Sunday, February 27, 2011

Frick Museum: 5th Avenue and 70th Street

If you are a fan of Rembrandt (they currently have both the Self-Portrait of 1658 (see right) and the The Polish Rider on display plus an extensive collection of sketches and etchings for a special exhibition) or Vermeer (recently re-famous for the portrait of the Girl with the Pearl Earring a la the movie with Scarlet Johannson), then the Frick Museum is for you (  What is unique about this museum is that it was built as a luxurious private home with plans to convert the home into a public museum.  The art is not organized by era, style, or artist.  The collection is displayed as it was during Henry Clay Frick's lifetime, and it is extraordinarily grand and homey at the same time (you are welcome to sit on chairs and benches that look like they could be part of the collection, so long as they are not roped off). 

As you go through the mansion, you can't help but feel privileged to be able to wander through this mansion and enjoy all the paintings (mostly portraits and landscapes), decorative furniture (much of it designed by Andre Charles Boulle, cabinet maker for Louis XIV at Versailles), and Florentine bronze sculptures. There are a couple of rooms that have completely encompassing, panels painted with idyllic scenes of romance and children exploring the arts and sciences.  The iconic Jean-Honore Fragonard (see left) and Francois Boucher rooms are masterpieces of 18th century French art, and just being in them takes you back in time with a sense of how nobility must have lived.

I visited the museum today, a Sunday, when the museum is open on a "pay what you wish" basis from 11-1p.  Otherwise admittance for adults is $18, $12 for seniors, and $5 for students.  I think that it would have been very tranquil if there weren't so many people crowded around.  If you are on a budget, visiting on a Sunday makes sense, but if you can spare it, other times may be more pleasurable.  In any event, I would definitely recommend using the free self-directed audio guides, which not only provide insights and histories about the art and artists but also detail stories about the subjects in many of the art pieces, as well as watching the film about the life of Henry Clay Frick (who came from a working class family with little formal education to become a titan of industry in coke as well as a great collector of quality art) that they show every half hour.  Both resources bring the collection to life.

St. John the Divine: Amsterdam Ave and 112th Street

St. John the Divine, w/ Partially Completed South Bell Tower
WOW!  All I can say is that everyone should take the time to go up to St. John the Divine for their "Vertical Tour" (purchase tickets at  After visiting St. Patrick's Cathedral earlier in the week, I thought, "Why am I trekking all the way up to St. John the Divine?"  But was I ever glad that I did.  There is no experience quite like it.

First off, the cathedral is the largest cathedral in the world (yes, larger than St. Patrick's, which is only the largest Catholic cathedral in the U.S.), so the Gothic arches are spectacular and the stained glass windows (most from the 1930s) were plentiful and beautiful (see above, left and right photos).  Each of the 14 themed bays with these windows depict predictable religious and very unusual secular images honoring professions like communications (with a TV!), medicine, arts (with Poet's Corner stone plaques honoring the likes of Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, and Gertrude Stein), and sports.

Secondly, the cathedral has some very distinguished art.  The front doors (3 tons each, 18' high and 6' wide) are cast, with scenes from the Old and New Testaments, by the same company, Barbedienne of Paris, that cast the Statue of Liberty.  There are art pieces ranging from the rare Barberini tapestries from the 17th century, the Guastavino roof tiles (similar to the ones in the lower level of Grand Central by the whispering arches--see my post on Grand Central) in the domed roof of the "temporary" crossing, and a white gold triptych by Keith Haring in 1989 (the last work he created before his death in 1990) (see above right). 

Then there is the 40' in diameter Great Rose window (the largest in the U.S.) above the front doors (see left).  My photo doesn't do it justice, but needless to say, it is really breathtaking.  Even the central nave (see right) and the flanking aisles are awe inspiring with their sheer height, appearing to reach toward the heavens with their long thin lines that seem too delicate to support such high domed ceilings.

Oh, but I haven't even gotten to the Vertical Tour--so distracted recalling all the general fabulousness of the cathedral.  You can take one of the many general tours that are offered (both self-guided and guided) (see, but if you can manage walking up 12 stories worth of narrow spiraling stairs, you should really try to schedule in the Vertical Tour ($15 for adults and $12 for seniors and students).  You will not be disappointed.

View from Outside of Flying Buttress
As you climb up, you take several stops, going out on the flying buttresses (see below left photo taken from the flying buttress), standing on the mid-level passageway, standing on a landing between the domed roof and the steel supported protective outer roof, and the finally standing on the outside of the top roof with fantastic views of Morningside Heights all the way down to the Empire State Building (see above right).  There is really nothing quite like this tour.  You get a chance to see the beautiful stained glass windows at eye level (look back at the photos above), look through hand crafted flower "portals" about 100' above ground level (see below), and really get to appreciate the grandeur of the cathedral's Gothic arches in a way that is not possible from the floor of the cathedral. 

Hand Carved Wooden Choir Seats
View of Main Altar in Romanesque Style
I should also spend a little time addressing the older, original eastern part of the cathedral, which was done in the Byzantine-Romanesque style.  This part of the cathedral (which includes the choir area (see below left), the main altar (see below right), and the 7 chapels) was started in 1892 by the architectural firm of Heins and LaFarge and wasn't completed until 1911.  The rest of the cathedral was re-designed in the Gothic style by Ralph Adams but even the central nave wasn't completed until 1941 (one week before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which again stopped construction).  The south bell tower was started again in the 1970s but was not completed and there are no current plans for the completion of that tower, the north tower, or the transept (the "arms of the cross" part of the cathedral)--you can see the rough hewn nature of the "temporary" stonework in the crossing portion of the cathedral, which is also quite interesting to compare against the finer stonework of the cathedral.

I will let you discover the rest of this magnificent NYC site for yourselves, but will post some additional photos with captions (below) to share the rest of my memorable visit in brief.  I think what this cathedral needs is a great benefactor like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or Oprah (or all of them) to complete the remaining 1/3 of the cathedral.  In the meantime, PLEASE visit this cathedral and support the congregation of only about 200 (the cathedral could seat over 4,000).  Enjoy!

North Side Aisle by Central Nave

View of South Side Aisle from Interior Arm of Flying Buttress

Intersection of Bay and Nave from Interior Arm of Flying Buttress

View of Cathedral Close with Peace Fountain

View from Roof of Decorative Spires and Unfinished South Bell Tower

Altar in Main Eastern Most Chapel, St. Saviour

Intricately Carved Altar and Stained Glass in St. James Chapel

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Merchant's House: East 4th Street btwn Bowery and Lafayette

The Merchant's House was built in the Greek Revival style in 1832 as New York City's affluent was moving north (away from the masses and commercial downtown) to the fashionable Bond Street area in what is now the area between Bleeker and Astor Place.  Seabury Tredwell, who made his fortune importing hardware from England, and his wife, Eliza, moved their seven children, two boys and five girls, into the red-brick and white-marble row house (see right) in 1835.  In 1840, the eighth child, Gertrude, was born in the house.  After Seabury passed away in 1865, the four unmarried daughters stayed in the house with their mother, Eliza.  Gertrude Tredwell (the last surviving member of the immediate family) passed away in the street-facing 2nd floor bedroom in 1933 at the age of 93.  In 1936, the house was made into a museum and restored to the way it was when Seabury Tredwell was alive. 

It is quite amazing that this home has been preserved virtually intact, with all of the furnishings and personal belongings (the museum has 39 Tredwell ladies' dresses, although none are currently on display due to restoration projects) of the Tredwells.  Folks can visit the house and see the authentic antiques for a mere $10 ($5 for seniors or students) (  When you enter the foyer, a docent greets you and offers you a binder filled with detailed descriptions of the artifacts and history of the home so that you can enjoy a self-guided tour. 

You are instructed to go to the lower level to visit the more private family sitting/dining room and kitchen of the home.  The binder information describes the furnishings, cooking, and the work of the 4 Irish maids that lived in the attic level of the house (not normally open to visitors, but will be on certain days; check the website).  You get an intimate view of what life might have been like in the 19th century in NYC.  Then after a short side visit to the garden, you are guided back to the main floor.  From the front main floor parlor with the rosewood pianoforte (between the harpsichord and the piano in history) (see above left) that signaled the Tredwell's gentility and probably provided hours of entertainment for the Tredwells and their guests, to the original chandeliers in both parlors with their ornate plaster surrounds (see right), just walking around the house takes you back in time. 

Then you can walk up to the 2nd level of the house where you see Eliza Tredwell's back bedroom room with her original bed (see left), the metal bathtub and sick bed (for children who might be ill) (see right), and the porcelain wash basin and pitcher for "sponge baths."  There is also a writing desk with what looks like original correspondence on top and examples of commodes in the pass through to Seabury Tredwell's bedroom (it was customary back then for husbands and wives to have separate bedrooms). 

Unfortunately, the home's upper level children's bedrooms and the top floor maid's quarters are not open to visitors, except on select days (e.g., the week of St. Patricks Day the Irish maid's quarters will be opened).  However, even with the limited access, the authenticity and completeness of the home's furnishings make this house worth a visit.  This house is NYC's only 19th century home preserved virtually in tact, and just having the opportunity to be see the whole house in its historic splendor is really special.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Central Synagogue: Lexington and 55th Street

The Moorish Revival style structure of Central Synagogue in midtown has always been of interest to me, as it is so different from everything else around it and not the typical Gothic style cathedral (see my post about St. Patrick's Cathedral and my posts later this week about Trinity Church and St. John the Divine) that is so prevalent throughout NYC.  It's red sandstone exterior and green copper-sheathed wood spheres at the top of the two towers (references to King Solomon's Temple) are quite eye-catching (see left).

The synagogue offers free docent-led tours every Wednesday at 12:45 pm (  Central Synagogue, formed from the merger in 1898 of Shar HaShomayim (meaning Gate of Heaven), founded in 1839 by German Jews, and Ahawath Chesed (meaning Love of Mercy), founded in 1846 by Bohemian Jews.  Its name was changed to Central Synagogue in 1920 symbolizing not only its location, but also its change to Reform Judaism.  Today, Central Synagogue is the center of Reform Judaism in the U.S. and has over 7,000 members.

The docent was a welcoming older lady who obviously really loved the synagogue and work and devotion that takes place there.  She told us about the history of the building, first designed and constructed by Henry Fernbach (one of America's first Jewish architects) in 1872 (taking 2 years to build), but which suffered 2 fires (one in 1992 and the second in 1998).  Reconstruction according to the original plans took 3 years, and while some things are new, there are several notable original pieces like the solid wooden front doors, most of the English floor tiles, and the ark at the bimah (altar).  All the stained glass visible from the sanctuary are beautiful (see the rose window flanked by the organ pipes, above right), but newer, and the only 2 original stained glass windows are on the north side of the building and visible only from the exterior.

I am not religious, but when the docent invited us up to the bimah (see right) opened the ark to reveal the background tapestry by Laurie Gross and the various Torah scrolls with their covers and told us about how one of the covers was saved from the holocaust (see left, the one with the star of David), I had an emotional reaction.  She also told us about how the restoration after the second fire revealed 3 stained glass skylights directly above the bimah that had previously been painted over.

The docent next took us up to the organ and allowed us to sit in the balcony.  This gave us a closer perspective to the stained glass windows, the magnificent organ and the stunning Moorish arches (see below) that frame the upper pews, which unlike in orthodox synagogues are not delegated to women (men and women always sat together, which was a daring innovation when the synagogue was first built). 

Finally the tour ended with a visit below the sanctuary to the reception room, the atrium and the fully functioning modern kitchen (before the kitchen was built after the second fire, congregants used a few hotplates to serve up to 350 homeless people breakfast twice a week).  This off the beaten track historical site is definitely worth a visit, doubly so if you can catch the guided tour.

St. Patrick's Cathedral: 51st Street and 5th Avenue

St. Patrick's Cathedral offers by appointment only tours for 10 or more but not for individuals (probably too many would be interested and be too infringing on the practicing Catholics worshiping in the cathedral?) (to schedule a group tour, contact Roberta Shea at 212-355-2749 x409 or

When in 1850 New York became an archdiocese and Bishop John Hughes became an archbishop, he decided that a larger northern cathedral was needed to properly represent the increasing numbers, intelligence and wealth of the Catholic population in New York.  At the time, most people thought his ambitions were a "follly," as the area where the cathedral was planned was mostly wilderness, but Archbishop Hughes' prescience correctly predicted that one day this location would be in the heart of the City.  Renowned architect James Renwick was commissioned in 1853, the first stone was laid in 1858, and the cathedral was consecrated in 1911 (when it was estimated that to that point about $4 million had been spent).  The gothic style cathedral is clad in white marble but the City pollution makes it much darker (see photos above).

Northern Aisle
Northeast Crossing of Axis and Transept
This is the largest gothic style Catholic cathedral in the U.S. and although tourists abound, there is a quiet calm about the place.  Like most traditional cathedrals, the structure of St. Patricks Cathedral is in the shape of a cross, with a central east-west nave (see below left), side aisles (see above left), and a crossing transept forming the "arms" of the cross (see above right).

Central Nave
Front Door of Central Portal
The architecture and the stained glass windows (esp. the rose window on the west side) are absolutely spectacular, and even though I am not religious, the architectural detail and overall grandeur (and perhaps all the praying Catholics) instill a sense of awe.

While I would have preferred a guided tour that I am sure would have enriched this visit even more, I was glad that I took the time to really look at all the alters (each dedicated to one or more saints), The Lady Chapel (which was light and beautiful), and the amazing 20,000 lb. bronze west facing front doors (see above right).

Yes, there are a lot of Gothic style churches are plentiful in NYC, but really, this is a special place that is worth a visit.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Guggenheim Museum: 5th Ave and 89th St


The NYC Guggenheim Museum's permanent collection is not really to my taste, but I was starting to feel a little embarrassed that after over 8 years of living in NYC I had never been there.  So this morning I made the trek to the beautiful Frank Lloyd Wright-designed museum at 10 am when it opened to check out what I had been missing (see the museum website for hours, admission, etc.:  I would strongly recommend that folks either visit this museum on weekdays or right as the museum opens--it gets crowded fast.

While the building architecture is really stunning to look at (it has been in innumerable movies) (see above right and below), the acoustics are horrible and the exhibition space is rather limited due to the central spiraling ramp.  The Guggenheim collection is so much larger than the display space that the exhibitions are frequently rotated and routinely the spiraling ramp is closed off for installations so visitors have to take the back stairs or the elevators.  I would have been very annoyed if that had been the case after I paid my $18 entrance fee.  Luckily everything was opened about a week ago and the museum's unique features were at their best.

Included in the regular entrance fee (and if $18 per person is too rich for your blood, check out the "pay what you want" evening visiting times), is a self-directed audio tour.  The installation is set up to go from bottom to top, but if you want to avoid the crowds (and relieve yourself from the "climb"), you may want to consider taking the elevator up to the top floor (7th) and viewing the art on the way down.  Not all the artwork have audio descriptions, but those that do have clear headphone illustrated signage and a corresponding number so I found going from top to bottom was more pleasant and easy enough to follow along on the audio tour.

I would also highly recommend going on the guided tour (offered 3 times a day starting by the information booth in the lobby).  Basically the docent has pre-selected 2-3 pieces to take the group to and leads a discussion about the works.  Not being a big fan of modern/cubist/non-objective art, I thought this might be a little tiresome, but I found it very informative and really interesting.  We discussed Paul Cezanne's "Man with Crossed Arms" (ca 1899)--noticing the beginnings of cubist perspectives, Frantisek Kupka's "Planes by Colors, Large Nude" (ca 1909-10)--noting the use of colors to illustrate feelings or auras, and Fernand Leger's "Nude Model in the Studio" (ca 1912-13) (see right, yeah, neither the docent nor any of us on the tour saw a nude in this either).  The docent also noted that today, February 19th, was the birthday of Constantin Brancusi, as we passed the sculpture of "Muse on Oak Base" (ca 1912).

The museum has a great collection of works by Kandinsky (on Level 3 by the cafe), and currently has a collection of videos sponsored by Deutsche Bank under the name "Found in Translation."  I liked the Kandinsky collection on display, but did not think much of the video art.  If you want to see the current exhibit online, you can check out  From there, you may be able to decide if the then-current exhibition is one in which you would be interested.

Finally, I would like to note that the museum is not really designed for visitor comfort.  There is a severe shortage of benches and with few windows, there is little room for taking a respite from the crowds.  Museum fatigue can set in pretty quickly so I would recommend wearing comfortable shoes, taking advantage of the free coat check, bringing a snack or two to munch on in the cafe (don't be surprised if every stool in the cafe is taken), and maybe even taking a break in the windowless reading room that has furniture made by Richard Meier.  Overall, I think the collection is magnificent for what it is, but I don't think I'll be visiting again, unless it is in the evening at a discount.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Central Park

The Pond with peek a boo view of Gapstow Bridge
A Central Park audio tour is available for free download from  There is a short ad for the Jumeirah Essex House Hotel at the start (they funded the creation of the audio tour), but other than that, the whole tour is really an interesting detailed description of the history and highlights of Central Park (originally designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux) from Central Park South up to about 79th Street and back down.

I have enjoyed the Park innumerable times (I used to live a couple of blocks from the Park back in the late 90s) but this tour taught me about many of the sights that I had previously not thought much about and taken for granted. For instance, there are magnificent statues at Artists' Gate, which is at Central Park South and 6th Avenue/Avenue of the Americas of three great liberators of South America (appropriately at the head of Avenue of the Americas), Jose de San Martin, Simon Bolivar (above right), and Jose Julian Marti Perez (above left). With the weather unseasonably warm yesterday (reaching the low 60s), I jumped at the chance to take this 2+ hour tour (there is a shorter family version available as well).

I was amazed to find that the 5+ acre zoo houses over 130 species ranging from polar bears and California seals (see right) to tarantulas.  I was also lucky to catch the playing of the Delacorte Musical Clock (which plays one of 26 tunes every half and whole hour from 8 am to 5 pm); granted this is not much of a show for adults, but may be fun for young kids (whose special area of the zoo lies just beyond).

I followed the tour next to the famous statue of Balto, the Siberian Husky that led the final leg of the relay of sled dog teams that saved Nome, AK from a diphtheria epidemic in 1925 by traveling almost a thousand miles through white-out blizzard conditions.  Once can see various portions of the statue are well worn and shiny from the innumerable hands that have petted this dog or rode on his back for a photo.

I won't go on in too much more detail, except to provide photos (and identifying captions) several other highlights of the Park that the audio tour explained.  If you have the time and stamina, (and the weather is cooperative), I would recommend you take the tour and learn about things like like the 121 countries endorsing Strawberry Fields as a garden of peace in honor of John Lennon, who was shot outside his home at the Dakota (just west of the Park); the obelisk (the oldest object in the Park with a questionable acquisition); the dairy (established to provide safe milk for the children of NYC); and the Bethesda Terrace and Fountain (which commemorates the completion of the Croton Aqueduct, which was hoped would prevent the continued spread of infectious diseases that was plaguing the City) (see right).

Alice in Wonderland Statue

The Obelisk, located behind The Met Museum
The Dairy, built in 1870 in the Victorian Gothic style
Belvedere Castle, where NYC temperatures are recorded
Wollman Rink, built in 1949, now operated by Trump

Giant bubble man, usually by Bethesda Terrace or The Mall
Bow Bridge, cast iron bridge often in Woody Allen movies