Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Arsenal: 5th Ave and 64th St

Muralist Allen Saalburg painting front lobby in 1936
I've walked by the Arsenal in Central Park numerous times and never really gave it much thought until yesterday, when I attended a class there.  The Arsenal has a diverse past and has numerous present functions (check out Arsenal History for more info).

As you might imagine from the name, the Arsenal was first built (overseen by then-comptroller and later President Millard Fillmore) as a repository for munitions in the early 1850s by the State of New York. Within a few years of completion, it was taken over by the City as an administrative building.  Over the years, the Arsenal functioned as, among other things, a police precinct, the American Museum of Natural History (before that was constructed on the Upper West Side), a menagerie (with gifts/loans from the likes of P.T. Barnum and General William Tecumseh Sherman (whose bust is at Grant's Tomb--see my prior post on Grant's Tomb for a photo)), and weather bureau (now at Belvedere Castle--see my prior post on Central Park for more info). 

Lobby Mural at Present
But by the early 1920s the Arsenal was in disrepair and considered a blight on the City and Central Park.  After a 2 year renovation, which was followed by another in the mid 1930s (see photo above and at right--then and now), the Arsenal became command central to Commissioner Robert Moses who expanded the parks system to an unprecedented level (parks acreage increased 3 fold during his terms, which ended in 1960).

The Arsenal is currently the home to the City of New York/Parks & Recreation, the City Parks Foundation, the Historic House Trust, the New York Wildlife Conservation Society, the Parks Library, and the Arsenal Gallery.  Whew!  That's a lot of functions.  Unfortunately, the Arsenal is looking a little "administratively seedy" again, but hopefully it will get more visitors and folks will feel inspired to restore it (like the Armory just a few blocks away--please see my prior post on the Armory)

Since the early 1980s, the central room on the third floor of the building has been used as an austere gallery. Eight to ten exhibitions of art or photography are mounted annually.  Currently there is a photo exhibit of Chinese artist/dissident, Ai Weiwei, who was incarcerated on April 3, 2011 for questioning accepted national beliefs.  See photo at left of the artist with his Dog Head sculpture, part of his "Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads" that questions the differences between what is real and what is fake and subtly questions China's national identity.  I haven't gotten a chance to go by there yet, but the sculptures are supposed to be at the Pulitzer Fountain 5 blocks south of the Arsenal (in front of the Plaza Hotel).  I'm looking forward to getting a chance to see this art up close.  Another benefit of living in NYC...amazing art accessible to the public everywhere!

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