Tuesday, July 27, 2010

7th Regiment Armory Conservancy / Asia Society

5/21/2010, Friday (continued): 

Asia Society and Museum ………………..... 30 min

Seventh Regiment Armory Conservancy …. $12 each
Asia Society and Museum ……................… $10, but free after 6 on Friday
When we were making the list of museums in New York City for this project, we found most museums easily enough.  Most had reasonable P.R. and made the lists on New York Parks and Recreation or tourist information sites.  But during our travels we’ve found a few museums not mentioned in any guide.  We’ve come to call these the “hidden museums of New York,” known only to locals and a select few in the arts crowd. 

The Seventh Regiment Armory Conservancy (called “the Armory” by those in the know) is one of these hidden museums.  We discovered it through an article about the artist who exhibited there this month, but if I hadn’t read the arts section of the newspaper that day, we would have walked right by it today.  Which is actually a bit ironic, as the Armory is gigantic.  It takes up an entire city block on the Upper East Side, and its 55,000 square foot drill hall is among the largest interior spaces in NYC, just shy of Grand Central Station.

As you might expect from an unpublicized museum, the Armory is an odd duck: part military museum, part historic Gilded Age men’s club, and part exhibit hall for ultra modern performance art.  I am confident that no where else in the world can you walk through 6 inch thick armored oak doors and iron portcullis, past a stuffed eagle and a mounted moose head sitting next to a restored gatling gun lit by a nearby Tiffany stained glass window to see a 25 foot pile of laundry being picked up and dropped repeatedly by an 80 foot orange crane.  Yet that is exactly what we did today.  It’s going to be hard to top this one for bizarre museum experiences.

As with any place (or person) with this much quirkiness and character, the Armory has quite a past and has served a hodgepodge of rolls, as everything from a drill hall to indoor tennis courts to a synagogue.  It was originally built between 1877 and 1881 for the Seventh Regiment of the National Guard, State of New York.  This regiment was formed in 1806 to protect the city, after British frigates blockading New York Harbor fired at passing vessels.  It saw some action quelling riots in 1849 and helped with city fire fighting, but after NYC formed its own police and fire departments the regiment became largely ceremonial, serving as an honor guard and participating in civic events such as the inauguration of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883 and the Statue of Liberty in 1886.

As a ceremonial guard, the regiment morphed into an elite men’s club for the sons of the city's wealthiest Gilded Age families, acquiring the nickname “Silk Stocking Regiment.”  Vanderbilts, Van Rensselaers, Roosevelts, Tiffanys, Stewarts and Livingstons all served here, and it was the immense wealth of these families that built the Armory we see today; the only armory in the United States built and furnished entirely with private funds.  And it took a lot of funds indeed.  The building itself was designed by Charles W. Clinton, the premier Gothic revivalist and designer of the famed Astor Hotel, and a veteran of the regiment himself.  He designed the exterior as a mock medieval fortress with brick crenellations, musket ports, arrow slits and a central tower. 

Inside, the club areas are lavish, designed by the era’s most prominent artists such as Louis Comfort Tiffany and Stanford White, and have been called “the single most important collection of 19th century interiors to survive intact in one building” by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.  These rooms are undergoing a long restoration process, but wandering around in them is free and we highly recommend it.  Apparently two of the rooms are the only known Tiffany interiors to survive intact, and all of them are gorgeous even in their semi-neglected state.  If you squint your eyes as you wander you feel as if you can spy the shimmer of glamorous gowns and hear the clink of champagne glasses in some long ago cocktail party of New York’s storied past.

To raise money for the restoration, the Armory’s massive drill hall is rented out as an event and art space.  It's been used for Shakespeare festivals, operas, and most commonly, extremely large art installations.  While we were visiting we saw “No Man’s Land,” by Christian Boltanski, a performance art piece consisting of a 25-foot-high mound of used clothing, surrounded by a field of coats arranged in squares.  Every few minutes a five-story crane plucked a random piece of clothing from the top of the clothes pile, then released them to flop down haphazardly.  As we wandered among the clothes, we heard a ceaseless drum of heart beats emanating from poles at the corners of the squares.

Both Paul and I liked the exhibit.  I thought it was at least bizarre enough to be interesting, though I did come out of there wondering if I had let the laundry go too long again.  Paul loved it (as is usual for performance art) and saw it as a comment on the randomness of life: who gets chosen and who gets left behind.  Parts of the installation seemed designed to be reminiscent of a concentration camp, with a wall of numbers blocking off the entrance to the exhibit and rusty poles with low wires like fencing, although the meaning was vague enough to be open to interpretation and the people wandering the exhibit didn’t seem sure of how to take it.  Despite its size, the space felt claustrophobic, with narrow paths and low hanging lights, and dozens of heartbeats surrounding you from all sides.  Paul stood in line at an ersatz doctor’s office to get his heartbeat recorded for the exhibit, and even talked me into doing it.  Now our heartbeats will be preserved together in a permanent archive (Les Archives du Coeur) on an island off the coast of Japan.  I guess its kind of romantic, in a weird artsy sort of way.  (Paul knows its romantic in a weird artsy sort of way.)

The next museum was the Asia Society, a global organization “working to strengthen relationships and promote understanding among the people, leaders, and institutions of the United States and Asia.”  Our impression was that this organization was really more society than museum, as the gallery space was modest and much of the building closed off into what appeared to be conference space.  Looking online, the Asia Society has a full lecture schedule and seems focused on business development, with talk titles like “Why One Loves to Hate Globalization,” “Hong Kong’s Political Reforms: What Lies Ahead?,” and “Doing Business with Japan: Perspective of Australian Companies.”  Oddly, during our visit we couldn’t get a good grasp on what the goals and purpose of the society actually were, and it seemed somewhat mysterious.  Paul wonders what shadowy organizations really run the place, and what are they up to?

The art of the society is based around John D. Rockefeller’s exquisite collection of 280 Asian artifacts, which are displayed and interpreted in a variety of exhibits year round.  Today’s exhibit was “Pilgrimage and Buddhist Art,” focusing on objects from or about the major sites of Buddhist pilgrimages.  Unfortunately, the exhibits weren’t well explained, and we had to attempt to eavesdrop on a tour guide in a noisy gallery to make much sense of it.  Essentially, it looked like a lot of very similar looking Buddha statues to us

Our take on things: We found the Armory to be one of the hidden gems of NYC, well worth a look, both for the lovely designs of a by-gone era, and bizarre large-scale modern art installations.  The Asia Society seemed more focused on business than art, but might be worth a look, particularly if you go on a Friday evening when its free (as we did).  Otherwise, for the same 10 dollars, we might recommend seeing the Rubin Museum instead, with its much more extensive, varied and better explained collection of Buddhist art.

Images in this post: “No Man’s Land,” by Christian Boltanski, in the Armory drill hall; pictures of the interiors of the Seventh Regiment Armory Conservancy, including stuffed eagle, stained glass window, ceiling detail, paneling detail, and a room in the armory; two close ups of “No Man’s Land,” by Christian Boltansk; Asia Society logo on exterior of the building; Buddha Shakyamuni, Tibet 11th century; Buddha Shakyamuni with Kneeling Worshippers, Myanmar/Burma 14-15th century; Buddha Shakyamuni, India, Bihar, 9-10th century.


  1. It's amazing what constitutes a museum: an old armory on very expensive NYC real estate, a "resthome" in the Bronx, a book binders club! Your descriptions continue to entertain and enlighten me. I wonder if "silk stocking regiment" was a name used by the regiment itself or by other jealous regiments? Imagine having a clubroom designed by Tiffany! Lynn

  2. I really enjoy your descriptions because they can always be depended on for an evocative turn of phrase. In this write up, that turn of phrase was "If you squint your eyes as you wander..." - it really helped place me in the room, so to speak.

  3. I always wondered what that building was- now I'll have to actually go inside. Thanks for the tip! And I agree that the Rubin is a much more rewarding experience than the Asia Society, which I remember was underwhelming. My Japanophile friends spoke highly of their programs, though.
    Anyway, this blog is terrific, keep the posts coming.