New-York Historical Society collection
I LIKE TO USE the last week of the year to catch up with friends I haven’t seen enough of, and museums I’ve been meaning to get to. It was a combination of those two things that took me today to the recently, spectacularly renovated New-York Historical Society on Central Park West and 77th Street, which re-opened in November after a three-year, $65million renovation. The museum, long-known for its collection of Hudson River School and Audobon bird paintings, has just made a giant leap into the 21st century.
A new wall of glass at the entry opens immediately into a lobby gallery with some of the institution’s most impressive holdings. One that struck me immediately was the large-scale painting, above, Francis Guy’s Tontine Coffee House, ca. 1797 (as my friend Barbara said, the Starbucks of its day). It’s a view of Wall Street, where stockbrokers would gather in coffee houses before the establishment of the NYSE. You can also get an up-close look at the pistols – the actual pistols – used by Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton.
Some of the major works in the lobby gallery are supplemented by pillars supporting oversized touchscreens — the best museum labels ever. You tap live links, and new windows open up with further information.
New-York Historical Society/Jon Wallen
Of the nine exhibitions simultaneously going on now, the blockbuster is Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn, mainly about the late 18th century revolt in Haiti, a struggle against slavery as well as the French. I knew nothing about it, and am now sadder but wiser.
We also took in Making American Taste, painting and sculpture (often kitschy) of the Victorian era that is emphatically not my taste, but was of the founders and early donors to the NYHS, which was established in 1804; Freedom Now, photographs by Platon of now-elderly civil rights leaders; and Beauties of the Gilded Age, miniature portraits of society women from Edith Wharton’s day. We didn’t even get to many of the other exhibitions (Santa Claus, Hanukkah, 9/11), or to the children’s gallery, or to see those Audobon paintings, a few at a time on rotating exhibit.
We peeked into the sumptuous library, above, with its Ionic columns and newly restored stained glass panels from 1908, but couldn’t view the tempting glass cases within. We would have had to go back downstairs and check our bags and coats and we were anxious to catch a screening of ‘New York Story,’ a split-screen extravaganza that tells the story of the city from its beginnings to the present day in 18 stirring minutes.
But honestly? The highlight may have been lunch in Caffe Storico, above, the light, bright, high-ceilinged space encircled with cabinets stocked with china from the museum’s collection, cleverly solving a storage and decorating problem at once. The food, by Stephen Starr of Moromoto and Buddakan fame, is Venice-inspired (salads, pastas, panini) and delicious.
The new N-YHS is not a museum of New York City history (that one’s on the other side of the park). It’s a museum of American history seen through the lens of New York City. And it’s definitely more than a one-visit kind of place.