Billy Collins “Snow Day” Illustrated

                                 Snow Day by Billy Collins

Today we woke up to a revolution of snow,
its white flag waving over everything,
the landscape vanished,
not a single mouse to punctuate the blankness,
and beyond these windows

the government buildings smothered,
schools and libraries buried, the post office lost
under the noiseless drift,
the paths of trains softly blocked,
the world fallen under this falling.

In a while I will put on some boots
and step out like someone walking in water,
and the dog will porpoise through the drifts,
and I will shake a laden branch,
sending a cold shower down on us both.

But for now I am a willing prisoner in this house,
a sympathizer with the anarchic cause of snow.
I will make a pot of tea
and listen to the plastic radio on the counter,
as glad as anyone to hear the news.

that the Kiddie Corner School is closed,
the Ding-Dong School, closed,
the All Aboard Children’s School, closed,
the Hi-Ho Nursery School closed,
along with — some will be delighted to hear –

the Toadstool School, the Little School,
Little Sparrows Nursery School,
Little Stars Pre-school, Peas and Carrots Day School,
and Tom Thumb Child Center, all closed,
and — clap your hands — the Peanuts Play School.

So this is where the children hide all day,
These are the nests where they letter and draw,
where they put on their bright miniature jackets,
all darting and climbing and sliding,
all but the few girls whispering by the fence.

And now I am listening hard
in the grandiose silence of the snow,
trying to hear what those three girls are plotting,
what riot is afoot,
which small queen is about to be brought down.

(Billy Collins, “Snow Day” from Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems (New York: Random House, 2001). Copyright © 2001 by Billy Collins.)

A Holy Experiment: Plymouth Meeting and Evansburg Historic Districts

“I deplore two principles in religion, obedience upon authority without conviction and destroying them that differ with me for Christ’ sake.”                                                                                                                                                    William Penn, (1644-1718) founder and Proprietor of Pennsylvania Colony

Plymouth Meeting Friends (Quakers) 1702
Joshua Dickenson Farmstead, 1720, Underground Railroad safe house, Plymouth Meeting

William Penn not only wished his colony to be a refuge for fellow Quakers but for all people – even Jews, unheard of in the 17th century. As a businessman, he intended that Pennsylvania would prosper to the benefit of all landholders. Land grants were made to a number of families within what is today Philadelphia and the four surrounding counties of Bucks, Montgomery, Chester and Delaware.  A road system was planned as early as 1683 connecting the new townships to the city creating the best and most extensive systems of its day. Germantown Avenue/Pike extended from Philadelphia – today’s historic square mile Old City –  linking important communities  such as Northern Liberties, Germantown, Chestnut Hill, Plymouth Meeting, Evansburg and Collegeville.

limekilns at Plymouth Meeting, PA mid-1800’s

Mennonites, Amish, Methodist, Presbyterians, Anglicans and Baptist all flocked to the new colony. The abundance of fertile land, water power, quarry and limestone brought the promised prosperity. German farmers brought the technology of burning limestone in kilns into powder that fertilized the farmland. Yet would the same groups that may have been both persecutor and persecuted during Europe’s interminable religious upheavals cooperate to govern the new towns? Would the “holy experiment” work?

Norriton Presbyterian Church 1698
Evansburg United Methodist Church 1836

Evansburg was a very early 1700’s planned community in religious cooperation. Although Plymouth Meeting (1702) served the needs of area Quakers, The 1698 Norriton Presbyterian Church is one of the oldest churches anywhere in Pennsylvania. The beautiful tiny stone structure is surrounded by an American Revolutionary cemetery. The new building for the congregation is next door.

Society for the Propagation of the Gospel School House circa 1780’s
St. James Anglican Church’s Glebe House, 1737

Quakers do not believe in proselytizing their beliefs, yet there was no issue when St. James Episcopal (Anglican) Church, 1721, established the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. The above 1780’s building was a recreation of the 1721 log church. The cemetery holds a number of Revolutionary War soldiers who died in the Battle of Germantown. In 1838 the building became one of America’s first public school buildings. Today it’s the St. James Community History Center.

Their current 19th century St. James Church is across the street. Next door, at 3814 Germantown Pike, is the 1737 Glebe House. A “glebe house” was a self-supporting farm for the Anglican priests of the parish. St. James’ is one of the earliest existing glebe houses in the American Episcopal Church.

Stephen Rush House 1803 & Evansburg Inn 1803

Stephen Rush operated an Inn in his house (1803) and later purchased the Evansburg Inn. Stephen was related to Dr. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence. The Rush house is private today, but the former Evansburg Inn is still serving food and spirits as Osteria Restaurant, 3835 Germantown Pike.

Derrick Casselberry House 1734
Ann Casselberry House & Barn, 1798

The Casselberry family is one of many that can trace their ancestry back to the founding of Pennsylvania, but are among the few still living on their original land. Henry Casselberry emigrated from Germany in 1683 settling in Evansburg in 1729, towards the end of his life. His son Derrick created a prosperous farm with his inheritance and built a sizable house in 1734. Now owned by a non-profit, it is undergoing restoration. A generation later, his daughter-in-law, Ann, purchased an elegant 1798 plaster-over-stone house and barn. The house, and barn, just north on Evansburg Road off Germantown Pike, is still the home of the Casselberry family.

Heyser Homestead, 1742, private residence, includes original stone barn, kitchen house and smoke house.

 

The waterways of the region provided both transportation and power for dozens of mills throughout Penn’s colony.  Skippack Creek in Evansburg State Parkwhich is the southern boundary of the town, provided the “fuel” for 18th and early 19th century industry such as Keyser’s Mill, now maintained by the Park.

Keyser’s Mill, circa 1840

In 1792 an eight arch stone bridge on Germantown Pike was constructed over the creek. On the National Register of Historic Places, this bridge is still in use! It’s considered the oldest bridge of its size in America certified to support heavy traffic.

Skippack Creek Bridge, 1792

If Evansburg is an example, William Penn’s Holy Experiment continues to succeed.

A Social Conscience: La Mott Historic District

Philadelphia and its surrounding counties – Bucks, Montgomery, Chester and Delaware – were all part of the original land grant of Pennsylvania that William Penn received from King James II in the late 1600’s. Having alienated his famous father, Admiral Penn, by associating with that “radical religious cult,” the Society of Friends (Quakers), William took his inheritance to establish a utopia of free speech and social equality in the New World.

I grew up in historic Bucks County in the 1950/60’s when it had a population of 250,000  (over one-million in 2011) and there was so much open farmland I was always bored on a “dog-day” July afternoon because the world was so silent. It was a racially segregated society. There were some African-American families living in the county. Many worked on the large prosperous farms. My parents occasionally employed a local African-American resident (his family still lives in the area) to help around our 14-acres of (non-farm) land. He always had lunch with us, and he was always addressed as “Mr. …” - which was how we were taught to address adults. My parents were liberal Catholics. I was 11 years old when I lost my innocence concerning racial prejudice. An African-American farm-worker family enrolled their boys in our local Catholic school – the outcome was not pretty. I was shocked, horrified and puzzled at the racist reaction of my friends and their parents. The boys didn’t last long. It was the beginning, for me, of life-long realities.

In the 1860’s, Cheltenham Township, Montgomery County, consisted of large Quaker-owned farms. It became a favorite location for wealthy Colonial Philadelphians to establish country farm/estates. By the Civil War, 1860-1865, the area had attracted both the interest of wealthy investors and the Federal Army. Camp William Penn was created as the first, and only, Civil War training camp for Black soldiers. The site was deliberately chosen because, being within a Quaker community, there was less racial intolerance than within the city itself.

Lucretia Coffin Mott, born into a prominent New England Quaker family, settled in Philadelphia with her husband in the 1820’s and, with both their strong anti-slavery views, created one of the first anti-slavery societies in the country – as well as being a leader in women’s rights (Seneca Falls) and many other social issues. Her son-in-law, Edward M. Davis, was a wealthy Quaker who had a vast farm/estate in Cheltenham Township which she and her husband often retreated to when their home on 3rd. & Arch in the city became too frenetic. After the Civil War, Cheltenham became the focus of intense real estate development among wealthy Philadelphians – many non-Quakers: P.A.B. Widener,  William Luken Elkins, John Wanamaker. With Quaker influence, a unique development formed.

La Mott Historic District, (bottom left) AME Church 1911 (replaced original 1888 structure)

As these wealthy families built their own vast estates and developed such exclusive communities as Wyncote, Glenside and Elkins Park, the influence of the Davis and Mott families encouraged these non-Quaker millionaires to act with a social conscience. Davis and Mott set aside land from their estate for African-American families – many were workers on neighboring estates – to rent and own their own dwellings. In the 1890’s one of the first home owners was the butler to Mr. William Elkins. Architecturally, there is nothing interesting about La Mott. The houses are classic working class bungalows, row houses and twins that are found in all Northeast coast cities. Yet it’s the reality that such a neighborhood existed at all with the opportunity of home ownership in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that is remarkable.

Of course, African-American’s were still segregated, and employers were the wealthy white residents of the Township. Right next door to La Mott, separated by an enclosed iron gate, is the still exclusive Latham Park in Elkins Park. This mile-long private boulevard is lined with spectacular examples of upper-class architecture of the early 1900’s, including a stunning mid-century modern (1972) currently on the market for $625,000.

Latham Park, (bottom right) mid-century modern $625,000

Even given the obvious racial/class differentiation of the past – although today more than one Black family owns a Latham Park house –  La Mott Historic District represents a seminal social shift in American racial attitudes and is a prized symbol among Philadelphia’s Black community.

Simplicity…and maintenance? Oak Park Historic District

“Simplicity of life…is not a misery, but the very foundation of refinement; a sanded floor and whitewashed walls and the garden trees, and flowery meads, and living waters outside.”                                                                            

  William Morris (1834-1896) on the Arts and Crafts Movement

Oak Park Historic District, Lansdale, (Montgomery County) Pennsylvania

At the apex of Victorian excess in both architecture and interior design, a quiet revolution was brewing among British and American artists. Reacting to dehumanizing industrial life in the late 19th century, a back to nature and handmade crafts movement was born. Architecture opened up interior space and utilized hand worked wood, chiseled stone, brass, copper and glass to mimic the forms of nature. Many architectural styles became common place in America between 1900 – 1945: Craftsman bungalow, Ranch house, the Prairie School and Mission Revival. Even landscape design was affected moving away from formal gardens to recreating the country side or a rural village within an urban setting (Frederick Law Olmstead’s New York Central Park).

Lansdale, Pennsylvania

By the late 1800’s, Lansdale, Pennsylvania, was connected to Philadelphia by rail making both a commute and shipping profitable. Like many Montgomery County towns along the line, Lansdale prospered. The brick and wooden row houses, sturdy Four Square brick homes of the middle class and the stone mansions of business families are all laid out in the predictable grid pattern of most American towns.

Harry Richardson house, 1920's

In 1912, Harry Richardson, son of a prominent Lansdale businessman, purchased land on the west edge of town and laid out 36 lots for what was to be an Arts and Crafts Movement village, Oak Park. Entering through the gate with its two classic early 1900’s tile mosaics, the narrow winding streets curve around irregular lots covered with trees and plant life. Oak Park was not meant to be a “cookie cutter” development so no two houses are alike. Many were designed by local architects and built over a 30 year period, several of the earliest were designed and built by Harry Richardson. Nearly all are modest in size which was a tenant of the Craftsman Movement. Unfortunately, unlike Wyncote Historic District, there does not seem to have been, or is, an owners association – which is logical given the free-thinking of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Yet this has resulted in houses not remaining true to their original designs and, in some cases, very poor maintenance.

(left) Richardson's first bungalow, 1912 & (right) William Heebner bungalow, 1915

Two of the earliest homes in Oak Park, Richardson’s 1912 bungalow and William Heebner’s 1915 bungalow typify the ideal that Oak Park was to represent – modest dwellings amidst gardens and trees in a country village enjoyed by well-to-do families. Unfortunately these two historic bungalows are in need of major maintenance.

Walter Slifer's house: Dutch Colonial Revival, 1915

In pristine condition is the 1915 Dutch Colonial Revival that architect Walter Slifer built for his mother. Slifer took advantage of the abundance of local stone as well as the classic Craftsman’s use of wood shingles. Next door is a stunning Prairie School style house  designed by, unfortunately, an unknown architect. The Prairie style was perfected by Frank Lloyd Wright who in 1915 was at the peak of his success having designed many famous homes in that other Oak Park (Chicago suburb). This Oak Park house (picture below) is a classic Prairie style with its clean horizontal lines and understated decoration meant to compliment the clean lines of nature.

Prairie School house, 1915/1920

Harry Richardson wanted Oak Park to be a community of Craftsman bungalows and he basically succeeded with about one-third of the three dozen houses maintaining their structural and design integrity. The 1998 listing of Oak Park on the National Register of Historical Places will, hopefully, help preserve its architectural heritage.

Craftsman bungalows at Oak Park

Like many towns in the post-industrial Northeast, Lansdale went through a long period of economic decline which certainly discourages home maintenance. Fortunately, this decline began a reversal in the 1990’s and the town today sports many restored homes and commercial buildings covering the entire architectural history of Montgomery County since Colonial days.

Going to the ends of the Earth is fun, but I am rediscovering adventure in my own back yard.

School building as an Antiquity?

Abington Senior High School, Paul d'Entremont, AIA, mid-1950's

“I wish my buildings had all been made of stone,” the architect states.

“Why?” was my puzzled response .

“Because they’d last a thousand years…”

And the thought did trail off as this architect reminisced over lobster on his 80th birthday. One month later Paul d’Entremont, AIA (1908-1988), award-winning architect, passed away. In the intervening years I have seen a few of his, and his firm’s (Haag & d’Entremont), buildings go under the wreaking ball, but most of them remain.

Yet much to my surprise, one mile away from my home, the Abington Township School District complex of 50 acres was declared a historic site in 1985 by the National Register of Historic Places. The four structures are suppose to span a century of municipal architecture, 1875 – 1975,  but, unfortunately, due to nearsighted municipal decisions that is not true The largest of the four is the mid-century modern Abington Senior High School designed by my father and the only structure of architectural significance.

(upper left) 1960's western facade, (Upper right) 1950's gym sports complex, (bottom left) mid-1950's east facade, (lower right) west facade cafeteria

True, brick does not survive the years as well as chiseled stone, but then perhaps my father didn’t realize that National Historic Register designation is a preservative in its own right (he never talked about it).  After all, most of the Egyptian monuments were government built. Many of my dad’s were as well – suburban schools during the post-war boom of 1945 – 1970. Internationalism/Modernism of the 1930/1940’s was the artistic influence on my dad’s generation and his buildings expressed an exuberance in clean lines, bright open spaces and the latest technology in building materials.

A former Abington Township High School now Administration offices (1920/30's?)
Schwarzman Stadium

The National Historic designation specifically mentions the 1875 Huntingdon Junior High School, which, unfortunately, was demolished some decades prior to this designation. The complex today includes the 1920/1940/1970’s athletic complex, my father’s mid-century modern Senior High School and the ugly Abington Junior High School. It is a 50 acre complex of educational/institutional buildings on the same site that originally included the 1875 school. Otherwise, except for Paul d’Entremont’s building, there is nothing of design significance or any visible reason why it has National Historic designation.

Abington Junior High School (mid 1960's/1970's ?)

The youngest building is the Junior High School. I was not able to locate the name of the architect or construction dates despite an extensive search on the web, but perhaps that’s best. Looking at the building on a brilliantly sunny day with a blanket of white snow, the Junior High School resembled the worst in drab, gray institutional warehouse architecture. I find no pleasant lines within the structure. It’s design philosophy seems to be industrial effieiency - beginning with bus drop off.  The theatre entrance resembles the trash pick-up area of most municipal structures. It’s fitting to represent this late century trend in “no-frills” architecture although I see nothing of design value.

Set amidst comfortable Abington Township in Pennsylvania’s Montgomery County, this campus of four structures is certainly complimented, and softened, by the still leafy country side. My dad would be pleased.

Who Knew? Wyncote Historic District

Wyncote Historic District

 I travel to far away places to visit UNESCO World Heritage Sites and in the United States to experience regions of historic significance with little regard to the reality that National Historic Districts are, literally, in my back yard. Twenty-nine, to be exact, are within Montgomery County, Pennsylvania alone. The most recent addition, in 1986, is a 10 minute walk from my house.

The Wyncote Historic District does not honor any battles. It hasn’t particularly lived through any traumatic events – unless one counts the entire 20th century. It didn’t start as a community of hardship that developed into a national inspiration. Wyncote was a late 19th century Philadelphia suburban (semi) planned community for the wealthy. The Wyncote Historic District is a 108 acre area within Montgomery County’s Cheltenham Township ten miles north of downtown Philadelphia. Of the nearly 200 residential structures all but a handful were built between 1865 and 1934 – the golden age of Philadelphia’s industrial might – and designed by some of the leading names in architecture.

Angus Wade designs, 1890's

Prior to the 1850’s Cheltenham Township was a prosperous farming region consisting of land grants handed down by the Penn family in the 17th and 18th centuries. Even in colonial days, the area was a favored retreat from the city’s sweltering summers. Wealthy Philadelphians maintained country farm estates in this admittedly bucolic countryside or rented rooms and houses for the summer.  The construction of the railroad linking Philadelphia with the coal-producing regions of northern Pennsylvania induced newly wealthy entrepeneurs, such as the Widener, Elkins, Tyler families to purchase large tracts of land for the dual purpose of constructing country homes for themselves and selling subdivisions to their friends and others of their class.

Horace Trumbauer design, 1890's
Horace Trumbauer designs

By the 1890’s the Wyncote Improvement Association was formed to ensure building codes, minimum house costs and lot sizes.

All Hallow's Church, 1898, Frank Furness design
Jenkintown/Wyncote Station, Horace Trumbauer design

Frank Furness, nationally acclaimed architect (Reading Terminal, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) designed an exquisite little gem in 1898, All Hallows Episcopal Church. The then young Horace Trumbauer established his reputation with a number of  houses in the district, and the Jenkintown/Wyncote Reading Railroad Train Station (still a busy commuter depot). Later in his career, Trumbauer would design some of the regions most stunning mansions, public buildings and commercial spaces.  

Curtis Hall and Arboretum

By 1915  most development ended and Wyncote had the reputation as an exclusive community of wealthy residents. People from the managerial and professional elite of Philadelphia as well as indusrty heads lived in Wyncote –  the Proctor family (Proctor-Silex Electrical Company), Cyrus H.K. Curtis (Curtis Publishing, Saturday Evening Post, Ladies’ Home Journal) and the Lippincott family (book publishing). Mary Louise Curtis Bok, daughter of Cyrus, an accomplished musician and founder of the Curtis Institute of Music, constructed a private concert hall and arboretum on their Wyncote estate. The 45-acre arboretum’s landscape was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead (New York’s Central Park). Curtis Hall and the arboretum were acquired by Cheltenham Township as a park in 1974.

The architecture of Wyncote illustrates the new and increasing role of university-trained architects in the design of turn-of-the century, upper-income houses in suburban America. The majority of architects working in Wyncote received their professional training in the new School of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania.  Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, Tudor, Craftsmen, Victorian and even medieval castles were all part of the eclectic mix coupled with rolling hills and large landscaped lots.

The 1986 designation as a Historic District was a major boost in preventing the decline and decay that take over so many older neighborhoods consisting of large houses that, let’s face it, require large maintenance costs. Pride in ownership is evident in the pristine condition of the district, despite high real estate taxes. This 1891 Craftsmen house with over 3,000 square feet, 5 bedrooms, etc, is currently on the market for $435,000 with annual real estate taxes over $10,000/year.

for sale: $435,000 (taxes $10,000+/year)

Wyncote has always been a nice area for walks and many a dog, including mine, use Curtis Arboretum daily. Yet how often does anyone think, “this might be significant?” Your own back yard – a heritage site? Who would have “thunk” it. Thanks National Register of Historic Places.

New York, New Year, 3 Restaurants

What am I saying? I had a pleasant, imaginative, moderately priced lunch in a major urban museum’s cafe? An oxymoran….0r lack of oxygen….?

Petrie Court Cafe & Wine Bar

Just off the multi-storey glass atrium of the striking American Wing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, is the airy, glass walled dining space occupied by the Petrie Court Cafe & Wine Bar. My experience in most museum cafes is to forgo the over priced, microwaved offerings in favor of a coffee, but the menu at Petrie is neither overpriced nor nuked.

Petrie Court Cafe & Wine Bar, the MET, New York City

Perhaps the Pennsylvania Dutch were Italian, because Petrie’s pappardelle noodles (top left) are as rich as anything eaten in a Lancaster farmhouse. Tossed with a light buttery cream sauce, earthy sautéed wild mushrooms and spinach with a garnish of spinach puree, it was an inspired pasta dish ($17.95.) The Cream of Pumpkin soup (bottom left)was velvety and light – not the thick vegetable puree served in so many restaurants. A flavorful stock underpinned the soup, but the aroma of the roasted pumpkin seed oil garnish raised this common dish to a new level of flavor ($8.95). Salads should delight the eye and the taste buds. (bottom right) Spicy arugula and mixed greens tossed in a light citrus vinaigrette with slightly salty manchego cheese, pears, bright fresh pomegranate seeds and deep red pomegranate puree garnish accomplished the task nicely ($9.95). Fresh sourdough rolls accompanied the meal. Most wines were in the $8 – $9.00/glass range. Despite a busy lunch time, service was smooth and professional. Interestingly, there are few restaurants of any type within walking distance of the MET in its wealthy Upper East Side location, making the Petrie Cafe & Wine Bar a welcome, and much-needed, addition to the neighborhood.

Lower East Side, near Orchard Street, (left) Katzs Deli, since 1888

Little Giant cafe, on the corner of Broome and Orchard Streets, certainly would not have existed in 1870’s Lower East Side New York –  or even 1970’s. Not that eating establishments didn’t exist back then. Taverns and street vendors have flourished from the city’s founding nearly 400 years ago. In the picture above, left side, you can see the sign for famous Katzs Deli serving the (then immigrant) Jewish community since 1888. Now an institution, but still terrific, its 21st century clientele is an ever-increasing affluent population of “post-immigrant” residents. Just a block down from the Tenement Museum, Little Giant is a laid back cafe in a renovated, exposed brick store front in an early 20th century Lower East Side building. In earlier days maybe it was a cloth store? It’s small space – seats 20/25 –  is filled even at 3:00 pm on a weekday and keeps the small staff busy. The menu is brief but items are freshly made so be patient. The Angus Beef burger was fresh ground and grilled medium rare as requested ($9.95).  A “little giant” portion of their own Mac and Cheese was excellent. Like Petrie’s Pumpkin Soup, Little Giant’s Baked Macaroni and Cheese eschewed thickeners and relied on a well seasoned, but medium, cheese sauce to bind the macaroni and garnished with a nice crust of browned bread crumbs for texture ($7.00/$14.00). A well seasoned “salad” of sautéed kale with oyster mushrooms was tasty and nutritious for anyone wondering about all that red meat ($9.95). The bar served a nice selection of micro beers on tap and bottle, wines by the glass and a great Bloody Mary with horseradish-infused vodka ($10.00). With its large store front windows, it was pleasant leisurely having lunch while watching the bustle which is always New York.

Sante Fe Restaurant

Finding imaginative Southwest American cuisine in New York is as difficult as in Albuquerque. Face it, real Southwest/Tex-Mex/Mexican-American is comfort food – like pasta with red sauce for Italians. To find chefs that create new dishes using old techniques is always nice and not common in the commercial world of the food industry.

Sante Fe, 73, West 71st Street, in the leafy but happening Upper West Side of New York, serves recognizable southwest dishes yet tweak the recipes giving them new life. Citrus and herb marinated thin-sliced grilled skirt steak is wrapped in a tortilla and served with a micro green salad ($12.95). A fresh lump-meat crab cake topped with a poached egg and covered with a roasted smoky tomato sauce is a flavorful variation on a brunch standard, with a green salad and rice pilaf ($14.95). Excellent house salsa accompanied corn chips and the house Margarita ($8.00 or $11.00) was citrus fresh and tequilla rich – not a mix. The restaurant itself is a relaxing space in light airy southwest peach, art, a fireplace and good acoustics (quiet!)

New York can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s easy to find great food in this “world capital” at prices most people tolerate at their local shopping mall’s food court!

Upper West Side, 70's, looking downtown, New York City

New York, New Year

Wall Street (1916) photo by Paul Strand (1890-1976) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Commerce has been the purpose of New York since its founding a mere 400 years ago. Because of its vast wealth, the world has settled within the city. In some cases pieces of the world have been purchased to reside in New York – from Egyptian temples to Chicago staircases. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Tenement Museum bookcase the spectrum of forces that shape this world metropolis.

The MET - "Grand Central Station" of the art world

The MET was co-founded in 1870 by four men whose backgrounds were as varied as the city. John Taylor Johnston, from a prominent New York family, made a fortune in railroads, was an avid art collector and fulfilled a life-long dream in creating the MET. Eastman Johnston was an acclaimed artist from well-connected New England stock. George Palmer Putnam, founder of G. P. Putnam’s Sons, was a leading publisher of art books. All three men were intellectually curious and well-traveled.

from the Luigi Palma di Cesnola collection of ancient art

Yet I personally find it fascinating that an Italian military officer, immigrant, American Civil War hero and diplomat, General Luigi Palma di Cesnola, served as the Museum’s first director (1879-1904). Not only had General di Cesnola a noted military career both in Europe and America, but as a “gentleman archeologist” – the only type in the 19th century – he had amassed a stunning collection of ancient Mediterranean art and artifacts. His collection became the genesis of the Met, and during his 25 year tenure the MET achieved  international patronage and stature. Like all great art institutions, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is meant to be absorbed in stages through many visits as its collection span the ages.

New York City Tenement Museum

A shorter, but no less significant,  spectrum of  life is represented in the unique New York City Tenement Museum on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side. Without the influx of hundreds of thousands of immigrants between 1870 and the 1930’s, the American economic engine would have been severely hampered. Yet these seekers of a better life lived, worked and loved in small, dark rooms in row upon row of brick walk-ups built on narrow streets and created the 20th century.

Well-trained, professional tour guides immerse the visitor in the everyday life of actual tenants who lived in the buildings on Orchard Street that comprise the museum. You’re in their cramped quarters. You see, or rather don’t see, how these families from Eastern Europe, and elsewhere, could accomplish their piece-work in the dim light of a gray winter afternoon, no less work 18 hours a day. From the memories of family members, we understand that many of the dreams of these immigrants were realized by future generations.

Perhaps some in the current post-immigrant generation are now exercising in that health club off Orchard Street above the Duane Reade drug store and living in renovated $1,400/month 3 room “tenement” apartments now renting on the Lower East Side!

The ancestors certainly didn’t have lunch at Giant (stay tuned).

 
Staircase from Chicago Stock Exchange Building, 1893, Louis Sullivan, architect (now part of the MET)