spots. The grandest is, without a doubt, through the Roosevelt Rotunda on Central Park West. When walking up the stairs, the visitor will notice the heroic equestrian statue of President Theodore Roosevelt. It is worth pausing to continue this statue, for it encapsulates much of the controversial history of the institution. The mustachioed man is flanked by a Native American and an African man, both on foot, and both looking rather dejected to my eyes. The racial message is clear: the white man sits atop the lesser races. To its credit, the AMNH is acknowledging this imagery with a special exhibit, “Addressing the Statue.” I think this strategy is far preferable to the idea of simply removing it, since now the statue provides an opportunity for learning.
Theodore Roosevelt holds a special place in the history of the museum. His father was one of the museum’s founders, when it was still housed in the Arsenal Building of Central Park. The younger Roosevelt was himself an ardent naturalist, and we have him to thank for many of our country’s most beautiful national parks. But being a nationalist in those days did not mean what it means today. Roosevelt did an awful lot of hunting on behalf of the museum, providing some of the exotic animals that were later stuffed and mounted in the amazing displays. Our views on hunting big game and on racial differences have both, fortunately, evolved since then.
To thank the President for his support, the museum is studded with acknowledgements. The most extravagant of these is the massive mural painted by William Andrew Mackay, covering three tall walls of the Roosevelt Rotunda, where the visitor enters. These depict the eventful life of the naturalist president, turning him into a kind of secular saint on the walls of the cavernous room. But of course most people’s attention is absorbed by what is happening in the middle: the dramatic encounter between a brontosaurus protecting its calf, and the hungry allosaurus prowling for prey. Both the baby and the predator are dwarfed by the gargantuan form of the brontosaurus, whose already significant height is bolstered by standing on its hind legs. Personally I doubt that such a massive animal could perform such a maneuver without breaking its legs. Indeed, replica fossils had to be used, since the real fossils (made of stone, after all) are too heavy to mount in such a way.
Much as I would like to move on to the museum’s exhibits, there is one more relic from the museum’s past that deserves comment. Downstairs from the glorious Roosevelt Rotunda is the Roosevelt Memorial Hall, which includes four small exhibitions about the varied activities of the president: his interest in nature; his love of exploration; his time as a statesman; and his life as a writer. What draws most attention, however, is a diorama showing a meeting between Peter Stuyvesant—the Dutch leader of what later became NYC—and the indigenous Lenape people. Made in 1939, this diorama contains several omissions and inaccuracies that work in the Europeans’ favor, such as showing the Lenape almost nude. Again, to its credit, the AMNH has included annotations on the glass, pointing out several of these problems; and their website includes lesson plans to help visiting teachers use the diorama.
I am dwelling on these examples of the museum’s less noble past, not to portray the institution in a negative light, but to show that the museum is working to improve itself without burying its past. It is a model to imitate. And the museum has a long history. This year, 2019, marks the 150th anniversary of the institution. This makes the AMNH one year older than the Metropolitan, which was founded in 1870.
Now it is finally time to enter the museum. Luckily, the entrance fee is still a suggested donation for all visitors, so you need not break the bank. What should we see first? There is a great deal to choose from. In fact, the AMNH is the largest natural history museum in the world, with millions upon millions of specimens of animals, fossils, minerals, artifacts… It would be virtually impossible to see the entire thing in one day. For my part, it has taken me dozens of visits to fully wrap my mind around the museum; and even a lifetime would not suffice to learn all it has to teach.
Let us go on straight ahead from the Roosevelt Rotunda into the Hall of African Mammals. Simply as a work of art, this is one of the high points of the museum. In the center a herd of eight African elephants—bulls, cows, and calves—huddle together. Arranged around this heard, in little niches in the walls, are other exotic animals: lions, zebras, giraffes. The visitor would be forgiven for thinking that all of these were merely plastic replicas; but they are real taxidermied specimens of animals (one of the elephants was shot by Theodore Roosevelt himself). This gives the dioramas a kind of macabre air, which is combined with melancholy when examining endangered species such as the rhinos and the gorillas.
Yet art intervenes to uplift this collection of exotic bodies into a thrilling exhibit. Every diorama is masterfully done: the animals stand in dramatic, lifelike poses amid an environment so scrupulously recreated as to be totally convincing. Added to this are the paintings on the curved surfaces enclosing the dioramas. These hand-painted backgrounds are worthy works of art in their own right: adapting perspective to the wall’s curvature in order to create a nearly seamless continuation with the scene in the foreground. The result is a strange blend of natural beauty and human invention, which is at turns convincingly lifelike and technically astounding. As I walked along from diorama to diorama, I felt like pilgrim visiting a church, walking around from chapel to chapel.
The lion’s share of the credit for this work goes to Carl Akeley, who participated in both collecting and mounting these specimens. Though this business of big-game taxidermy can seem to us in the present day as grim and barbaric, I think that Akeley deserves to be viewed as an artist of high ability. Creating compelling nature dioramas is no easy matter. It requires a naturalist’s eye for fact and a sculpture’s eye for form. To construct a compelling design that is, at the same time, true to nature, requires a special knack. Akeley was a master of it.
A kind of sister to this gallery is the Hall of Asian Mammals, also accessible through the Roosevelt Rotunda. This is a decidedly smaller space; and as the plaque on the wall informs us, the animals here are owed to a “Mr. Ferney” and a “Colonel Faunthorpe,” who made six expeditions into Asia to hunt these animals. Two Asian Elephants stand in the center of this gallery, slightly smaller than their African counterparts. This gallery originally contained a specimen of a giant panda and a Siberian tiger, but the subsequent history of those species led the museum to place these in the Hall of Biodiversity as examples of endangered species (more later). On my latest trip, I learned that there is a type of Asian Lion with a rangy mane, which lives in a small sliver of India.
Now let us descend a flight of stairs once again to the Rockefeller Memorial Hall, on the ground floor. Here we can enter the space directly below the Hall of African Mammals: the Hall of North American Mammals. We find still more superb animal dioramas. The most famous of these is the Alaska Brown Bear. Two of these stand behind the glass. One is reared up on its hind legs, while the other prowls menacingly nearby. The height of the upright bear is startling. Standing before it, you feel how easily this creature could overpower you. Another superb display is of the moose, which features two bull moose jousting with their antlers. As a Canadian friend once told me, moose are the “king of the beasts.”
A quick trip through the Roosevelt Memorial Hall will lead us to one of the museum’s newer spaces: the Hall of Biodiversity. Opened in 1998, it did not exist when I was a young child. The room has a stunning design. Through the center is a swath of artificial rainforest, made to replicate one of earth’s most diverse environments. A legion of tentacled creatures hang from the ceiling, including a giant squid, an octopus, and a massive jellyfish. A glass case holds the giant panda and Siberian tiger, among others, as examples of endangered species; and the bones of the long-dead dodo can be found. Most of the action takes place on the far wall, which is illuminated from behind. Here is represented the entire panoply of life, from bacteria, to algae, to fungi, to plants, and finally to all the many variations of animals: worms, insects, crustaceans, mollusks, and vertebrates of every kind. (There is an online version that you can click through.)
The sheer abundance of models on display gives a visual illustration to the richness of life on this planet. This amazing variety, developed over 3 billion years of evolution, goes far beyond our humdrum ideas about plant and animal types. To give an example, once a teacher of mine asked everyone in class to make a guess at how many species of bee there are in the world. People’s guesses ranged between 12 and 300. The answer is 20,000. Unfortunately, this biodiversity is being dramatically curtailed through human action—which is why this gallery was made.
This attractive space opens up to what has always been, for me, the most dramatic room in the museum: the Hall of Ocean Life. Here is where I would spend most of my time as a child. This hall is one of the biggest spaces in the museum. It is dominated by the life-sized model of a blue whale, the largest animal to ever exist on the planet, hanging from the ceiling. This lightweight model weighs no less than 21,000 pounds—so just imagine what the real animal must weigh. It is frankly stupefying that something so large can be alive. The entire herd of elephants from the Hall of African Mammals can huddle underneath its belly.
Dioramas line the walls of both floors of this hall. The best of these are on the bottom, where you can find a polar bear, a pod of walruses, and a huddle of sea lions. Here, as elsewhere, these displays are amazingly dramatic and lifelike. We can see the sharks in pursuit of the poor sea turtle, and the dolphins jumping out of the water to catch some flying fish. But the real masterpiece of this hall is the battle between the sperm whale and the giant squid. The sperm whale is the biggest toothed predator in the world, and its prey is likewise large. This big-headed mammal dives deep under the water—sometimes over a mile deep, going more than an hour without breathing—in order to prey on the invertebrate monsters that lurk below.
The most notable foe of this whale is the giant squid, itself one of the world’s largest animals, capable of growing to over 40 feet in length. When a whale finally catches on of these squids, it must be a serious fight, as the suction-cup scars found on the hide of sperm whales attest to. The diorama evokes all the drama of this encounter. We arrive once the fight has commenced: the whale has one of the squid’s tentacles in its jaws, and the squid is wrapped around the whale’s enormous head. The diorama is illuminated in a semi-darkness that recalls the inky blackness of the deep ocean
As a child, I found this scene both fascinating and terrifying, and became obsessed. I drew the battle over and over, doing my best to perfect the two different forms: the smooth blue whale and the sprawling red squid. Even now, this conflict between the big-brained sperm whale and the monstrous giant squid calls to mind a deep conflict within our own nature.
This description only touches upon the strange, otherworldly beauty on display in the Hall of Ocean Life—a beauty that captivated me as a child and which still moves me. The world below the seas is more fantastic and alien than anything dreamed up in science fiction. You can see this clearly in the three dioramas depicting life in the ancient oceans: creatures whose bodies form spirals, cones, wings, prowling about on an ocean floor populated with blooming anemones. The colorful, twisting, bulbous forms of the coral reef also evoke this strange allure. A part of me has always wished to be a marine biologist.
Now we will leave the Hall of Ocean Life to travel back through the Hall of Biodiversity, to enter a space which I have still not adequately explored. The first is the Hall of North American Forests. This space is dedicated to the sorts of environments present in the United States and Canada, from the deserts of Arizona to the cold forests of Ontario. The most impressive object on display is a cross section from a 1,400 year-old Sequoia. It is enormous: big enough to serve as a dance floor or even to serve as the foundation for a house. Notable historical events are marked on the tree rings, going from the invention of book printing in China (in 600), to the crowning of Charlemagne (in 800), to the death of Chaucer (in 1400), to the ascension of Napoleon (in 1804), to when the tree was finally cut down, in 1891.
This hall is also notable for a diorama depicting the little critters who live in the soil, responsible for breaking down organic matter and keeping the cycles of life in swing. The worm, centipede, and daddy-long-legs are blown up to 24 times their actual size, which is not a pleasant sight. The same can be said for the giant model of a malarial mosquito, which does not increase my affection for that species. Teddy Roosevelt played a part in educating the public about the role mosquitos play in spreading malaria, since he had to deal with the disease when overseeing the Panama Canal.
When we leave this hall, we enter yet another of the museum’s grand entrance spaces. This is named, appropriately enough, the Grand Gallery. It is most famous for the hanging Great Canoe, made by the peoples of the Pacific Northwest. Carved from a single tree, this enormous boat can hold a dozen people and is suitable for use in ocean waves. The front features an exquisite painting of a killer whale. When I was a boy, I normally entered the museum here. At the time the canoe was filled with the plastic figures of Native Americans; and I would look at these mannequins with a kind of uncomprehending terror, since I could not figure out what those men were doing. The museum has since refurbished the canoe and removed the figures, hanging it higher so as to make the decoration more visible.
There are still other treasures to be found in this gallery. In one corner is a glass containing an ammonite fossil. This are extinct mollusks which looked like squids living in a spiral shell. This particular ammonite happened to fossilize under high pressure, which resulted in it being an iridescent rainbow. Nearby is a magnificent stibnite: a metallic crystal formed from antimony and sulfur. These crystals form themselves into a collection of jagged silver spikes all sprouting from a central core. A nearby child compared it to a porcupine.
The Grand Gallery normally leads to the Northwest Coast Hall; but it is currently closed for renovation. This hall is the oldest continued exhibit space in the museum, having been opened in 1900. The peoples of the Pacific Northwest are known throughout the world for the high quality of their visual art, including the iconic totem pole. This hall contained a great many of these poles, among other art, which made it one of the museum’s more beautiful spaces. Much of this was collected by the pioneering anthropologist, Franz Boas, during the famed Jesup North Pacific Expedition of 1897 – 1902. The current renovations are yet another example of the museum’s attempt to confront its past: updating the information to reflect how these cultures wish to be represented, rather than how anthropologists represented them 100 years ago.
The Grand Gallery also leads into the equally grand Hall of Human Origins. Opened in 1921, this hall was the first exhibit about the controversial topic of human evolution in the United States. The hall still performs this admirable task, teaching visitors about the evolutionary past of our own species. The visitor is first confronted with three skeletons, one of a modern human, one of a chimpanzee (our closest living relative), and one of a Neanderthal (our nearest extinct cousin). On the wall there are models of various primates, with their genetic similarity to humans shown underneath. Chimpanzees are nearly identical, with 99% similarity.
A major highlight are casts of famous human ancestor fossils, including Turkana Boy and Lucy. (I myself studied human evolution in the Turkana Basin, so it is always gratifying to see the plaque about the region.) There is also a reproduction of the Laetoli Footprints—imprints preserved in volcanic ash 3.5 million years ago, showing clear evidence of bipedalism—and a diorama of the what the two australopithecus may have looked like as they walked across the ashy plain (the male with his arm snuggly around his mate). There are also scenes representing the life of early humans, building shelters out of mammoth bones or being ambushed by giant hyenas. It was a tough life back in the paleolithic.
After moving through the Hall of Human Origins, you come to the Hall of Meteorites. This is most notable for containing a large chunk of the Cape York Meteorite. It is unknown when this iron meteorite struck the earth (near Cape York, in Greenland), though it was likely thousands if not millions of years ago. The original meteorite broke up into three large pieces, which were used by the Inuit living nearby to make iron tools. For decades Westerners searched for the mysterious source of iron (not easy to come by in the arctic), until Robert Peary, the explorer, finally found the meteorites and arranged for them to be transported and sold to the AMNH (likely without compensating the Inuit). The fragment displayed is so heavy that the foundations for the platform had to be built down to the bedrock below. It’s an awfully big rock.
The Hall of Meteorites normally leads to the Hall of Gems and Minerals. However, this hall is closed for renovations at the moment, which does not surprise me, since every time I visited the hall struck me as looking decidedly retro. The angular, geometrical design of the room (which appropriately mirrors that of a crystal) was praised highly when it was opened in the 1970s; but nowadays it looks very similar to how Kubrick imagined the future would be, in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nevertheless, this is one of the most beautiful corners of the museum. The glass displays, arranged throughout the room, are filled with gleaming stones—gems which reflect and refract light in a thousand distinct ways.
(Visit here to see photos of the original gallery and concept drawings for the new gallery.)
This hall has a colorful history. Whenever I visit, I think that the hall looks like the kind of place Lex Luther would rob in order to get some kryptonite. Other people have had similar thoughts, it seems. In 1964, Jack Roland Murphy (“Murph the Surf”), with two accomplices, snuck into the museum and stole some of its most famous pieces: the Eagle Diamond, the DeLong Star Ruby, and the Star of India sapphire (all donated to the museum by J.P. Morgan). The thieves were eventually caught, and the jewels found and returned to the museum—the Star of India was found in a bus station foot locker—with the notable exception of the Eagle Diamond, which was likely cut into smaller pieces and sold. (Murph the Surf was later convicted for murder; in prison he became a minister and was released early; he is currently the vice president of the International Network of Prison Ministries.)
We have gone to the very end of the museum, but we have still left out one of the museum’s most notable wings: the Rose Center for Earth and Space. Opened in 2000 (so I did not see it as a child) this is the newest part of the museum, and it shows. The space-age design features a massive central sphere enclosed in a glass cube. The new Hayden planetarium is housed within this sphere, where visitors can see shows projected on the upper dome. Neil deGrasse Tyson is the first and, so far, the only director of the Rose Center; and he narrates many of the astronomical shows.
Below this “cosmic cathedral” (as the designer called it) is the Hall of the Universe. Here you can find information about stars, planets, galaxies, and the moon, all displayed on sleek metallic panels. There are scales that tell you what your weight would be on Mars and the Moon (in pounds, which requires a conversion for non-American visitors). In one clear glass case there is a self-contained ecosystem of algae and tiny shrimp—a microcosm that represents the macrocosm of earth. A curving walkway that leads away from the planetarium takes the visitor through the entire history of the universe, from the big bang to the present day.
The star of the hall is the Willamette Meteorite. This is another iron meteorite, yet it looks strikingly different from the Cape York Meteorite. Its surface is pockmarked—I believe from centuries of weather erosion. The rock has been on earth a long time. Possibly the core of an early proto-planet, smashed to smithereens in a cosmic collision, this meteorite struck earth thousands of years ago (but we have yet to be able to find the impact sight). It was found in Oregon, but it was likely moved by expanding and receding glaciers. As with the Cape York Meteorite, the Willamette Meteorite was taken without the consent of the native peoples who had long known about it. This led to a lawsuit, in 1999, by the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon, demanding the return of the rock (which had been in the museum for nearly 100 years by then). Luckily, the AMNH reached a deal that allowed it to keep the meteorite.
Adjoining the Hall of the Universe is the Hall of Planet Earth, devoted to geology. This gallery has accomplished the difficult job of rendering geology visible, tactile, and immediate. The space is filled with models of geological formations, many of which can be touched. These slices of earth help to illustrate the normally invisible processes below the surface which have shaped our planet—the slow churning of the continental plates, the effects of receding glaciers and running water, the volcanic explosions which hurl up new land from the depths. The hall also has a section devoted to climate change, which features an ice core (a piece of ice formed over thousands of years) which the visitor can “read” by moving a monitor over different sections, thus revealing how the climate has changed.
From what I observed, children love the Rose Center for Earth and Space. Everywhere I looked young kids were reading, looking, touching, laughing, and in general having a great time. To me this represents an accomplishment of a high order. Making whales and dinosaurs accessible to children is straightforward; but to make accessible the abstract theories of physics, the slow processes of geology, and the distant threat of global climate change—this calls for subtlety and skill, and the designers of this hall have accomplished their task with brilliance.
Now we must get to an elevator and ascend from the bottom to the top floor. We have dallied in the museum for a good, long time, and it will close soon, so we had better get to the spectacular fossil rooms on the fourth floor.
The proper place to begin is on the Orientation Hall. Here the visitor can see a video that explains some background of evolution and cladistics (making evolutionary trees). But the visitor will likely have difficulty focusing on this video, since in 2016 the museum added an enormous dinosaur to the room. This is the Titanosaur, a massive, long-necked sauropod whose form dominates the space. From tail to head, the animal stretches 119 feet (or 32 meters); and in life it likely weighed well over 60 tons (an adult elephant, by comparison, weighs about one-tenth as much). The size of these animals is simply staggering—especially considering that they began life in an egg scarcely bigger than that of an ostrich. How much vegetation did one of these have to eat in a day in order to survive?
The fossil rooms make a closed circuit, so the visitor can go in any direction. The most logical direction to go in, however, is to begin with the Hall of Vertebrate Origins—since this way the galleries are chronological.
From the perspective of biology, the Hall of Vertebrate Origins is likely the most fascinating hall of fossils, even if it lacks any of the spectacular specimens of later eons. We can see examples of the first vertebrates, on sea, on land, and in the air. One of the more memorable fossils on display are the jaws of the extinct Megalodon, a shark that lived millions of years ago, and which grew several times larger than today’s great white shark. The tremendous and terrifying jaws, hanging from the ceiling, dwarf even the bite of a Tyrannosaur. Nearby hangs a model of the Dunkleosteus, an armored fish that lived many hundreds of millions of years before the Megalodon, and which likely was major predator of its day. Further on is a Pterosaur, a member of the first known vertebrates to have achieved flight. (Commonly called dinosaurs, the Pterosaurs were closely related but technically not dinosaurs. Also, the term “Pterodactyl” only refers to one subgroup of the Pterosaurs.)
These three examples only touch on the immense biological richness in this hall. For anyone hoping to better understand the history of life on our planet, their time will be well spent in close examinations of the specimens on display. The museum also offers computer booths that allow visitors to scroll through various evolutionary trees and learn more about different species.
We now come to one of the museum’s most spectacular spaces: the Hall of the Saurischian Dinosaurs. Now, Dinosaurs are typically split into two large evolutionary groups, the Ornithiscia and the Saurischia. The latter includes all carnivorous dinosaurs as well as sauropods (and birds, the only living dinosaur group). This means that this gallery includes the famous Tyrannosaur. Even when manifestly dead, the Tyrannosaur has a commanding presence. The mere thought of it being alive is enough to cause goose bumps. And this predator—one of the largest to have ever walked the earth—was likely even more terrifying than we normally think. According to the paleontologist Stephen Brusette, Tyrannosaurus was highly intelligent, had excellent vision, and likely lived and hunted in packs. One of them is frightening enough; imagine a gaggle of T. Rex. And to think that this fearsome creature began its life no bigger than a chicken.
Across from the Tyrannosaur is another museum favorite, the Apatosaurus (sometimes called the Brontosaurus). This is a sauropod, somewhat smaller than the Titanosaur in the other room, but still large enough to make even the Tyrannosaur look petite by comparison. Another fearsome predator on display is the Allosaurus, a carnivore somewhat smaller than Tyrannosaurus that lived several million years earlier, which was an apex predator in its own epoch. This Allosaur is bending over to scrape some meat off of a fresh carcass. One less flashy specimen on display is the skull of a velociraptor (which, despite its portrayal in Jurassic Park, was about the size of a turkey).
Next we come to the Hall of the Ornithischian dinosaurs. This group does not contain quite as many star dinosaurs as the other hall, but it will not disappoint. Here can be found one of the museum’s most important specimens, a mummy of a duck-billed dinosaur. Unlike in the vast majority of dinosaur remains, here we do not only have the skeleton, but the skin of the ancient animal. This has allowed scientists to get a much better idea of what the scales of a dinosaur were like. Also on display is a Stegosaurus, famous for its small brain, spiked tail, and a back covered in vertical plates (whose purpose is still debated). My personal favorite, however, is the Triceratops, an herbivore that lived alongside T. rex and was one of its principal foes. Powerfully built, with a three-pronged horn and a protective ridge, hunting these beasts must have been no easy matter.
I am always moved by the dinosaurs. They were magnificent animals, many of them so far beyond the range of size and power that we can find among today’s land mammals and reptiles. That such a diverse group of powerful beasts could go entirely extinct from a chance event—a meteoric bolt from the blue—cannot but remind us of our own precarious existence. Indeed, these chance catastrophes play a disturbingly crucial role in the history of life on our planet. Dinosaurs themselves would never have become so dominant if not for the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event (possibly caused by volcanic activity), which eliminated much of their competition. And the mammals would never have been able to emerge as the current dominant life form if not for the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, which eliminated every one of these creatures (except for birds), thus leaving the stage set for us. But how long will we last?
The next hall focuses on the early history of our own clan, the mammals. The further back one goes in evolution, the mudier become the distinctions between distinct lineages. Thus, some of the fossils on display in the Hall of Primitive Mammals do not strike us as mammals—and in fact are not, only early relatives. Into this class falls the Dimetrodon, a sail-backed cuadroped that looks far more reptilian to my eyes than anything resembling a house cat. But a close examination of its skull reveals the tell-tale opening behind its eye socket, leaving a bony arch which scientists have decided constitutes the defining mark of a new class of animal, the Synapsids, which includes mammals.
The Hall of Primitive Mammals is notable for the mammal island—a large array of fossil specimens that illustrate the range of mammalian diversity. By any measure, we mammals are an immensely diverse lot, having populated the land, sea, and air, occupying all sorts of niches, and ranging in size from a large insect (the smallest bat) to the biggest animal ever to exist (the blue whale). Amid this sea of variety we find the Glyptodont, an extinct relative of the armadillo, far larger and far more heavily armored. The face of this fossil preserves a sense of the patient drudgery which must have characterized this poor beast’s life, as it dragged its heavy shell through the landscape. The saber-toothed cat led a more exciting, if not more successful, life thousands of years ago, as did the lumbering cave bear. But the most terrifying skeleton of all may belong to the Lestodon, an enormous ground sloth whose gaping nose socket seems to look at you like a cyclops.
Finally we come to the Hall of Advanced Mammals, which features species more recently extinct (many of which died off during the great megafauna extinction 10,000 years ago). Here we can see a large array of specimens that illustrate the evolution of horses, growing up from dainty things the size of dogs up into the stallions of today (though, as often happens with evolution, this progress was not always linear). At the end of the hall we see extinct relatives of the elephant. One is the mastodon, which is about the size and build of a modern elephant, if slightly stockier. This nearly complete fossil skeleton was found in New York—amazing to consider.
Standing a head taller is the Mammoth, a much closer relative of the elephant that went extinct not too long ago, while the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations were well under way. It is massive, of nearly dinosaurian proportions, with tusks that curve so tightly inward that it seems they would have been useless for defense. (Scientists are now playing with the idea of using DNA from frozen mammoth remains to bring them back. I wish them luck.)
By now, you must be exhausted. Museum fatigue has set in, and you can no longer concentrate on or even enjoy what you are seeing. This is inevitable at the American Museum of Natural History. There is just way too much. I have already written far, far more than I planned to, and there is still so much of the museum left to explore. I have left out the Hall of Reptiles and Amphibians, the Hall of North American Birds, and the Hall of Primates. And that is not all. The museum has huge exhibits devoted to cultural anthropology. Aside from the aforementioned Northwest Coast Hall, there is the Hall of Asian Peoples, the Hall of African Peoples, the Hall of Mexico and Central America, and the Hall of South American Peoples.
And here I must add a note of criticism. It says a great deal that a museum of natural history would include exclusively non-Western cultures. Admittedly, this is largely a historical artifact of the time when the study of “primitive” living peoples was grouped with the study of human evolution and primate behavior in the discipline of “anthropology.” This grouping obviously reflected cultural and racial biases of the original founders of the field. But we have moved far beyond that, and now it seems discordant and strange to walk through, say, the Hall of Asian Peoples. How could a single hall, however well-made, encompass the enormous history and diversity of the Middle East, Central Asian, Southeastern Asia, and East Asia? Even encompassing the traditions of China alone would require a museum for itself. Not only that, but the cultural halls generally have a dark and dingy aspect, as if they have been left unchanged for decades.
So it is my hope that the museum soon refurbishes, not just the Northwest Coast Hall, but all of the cultural halls—taking into account not only advances in our understanding, but how the cultures themselves would like to be represented. Judging by the progress that the museum is already making in this respect, I think that the future looks bright.
What more can I say about the Museum of Natural History? I have already said more than I planned to, and yet it scarcely seems enough. My visits to the museum had a fundamental influence on me. My shifting interests throughout my childhood and adulthood—in marine biology, chemistry, physics, botany, human evolution, and human cultures—have virtually tracked the floor plan of the museum. From an early age, I have been possessed with a desire to collect, catalogue, and display—an urge which I am sure owes much to this place. Beyond its importance in my life, however, I see the Museum of Natural History as a model institution for the coming ages, as something much needed in our society, even as a kind of secular church for the new age: capable of appealing to the mind and to the emotions. I hope that every child may feel the wonder I felt, and still feel, at both the universe around us and the intelligence within, which has allowed us to know something of this universe.
By common consent, the richest man in modern history was John D. Rockefeller. At his peak he was worth at least three times more than the world’s current richest man, Jeff Bezos—over $300 billion to Bezos’s $112 billion. In a world before income taxes or antitrust laws, it was possible to amass fortunes which (one hopes) would be impossible today. Strangely, however, this living embodiment of Mammon did not have extravagant tastes. To the contrary, for a man of such unlimited resources Rockefeller was known for his simple, even puritanical, ways. According to Ron Chernow, a recent biographer, Rockefeller had a habit of buying homes and keeping the original decoration, even if it was absurdly out of keeping with his own taste, just to avoid an unnecessary expense.
Thus when John decided to buy a property near his brother William’s estate (Rockwood), near the Hudson River, he simply stayed in the pre-existing houses. (William’s Rockwood mansion has since been torn down, but the property has been transformed into a wonderful park.) The spot Rockefeller chose occupies the highest point in the Pocantico Hills overlooking the Hudson; it is named Kykuit from the Dutch word kijkuit, which means “lookout.” Likely enough Rockefeller would have been satisfied indefinitely with a fairly modest dwelling, had not his loyal son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., decided to take charge of a manor house to be built for his father.
Junior and his wife, Abby Aldrich, set to work on an ambitious, architecturally eclectic design. They worried about every detail, as they knew how exacting and finicky the paterfamilias could be; the planning and construction took six painstaking years; the couple even took the precaution of sleeping in every room in the house, just to be sure that it was perfect. Nevertheless, John the father was unsatisfied; and he could not conceal his dissatisfaction. He was disturbed, for example, that the servants’ door was right underneath his bedroom window, so he could hear it clapping all day. Eventually (and doubtless to his son’s dismay) Rockefeller concluded that the house needed to be completely remodeled; and thus the current, Classical Revival form of the house came into being.
(An amateur landscape designer, Rockefeller was also dissatisfied with the work of Frederick Law Olmsted, whom you may remember as the designer of Central Park. Senior decided to do the landscaping himself.)
As in Sunnyside, tours are given by the Historic Hudson Valley. But you cannot go directly to the Kykuit property. To visit, you must buy a ticket in the gift shop of Philipsburg Manor, another historic site (a 17th century farm) in Sleepy Hollow, right across from the Cemetery. After you sign up for a tour, you board a small bus, which transports you on the 10 minute ride to the property. A cheesy informational audio clip plays during the trip, giving some brief background information about the family and the property. This sets the scene for the tour guide. I have, incidentally, heard that the content of the tour can vary significantly depending on the guide’s interests.
As the bus rolls in, through the gates and beyond the walls—passing by a “play house” still used by the Rockefeller family (many of whom still live somewhere on the massive estate)—one gets a sense of the private, exclusive, and isolated world inhabited by the world’s richest man. Widely known and, for a time, almost universally hated, Rockefeller needed to create his own refuge. My favorite detail was the tunnel underneath the mansion that was used to make deliveries without disturbing Rockefeller’s rest.
The bus deposited us in front of the house, near an impressive Oceanus fountain, copied from a fountain in Florence. Ivy crawls up the stone facade, all the way up to the neoclassical tympanum. An eagle crowns the top, displaying the family crest. From there the guide led us up onto the porch, where two strikingly modern statues stand flank the doorway. This is a constant feature in Kykuit: the juxtaposition between classic and contemporary tastes. John D. Rockefeller himself had very little taste in art, conservative or otherwise; his son, Junior, was enamored of the past—Greek, Medieval, even classical Chinese. Meanwhile, Junior’s wife, Abby, and his son, Nelson, were important patrons of modern art. Thus the house is an, at times, uneasy incorporation of these divergent tastes.
As a case in point, there are beautiful examples of Chinese porcelain on display throughout the house, protected by plexiglass cases. (The guide explained the glass was installed to protect them from playing children.) In a room used by Nelson Rockefeller there is also the vice-presidential flag, commemorating his term under Gerald Ford. Nelson wanted to be president himself, and he had the experience to do it—he was the governor of New york from 1959-72—but according to Ron Chernow, his divorce made him an unpalatable candidate. (How times have changed!) There were also portraits of the Rockefellers, and a phenomenal bust of the bald, decrepit, and yet mesmerizing John D. Rockefeller Senior—whom I was excited to meet, since I had just read a book about him.
After this, our guide led us into the gardens. The most notable feature of these are the modernist statues scattered about—gruesome metal bodies amid neat hedgerows. Unsurprising for such a commanding spot, the view is excellent. On a tolerably clear day you can see all the way to Manhattan from the back porch. I imagined lounging on an easy chair, sipping some very posh drink—for some reason a mint julep comes to mind—and contemplating the Hudson. But of course the Rockefellers were Baptist stock, and teetotallers all, so the drink is pure fantasy. Beyond view (and beyond the scope of the tour) was the reversible nine-hole golf course that Rockefeller used with Baptist scrupulousness; after God and Mammon, golf was his top priority. Likely Rockefeller Senior would have been shocked and appalled by the massive modernist statue (resembling an alien squid) that was airdropped by helicopter into place on the property during his grandson’s tenure.
Then we made our way inside to visit the art gallery in the basement. This includes original works by many modern artist, the most famous being Andy Warhol; but the best works on display are undoubtedly the Picasso tapestries. These were commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller, to be made by Madame de la Baume Dürrbach, for the purpose of making his works easier to display. The biggest of these tapestries was a copy of Guernica, now on display at the United Nations building. Of the ones in this private gallery, my favorite is of Picasso’s Three Musicians (the original hangs in the MoMA). Even when I toured Kykuit as a child, tired, hungry, and very bored with all this old-people nonsense, I was impressed that a person could have Picassos in his basement; and my opinion has not changed.
To speed through the tour somewhat, we eventually boarded the bus again to go back to Philipsburg Manor. However, we did stop at the stables on the way back, which was filled with antique horse carriages and old luxury automobiles. In addition to being an avid golfer, you see, Rockefeller Senior also loved to go riding in his carriage and, in later life, to take fast drives in his fancy cars. (A strange detail from the biography is that, in later life, the upright and conservative Rockefeller would grope women during these rides. He was a man of many contradictions.)
This fairly well sums up my visit to Kykuit. It is an impressive place—six floors, forty rooms, and twenty bedrooms. Even so, considering Rockefeller’s vast fortune, and considering the kinds of monstrous mansions that other rich families—most notoriously the Vanderbilts—built for themselves, it is a restrained edifice. One can see the old Baptist tastes coming through, even amid all this wealth and splendor. Even so, I cannot imagine living in such a private world, so far removed from pesky neighbors and city noise. But the Rockefellers apparently had no trouble with the house. Nelson Rockefeller lived in it up until his death in 1979, when it was donated for use as a museum.
Before ending this post, I should also mention two nearby Rockefeller monuments.
The first is the Union Church. This is one of two non-denominational churches (the other being Riverside Church in Manhattan) commissioned by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. It is an attractive and modest building, made of cut stone with a steeply slanting roof. Though the church does have an active congregation, most of the time its main use is as a tourist attraction, also administered by Historic Hudson Valley. The church is notable for its stained glass. The rose window was designed by the modernist pioneer Henri Matisse; according to the guide (I was the only one on the “tour”), it was the last work the artist ever completed. It is a simple, abstract pattern, yet subtly interesting to look at. More memorable, however, is the series of stained-glass windows completed by Marc Chagall, using Biblical scenes to commemorate deceased members of the Rockefeller family. Though I am normally not greatly fond of Chagall’s work, I must say that the strong, simple colors of Chagall’s windows created a pleasant—if not exactly religious—atmosphere.
The second Rockefeller institution is Stone Barns, a center for sustainable agriculture established by David Rockefeller (Junior’s youngest son). (Sharing the Rockefeller talent for long life, David passed away just last year, at the age of 101.) The center lies on the edge of the Rockefeller State Park, alongside Bedford Road, surrounded on all sides by rolling farmland. It is a very pleasant place for a stroll. The buildings of the complex are completed in a style reminiscent of Union Church, as well as of the Cloisters museum in Manhattan: deep-grey cut stone. The farm is dedicated to growing high-quality produce and livestock without using anything “artificial.” Some of its products are served in the famous Blue Hill restaurant on the property—a place so absurdly fancy and expensive that, judging by the way things are going, I doubt I will ever get an opportunity to try. The menu, which costs $258 per person, consists of many different courses of artisanal dishes using esoteric ingredients. I have bought cheaper transatlantic plane tickets.
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Washington Irving haunts my corner of Westchester like a beneficent ghoul. As a quintessential New Yorker, and the first American writer to gain international prominence, he left monuments to his memory scattered about everywhere. In my native town of Sleepy Hollow, he is inescapable: our municipal statue, our high school football team, and our most famous landmark, the cemetery—not to mention postcards, ghost tours, haunted hayrides, and all our other identifying symbols. Irving was clearly a generous person, as he donated his own name to the town next door, Irvington, where his house still remains as a tourist attraction.
In the grand scheme of the universe, Sunnyside is quite close to my own domicile. Yet when, like me, you lack a car; and also, like myself, you enjoy walking places, the journey can take a long while. Luckily the walk there is very pleasant, since Sunnyside is right next to the Aqueduct trail that extends from NYC all the way to Croton. The path took me through the heart of Tarrytown, across Route 9, and then past Lyndhurst mansion—another historic Hudson home, an extravagant neo-gothic castle once owned by Jay Gould. After that I passed by a large property owned by the Belvedere Family Community (otherwise known as Unificationists), who have chosen this picturesque spot to bring about world peace.
By the time I reached Sunnyside I was tired and very sweaty. But paying customers, even smelly ones, are seldom turned away. Sunnyside is run by the Historic Hudson Valley, an organization which administers several other sites along the river (such as the subject of my next post, Kykuit). To visit you must sign up for a guided tour, which you do in the gift shop (as you are conveniently surrounded by overpriced books and paraphernalia); the price is a little more then $20. As I waited for the tour to start, I was tempted to buy a copy of Irving’s History of New York, his breakthrough piece of social satire; but I remembered I already have a copy on my Kindle. For all its social ills, technology does occasionally save us from gift-shop prices.
In minutes, the tour commenced. Our pleasant guide, who was dressed in period costume, took us to our first stop: a ripe old sycamore tree, planted in the heart of the property. It has been growing there since 1776—respectably middle-aged for a tree but not exactly venerable. Our guide then directed our attention to the property itself. Apparently Irving was an amateur gardener and landscape designer, and helped to mold his property according to his romantic tastes. Here there are no French gardens, with neat hedgerows and grid-like walking paths, but something more akin to the English Gardens in Munich: a blend of planning and nature.
Of course, the property was originally much nicer, since it extended all the way to the Hudson River. But when the Hudson Line railroad was completed in 1849, it cut off his property from the water; and I cannot imagine the country-loving writer had much affection for the noisy, screeching, fuming locomotives chugging before his windows. Even today, the whooshing of the Metro-North disturbs the peace of this hitherto isolated spot. In fairness, the Metro-North has compensated by naming a few of their train cars after the famous writer and his creations—Headless Horseman, Knickerbocker, Ichabod Crane, Rip Van Winkle, and so on. I should also note that the observant rider on the Hudson Line can catch a glimpse of Sunnyside between the Irvington and Tarrytown stations, somewhat south of the Tappan Zee Bridge.
The building of Sunnyside itself is arrestingly modest—indeed, hardly bigger than my own suburban home. Its exterior bears the whimsical and fanciful humor of its maker. Most obvious is the Dutch stepped-gable, which shows how fascinated Irving was with the original Dutch inhabitants of this region. (His most famous characters, and even his own pseudonym, Knickerbocker, bear testimony to this interest.) On the river-facing side of the house he put the date 1656—a date which only roughly corresponds to the first cottages build on this land by Dutch settlers (in the 1690s), and which shows Irving’s love for mixing fact and fiction heedlessly together (as he did in his history of New York and his biography of Columbus). And last we come to the so-called Spanish tower, whose sharply swooping roof is modeled after Spanish golden age architecture (such as the El Escorial). Irving, you see, spent a good many years in Spain as the American ambassador (I cannot even escape him here!), so he was naturally interested in Iberian architectural styles.
My memory of the interior is necessarily more vague, since you cannot take pictures. In any case, there are few surprises—a study filled with books, a living room with a piano for social events, a bedroom (where Irving happened to die), and so on. My favorite object on display was a little watercolor, apparently by Irving himself, depicting his legendary meeting, as a boy, with his namesake George Washington. (According to our guide, it cannot be determined whether this meeting actually took place.)
Irving had little more than twenty years to enjoy his cottage, from its construction in 1835 to his own demise (he died of a heart attack in the bedroom upstairs) in 1859; and this was interrupted by his long stay in Spain. Though he chose the spot for its picturesque isolation, considering it a kind of writerly escape from the noise of Manhattan, he seldom had peace: besides the railroads, he had to contend with many visitors, both invited and uninvited. If we had to look for a modern parallel to the fame Irving enjoyed, we would have to choose a figure such as Stephen King or George R.R. Martin. Both he and his house were a sort of American monument, gracing the covers of magazines and attracting tourists. Besides this public attention, the bachelor Irving shared his house with his brother Peter, and Peter’s daughters, whom had fallen on hard times. Irving’s very presence transformed this country escape into a center of American culture.
There is little more to add. After Irving’s death the family lived on in the house for several generations, only finally parting with it in 1945. For its preservation we must thank a man who is quickly becoming one of the heroes of this blog: John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who bought up the house and turned it into a museum. For any lovers of literature or history in the Hudson Valley, it is well worth a visit.
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.