Category Archives: Museums

Follow-up on “The Heart of the Andes”—Call it Serendipity or the Power of the Internet or Both

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The Heart of the Andes, Frederic Church

 

My friend Linda, who teaches English as a Second Language to an amazingly diverse class of 20 college students, emailed to tell me how my post on Frederic Church’s “The Heart of the Andes” coincided with one of her assignments. (Scroll down for my original post.)

Linda is the most creative teacher I have ever known, and I’ve known a lot of teachers. Her students, who hail from China, Haiti, Mauritius, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Ecuador, Venezuela, Syria, and Bangladesh are not only perfecting their English but learning a great deal about American culture in the bargain and I daresay enjoying every minute of her class.

Here is Linda’s email:

(The reason the students were instructed to check out the knights in shining armor and the “Artistic furniture of the Gilded Age” exhibit has to do with some of their reading. As I say, Linda is a creative teacher!)

How interesting that you posted this at this particular time. Last week, I sent my students off to the Met to do three things: check out the knights in armor and next the “Artistic Furniture of the Gilded Age” and last to choose a Gallery Talk to test their listening skills with a lecturer who wouldn’t accommodate their being ESL students. Several of the students chose a particular Museum Highlights tour where the docent took them to see this very painting. I know because a few chose it to describe as the most impressive thing they saw on the tour. Two even said they lagged behind the group because they wanted to keep looking at the painting. One described it as 3-D. These were students who have never been to the Met or perhaps any art museum before. So, as you hit on, it’s all relative. You and I can’t even number how many times we’ve been to the Met or seen “great paintings”, but for these students, it’s all new, so they’re closer to the original audience. Now we’re in the midst of our intense review for the upcoming reading comprehension exam in June, and one of the reading passages yesterday was about American artists and the beginning of landscape painting on this kind of scale in the mid 19th century. The students who went on that tour all commented about “Heart of the Andes” again. So today, I’m printing out your post for them so we can see the old-time photo and follow up on yesterday’s talk. Thanks! Linda

Coincidence, yes, but a powerful demonstration how we are all connected in unimaginable ways via the internet. Gives me goosebumps.

 

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What I Learned from “The Heart of the Andes”

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Would you pay seven dollars and stand in a long line around the block to see this painting?

When I learned that in 1859, almost 13,000 New Yorkers did just that—paying 25 cents (the equivalent of about seven dollars in today’s currency) during the three weeks that Frederic Church’s “The Heart of the Andes” was on view at the Tenth Street Studio, I decided to seek out the painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it now lives.

I wanted to see if I could put myself in the place of those 19th_century New Yorkers and feel some of the same excitement they felt when looking at this painting.

 The short answer is no, I couldn’t.

 Upon reflection it should have been clear that I would fail at this attempt. In order to succeed with my experiment I would have to become what I am not. I would have to somehow escape the culture I swim in, forgetting a lot of what I know and the assumptions I make. Professional actors can sometimes do this, but it takes a lot of training and talent to replace oneself with another self.

First of all, in 1859, there were limited opportunities to view art work. There were galleries with a limited selection of paintings, but the Metropolitan Museum would not be founded until 1870. Just to be able to see a large (10 by 5 ½ feet tall) painting by America’s most famous painter would be an exciting possibility.

Today we are surrounded by colored representations everywhere we turn. Then there was much less visual stimulation. No colored pictures in books at all and the chromolithographs which were then widely available were feeble in comparison to what we are used to seeing wherever we look.

 But there was more to it than that. Travel to exotic locations was limited then to intrepid explorers and scientists. Alexander Van Humboldt, a widely recognized naturalist explorer began a five-year expedition to South America in 1799, in which he recorded the natural environment. Later, Church, following in his footsteps, painted the natural world that Humboldt described. And curious New Yorkers flocked to see what Humboldt had found.

“The Heart of the Andes” is not a representation of an actual site but a compilation of the various climatic zones that Humboldt explored: the snowy peaks, the temperate climate and in the foreground the steamy jungle flora, which Church painted with meticulous accuracy. These detailed elements are not visible in the above image; in fact, they are not visible at all unless you stand very close and scrutinize the painting carefully. Visitors to the exhibition in 1859 were encouraged to bring opera glasses so that they could examine the details of the flowers and foliage, the birds and butterflies.

Today there is no corner of the world that is as mysterious to me as Ecuador was to the mid-19th century New Yorker. I’ve seen too many National Geographic publications and videos to be amazed by Church’s representation of tropical flora.

If I wanted to—I don’t, but if I did— I could be in Ecuador within hours and there are many travel services that would take me on an exploratory trip of the natural wonders depicted in Church’s painting.

 By grouping paintings chronologically, the Museum encourages us to view the painting as representative of the art of the period. It shares the gallery with Leutze’s iconic “Washington Crossing the Delaware” and other paintings of the time. Yet I think we would be better served in understanding this particular  painting if they exhibited it, as they once did, in a replica of the walnut frame which Church himself designed. Something like a window frame, it stood on the floor, putting the painting at eye level of the average viewer, making it easier to view the details. A green drapery completed the theatrical effect Church intended. And it wouldn’t hurt if they provided opera glasses.

 

Church original

 

 

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Ten More Reasons I Love New York City

This is the third list I’ve made of Reasons I Love New York. The other two are here and here. It is said that New York is a great place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there. Actually, the opposite, it seems to me, is true. Hard to visit—there’s just so much to do and see in a short time— great to live here (same reason).

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Way to Go!

I said the next time I made a list, Uber would be at the top. I love Uber because it has made my life easier. It’s that simple. It’s not the only summon-a-ride service available in the City, but so far the only one I’ve tried.

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Lovely neighborhood gardens

Located on vacant lots throughout the City are a number of neighborhood gardens. This is West Side Community Garden, just two blocks  from my building. Right now it is abloom with gorgeous tulips.

 

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Thomas Hart Benton at the Met

Benton is my favorite American artist. Like me, he lived much of his life in Kansas City. The ten-panel mural “America Today” depicts a panorama of American life in the 20s. I never fail to visit this work when I’m at the Met. It is installed in a space that recreates the board room where it originally hung.

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Park Avenue Armory’s restored Veterans Room

Magnificent restoration of historic sites happens in New York, where there is access to plenty of money to carry it out. The most recent is this restoration in the Park Avenue Armory.

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Horses in Central Park

Okay; it’s controversial. Animal activists think these horses’ lives are too hard. But I don’t buy it. Their work in the Park is not hard. Walking to and from work through city traffic is somewhat hard, but it’s not far. Lots of us do it every day.

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Riverside Drive

A runner’s dream. The last westerly street on this narrow island so there are no intersections. You can run (or walk) for almost 20 blocks til you get to the highway access roads, and you never have to pause for a traffic light. After running down hill for a bit, you circle back through

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Riverside Park with Hudson River in the background

If you need a long view of water, Riverside Park is the place to go. More or less a straight line, it parallels the river. Beautifully planted, the park attracts moms and nannies with babies in strollers, bicyclists, runners, dog walkers, and me.

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The New Amsterdam Theater

The Broadway theater is one of the best things about New York City. Nothing can compare to that delicious moment when the house lights dim and the overture begins. The old Broadway theaters, too, have been the beneficiaries of renovation. Most of them were built in the early-mid 20th century when more was more—and I love it.

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Dogs and dog walkers in Riverside Park.

Big dogs, little dogs, cute dogs, ugly dogs—they are all vastly entertaining—and so patient. I’d like to have one, but the walkers are expensive, and I don’t relish the idea of taking Fido down eleven stories and outside on a cold winter morning.

Miracle on Fourth

Finally, The Merchant’s House in a repeat performance. It’s always on the list because it is so important to me, particularly this year—my second book about the house has just been released.

 

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Just Released! Miracle on Fourth Street: Saving an Old Merchant’s House

What Makes the Merchant’s House a Miracle

August, 1933—The country was in the depths of the Great Depression. Gertrude Tredwell had just died at the age of 93 in the 1832 rowhouse her family had inhabited for almost 100 years. A century of urban progress meant that the house, once located in the New York City’s most desirable neighborhood, was now just steps from the Bowery, the nation’s skid row. It was a time capsule, complete with the original owners’ furnishings dating to mid 19th century, and personal belongings as well—books, decorative objects, textiles, and even 39 dresses belonging to the women of the family.

Miracle on FourthEnter George Chapman, a distant cousin who made what can only be described as a foolhardy decision to “save” the old house from the auction block and turn it into a museum. Not only had the old house been long neglected and was then well along the road to disintegration, but certainly no one at that time was inclined to donate money to preserving the home of an early New York City merchant—a rich merchant, to be sure—a good man certainly—but not a person of historical significance.

But George was a wealthy man and in spite of increasing physical infirmity he just barely managed to hold his beloved museum together at great personal cost for over 20 years. However, he was not inclined to make major repairs let alone the needed thorough restoration of the collapsing house.

Eventually, after an improbable chain of events, an impeccable authentic restoration did take place, undertaken without charge by Joseph Roberto, an accomplished restoration architect who exercised a scrupulous regard for the original fabric of the building and recruited some of the most talented craftsmen in the country as well as White House architect, Edward Vason Jones and noted 19th century authority on American decorative arts, Berry Tracy, as pro bono consultants.

The restoration was a story of creative solutions to structural calamities, heartbreaking setbacks, personality conflicts, and an unceasing struggle to find funding, but Joseph Roberto simply would not give up, and eventually the house was restored to its original beauty, structurally stronger than ever. The textiles had completely deteriorated, but instead of replacing them with period appropriate examples, The Decorators Club, who were responsible for the interior refurbishment, wisely had the original silk curtains and the carpeting reproduced at extraordinary expense.

The story doesn’t end there, however, for there was to be one last crisis, which could literally have brought the house down were it not for the wise direction of the current director and the support of government and corporate grants, and the generosity of private donors.

Since the beginning, The Merchant’s House has held an unworldly attraction for all those who have been involved in its long life. It is not an exaggeration to say that people simply fall in love with it and are willing to devote extraordinary effort to its preservation.

Maybe that’s because of what happens when you cross the threshold.A mirror reflecting the 19th century.

Which brings me to the most miraculous circumstance of all. Here we come as close as we ever will to those who came before us. As we tune in to the height of the ceilings and the nearness of the walls, as we travel a path from room to room, observing the light, seeing what the family saw in those rooms—the piano, the mirrors, the Duncan Phyfe chairs, their four poster beds—we learn with our bodies as well as our brains what it was like to live in a 19th century urban rowhouse owned by one of the early merchants who laid the commercial foundations of this great city.

Once there were hundreds of such homes lining the streets of the neighborhood north of Bleecker. Now there is only one left to tell the story.

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Miracle on Fourth Street: Saving an Old Merchant’s House

 

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Time Changes Everything—Sometimes for the Better

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Recently while sorting through research notes for the book I wrote about the 19th century home of the Tredwell family, I ran across an interesting diary entry made by Samuel, the youngest son. When he was a teenager he dutifully noted he had borrowed five cents from his little sister so he could go see the “fat lady.” Apparently he didn’t have quite enough for the 25 cent admission fee to the American Museum on Broadway where the fat lady was on exhibit.

The American Museum

The American Museum

Founded by the flamboyant showman, P.T. Barnum, the museum was one of New York’s most popular tourist attractions from the time of its founding in 1842 until 1865 when a spectacular fire completely destroyed it.

It was a combination zoo, aquarium, wax works, and theater. Barnum filled his museum with all manner of curiosities including an exhibit of “freaks.”—persons who suffered rare and strange deformities and disabilities: among them Jo-Jo the dog faced boy, who had a th-1genetic disorder that caused him to have abnormal amounts of body hair; William Henry Johnson, a mentally defective African American who assumed the role of a man/animal, and ran around growling; Chang and Eng, the conjoined Siamese twins; Tom Thumb, largethe famous dwarf,—and of course the fat lady.
The freak show at Barnum’s museum was the forerunner of the sideshow, a component of carnivals and circuses throughout the country well into the 20th century. Gradually, however, thanks to the advances of medical science, an increased understanding of genetic disorders and mental illness developed. Many th-6conditions can now be successfully treated; even conjoined twins can sometimes be surgically separated (thank you, Dr. Carson). And with support and the proper assistance, the severely handicapped can live peaceful, sometimes productive lives. Legislation protects the Josephine-Myrtle-Corbin-4-gamberights of the disabled, and private non profits provide assistance for every type of disability and rare disease. Today the word “freak” applies to accidents, not people.

We can certainly point to many examples of the debasement of our popular culture from the twerking of Miley Cyrus to the foul language that sometimes seems to be the staple of ordinary conversation. But it is no longer acceptable for the malformed and handicapped to be the object of voyeuristic curiosity. In that respect, at least, we can say we are wiser, more sensitive, more compassionate than our 19th century counterparts.

LydiaMaya2

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When Is a Window Not a Window?

Answer: when it’s between rooms instead of between a room and the outdoors. You’re not expected to look through a Borrowed Light Window. In fact they are usually positioned high on the wall. Their purpose is to bring light from a room that has outside windows into an otherwise dark interior space like a closet or a hallway.

When the 1832 New York City rowhouse now known as the Merchant’s House Museum was opened to the public as an historic house museum in the 1930s, some minor modifications had to be made to provide for public amenities. Recently, research was undertaken to find out just what those modifications consisted of. Much to everyone’s surprise, a Borrowed Light Window was discovered under the plaster of the original kitchen.

The borrowed light window  at the Merchant's House Museum, recently discovered and restored.

The borrowed light window at the Merchant’s House Museum, recently discovered and restored.

That window has now been restored so that visitors can be reminded of what was certainly one of the greatest domestic concerns before the introduction of gaslight and particularly electricity.

It’s hard for us to imagine just how demanding the task or how different life was without the instantaneous availability of artificial light.  To supplement the natural light of the sun during dark days and of course always at night, it was necessary to have a fire of some kind, and all fires tend to be accompanied by smoke. Candles smoked and dripped; oil lamps  smoked and smelled and wicks had to be trimmed, candle wax scraped off of holders and glass shades cleaned every day. Oil spills were common and were a mess! Kerosene came along in 1859, but though the light burned brighter, other drawbacks persisted. Once the sun dropped below the horizon, most of the house was enveloped in total darkness. Typically there was a pool of light—what we would consider very dim light— where the family sat together around a single light source.

Borrowed Light Windows helped some during the day. They were a common feature of houses built before the introduction of electric lights.

On a recent weekend trip to Philadelphia we stayed in a bread and breakfast located in a colonial home built in 1769. And what do you know? In the bedroom we discovered—a borrowed light window!

Borrowed Light Window in the Thomas Bond House, Philadelphia.

Borrowed Light Window in the Thomas Bond House, Philadelphia.

P.S. Since posting, I’ve received a photo of a Borrowed Light Window in the Steinway Mansion in Astoria, Queens from Kevin. A 19th-century Italianate villa, the mansion is privately owned, but Friends of the Steinway Mansion have mounted a campaign to purchase the house and open it to the public. https://www.facebook.com/steinwaymansion

Does anybody else have a picture of a Borrowed Light Window?

Borrowed Light Window in the Steinway Mansion

Borrowed Light Window in the Steinway Mansion

 

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The Historic House Tells It Like It Was

The Really Real Table

The Really Real Table

I was giving a tour of the Merchant’s House to second graders; the children were seated on the floor in the front parlor. I explained that a family with eight children lived in the house over 150 years ago and today the House was still here just as it had been then.  The furniture was theirs; the big sister played the piano, the family sat on the chairs

A hand shot into the air. The little boy’s eyes were wide. He pointed to the center table. “You mean, . .  you mean. . .that’s the really real table?”

He knew it was a real table, of course. But the really real table? Their table? The seven-year old was way beyond his peers in understanding that there were other persons just as real as ourselves, who lived their lives and who no longer live.  Now he was experiencing the almost mysterious connection we can make with those who went before through the material objects they left behind. He continued to be excited as we moved from room to room, for almost all of the furniture is original. I couldn’t help but think of these lines from the poem “Music I Heard with You” by Conrad Aiken:

Your hands once touched this table and this silver,

And I have seen your fingers hold this glass

These things will not remember you beloved,

And yet your touch upon them will not pass.

That is the magic of the Merchant’s House. It’s really real. Really.

The Merchant’s House Museum is open to the public Th-Mon, 12-5 p.m.                  Visit the web site: http://www.merchantshouse.org

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