Sunday, April 25, 2010

New York Historical Society

3/6/2010, Saturday 

MUSEUMS: New York Historical Society .....
TIME:  3 hrs 
COST:  Normally $12 each, but free this week.

Paul here:  On the day we went to the New York Historical Society, we were not planning on spending a lot of time at museums.  We actually had a few errands to run on the Upper West Side- primarily getting my coffee supplies at Zabars, who in my opinion roasts the best coffee in North America (  Yes, after 7 years of living in Seattle, I still maintain that an east coast medium roast is a better tasting cup of coffee than the dark bitter roasts of the est coast.  But I digress. 

The intention was to pick a single smallish museum in the Upper West side and then shop.  The NYHS seemed like a logical choice. Not only was it perceived to be on the smaller side, but during the week of Presidents Day in February it was free. So we hopped in the car and drove down to the city, a 20 minute drive.  Normally, we have pretty good luck parking in the upper west side, but today that was not the case.  After driving around for about 45 minutes we finally were forced to use a parking garage, much to Pauline’s (and our wallet’s) dismay. 

As we walked to the NYHS, I think it dawned on us that really, the NYHS was only small in comparison to the Natural History Museum next to it.  The NYHS is 4 stories of neoclassical hugeness that fills half a city block, and there was a lot of activity today.  Lots of people were taking advantage of the free admission.  As we made our way through the crowd we picked up a map and an audioguide for each of us.  Really, one thing we learned about during this project is: always get an audioguide. 

The NYHS is the one of the, if not the, oldest museums in the city of New York.  Founded in 1804, its holdings cover four centuries of American history, and include one of the world’s greatest collections of American historical artifacts, American art and documentation of the history of the United States as seen through the prism of New York City and State. 

The first exhibition we saw covered Abraham Lincoln and his relationship with the city of New York during his rise to power until his assaination (  At that time, New York City was the biggest and most important city in the Union, and the State of New York was the most important state. Starting with his Cooper Union address in 1860, the exhibition showed the complex relationship he had with the powerful in the city.  The exhibit also demonstrated how attitudes towards Mr. Lincoln changed as the civil war evolved, as well as positions on the draft, Habeas Corpus and slavery.  The rise of the anti-Lincoln copperheads, the draft riots and his death and martyrdom were all addressed.  There were many different displays, ranging from original letters and documents by Lincoln, political cartoons from the era (cleverly deconstructed to better understand the meanings), and multimedia exhibits.  There were even people dressed in period costumes representing the first African American military companies.  As someone who has been somewhat passionate about this era of American History, I thought it was fascinating, but Pauline thought it was overly wordy and a bit long.  (Pauline here: I thought it was insanely detailed and focused on people like Paul who obsess over historical minutiae like how railway stock was affected in each stage of the civil war, and there was no place to sit while Paul attempted to puzzle out 150 year old handwritting in letters debating the best building for Lincoln to give a speech in NYC.  Yawn...)

Next, we went up to the top floor to check out the Luce Center for the Study of American Culture.  Boy, were we surprised at this collection.  One of the first things that came to mind was that they should change the name of the society to “The New York Packrat Society”!!!!   This floor is a treasure trove of nearly 40,000 artifacts crammed into a space that feels like a cross between an enormous attic and the storage warehouse in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”.  Every nook and cranny of this floor was filled with stuff, all arranged haphazardly: a chair that Napoleon once sat on was located beneath shelves displaying old election buttons, between a full sized horse carriage and a display of old glass bottles, across from an enormous marble statue of an Indian head with full feathered headdress. Every wall was covered in paintings, every floor space crowded with furniture and shelving, and all the shelving packed to bursting with odd random things, like hundreds of complete sets of silverware, Washington's camp bed at Valley Forge, 911 artifacts, hundreds of ashtrays, children’s toys, police badges, and even plastic knickknacks from the 20th century.  It was amazing and overwhelming.

One of the things that stood out was the Tiffany lamp collection. It came from a single couple: Dr. Egon Neustadt and his wife Hildegard.  They began their collection in 1935 with the purchase of a Tiffany desk lamp and from there Dr. Neustadt's interest in Tiffany shades and bases became all-consuming and he became one of the earliest serious collectors of Tiffany lamps, eventually cramming 135 lamps into a single East Village apartment. They left the entire collection to the NYHS in 1985, and they occupy a very colorful corner of the exhibit space.

In addition to the fascinating display of the Luce center, this floor had even more exhibits, including an exhibit on slavery in NYC, a section of paintings about the city and history of NY, and a small but impressive display of Audubon’s watercolors of birds.  As cramped and oddly arranged as it was, this floor was quirky and fascinating, and one of our favorite displays to date.  It took well over an hour, and we could have been there even longer if we had not run out of time. 

We saw two other exhibits in the museum. One was one of the nation's premiere collections of eighteenth-century American portraits. Essentially a small group of native-born painters and European émigrés painted the elite colonial New York society developing a flat, stiff style that was both derivative of the European schools, but unique to the colonies. Neither Pauline nor I found this to be particularly compelling, but portraits often leave me cold.

The other exhibit was one of the first major American art movements, the Hudson River School (NYHS collection of Hudson River School paintings.).  The Hudson River School embraced a romanticized style of naturalist paintings that was extremely popular in the 19th century, producing some of the most evocative and dramatic images of nature ever seen, and serving as an early pro-America propaganda.  The NYHS has more than 100 paintings in its collection by well known artists of the movement, such as Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, John F. Kensett, Jasper F. Cropsey and Albert Bierstadt, all displayed together in an enormous cavern of a room and they make a pretty astounding impression, and defiantly worth seeing.

All in all, this was a great way to spend 3 hours. We did not intend to spend that kind of time here, and it didn’t leave us much time to run errands, but this was a museum that took us by surprise and it was time well spent. 

Images in this post, from the top: Ki-On-Twog-Ky (also known as Cornplanter) 1796 by F. Bartoli; Proposed coat of arms for New Amsterdam, New Netherland, drawing for presentation to the Dutch West India Company, c 1630; bust of Abraham Lincoln; Oak Renaissance Revival armchair made of timber from George Washington's New York City residence, decorated with the seals of New York and a bust of Washington, presented to the NYHS in 1857 for the use of the president of the society; NYC police badge and manacles; part of the display of Tiffany lamps at the Luce Center; Dragonfly Table Lamp, c. 1900-1906, designed by Clara Driscoll, Tiffany Studios; Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) 1825 by John James Audubon; California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) 1838 by John James Audubon; Autumn Woods, 1886 by Albert Bierstadt; medal of the Free Masons 1920.


  1. There was a time when the Smithsonian was called the nation's attic, but they have quite literally cleaned up their act (or should I say, their attic). But if this museum needed to raise money, what a garage sale it could stage! I think we saw examples of the Hudson River school of painting on our trip up the Hudson, but I can't recall any names of artists. (Aside to Blair: try Starbuck's shade-grown coffees from Mexico or Guatemala.) - Mike

  2. I can understand wanting to own one Tiffany lamp. I can understand wanting to own three. But deciding to collect hundreds? I wonder what their house looked like before they donated all those lamps to the museum!