New York's Past on Dazzling Display

Feeney is a Westlake Village free-lance writer.

The New-York Historical Society name keeps the hyphen because "everyone spelled New-York that way" at the time of its early 19th-Century founding.

Within its rather plain Neoclassical building on Central Park West between 76th and 77th streets, the society has the world's largest collection of Tiffany glass, all but two of John J. Audubon's 435 original "Birds of America" watercolors, a gallery of paintings from the Hudson River School, advertising art from the 1700s to the 1900s, Early American silver, and a vast array of Americana folk art.

In addition, its library contains one of the best collections of New York newspapers extant, including the city's first, William Bradford's Gazette. Among its manuscripts, pamphlets, prints and more than 600,000 volumes are a collection of genealogical material, a history section covering every state in the union, the authorization of the Louisiana Purchase signed by Napoleon and a great many of George Washington's letters.

Articles associated with the first President are placed throughout the building. A slant-top desk on an upper floor was used by him, when as commander in chief of the Continental Army he signed the September, 1780 death warrant of British spy Maj. John Andre, confederate of Benedict Arnold.

The stately Beekman family coach on the second floor reputedly was used by Washington to ride to his inauguration at Federal Hall in 1789.

A table used by the Federal Congress and the iron railing from the balcony at Federal Hall where Washington was sworn in also are on display. These items are significant not only to the early history of the United States, but to that of the historical society. For not only was Federal Hall--on Wall Street in Lower Manhattan--the nation's first capitol but the place where the society was organized in 1804 by John Pintard.

Historical Discourses

Thomas Jefferson was President, and the group's main function was to hold occasional meetings at which historical addresses and discourses were presented. By 1813 the society had begun to develop its library.

Because of its predilection to preserve items not necessarily considered valuable (something many a saver of old magazines, cracked cups and outdated clothing could relate to), the society kept outgrowing its quarters. That trait is what makes its collections so valuable.

Moving from one location to another, the society fought off bankruptcy and had to sell part of its collection to repay a debt in 1825. Appropriately at that time, it and several other cultural groups had space in the New York Institution, formerly the city almshouse. Rent was one peppercorn annually.

Although the society's financial position often was precarious, its membership rolls were prestigious. Presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, authors Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper and newspaperman Horace Greeley were among its early members.

Even French Gen. the Marquis de Lafayette was elected to the society. He and his son visited the United States in August, 1824. As the nation's first national guest, he was accorded a rousing welcome wherever he went, including New York City. A punch bowl in the museum's silver collection depicts his landing at Castle Garden in New York.

The society's present location is its eighth. The central portion was completed in 1908, the remainder about 30 years later.

Special Programs, Tours

Special exhibits are mounted throughout the year, lecture series and concerts are presented, special programs and tours are given to school children and a museum store recently was opened.

Debbie Nadler of the museum staff says the public has responded to the overtures; attendance has increased. Other methods also are being used to orient visitors to the society.

Says Nadler: "About two years ago a docent program was begun. We have about 40 volunteer docents who devote many hours to the museum. Tours are set up for groups, others are more randomly given. We post tour times in the morning. People can call to check on times, and groups can set up tours by phone."

Although there is an emphasis on items relating to New York, the museum actively collects 18th- and 19th-Century American art and antiques and the special shows relate to the overall collection. Nadler explained that some of the temporary exhibits, such as the recent P. T. Barnum display, are prepared from the museum's collection.

The most popular permanent exhibits are the collection of Tiffany glass, the paintings in the Hudson River School Gallery and the Audubon watercolors.

The Tiffany collection was donated to the society by Viennese-born Dr. Egon Neustadt, who began collecting the lamps in the 1930s. From his first purchase at a Greenwich Village antiques shop, he and his wife added to the collection with windows, vases, desk sets and the last remaining glass used in Louis Tiffany's Corona, Queens factory. The donation was made in January, 1984, shortly before Neustadt's death.

Early American Artists

The first group of landscape painters in America was known as the Hudson River School of Art. Its leader was Thomas Cole, whose five-panel allegory "The Course of Empire" is a highlight of the Cole Gallery. Works by other members of the school, including Albert Bierstadt, Asher B. Durand and John Frederick Kensett, also are featured.

An allegorical landscape of the New York University campus painted in 1836 by Samuel F. B. Morse, better known as the inventor of the telegraph, is also on display.

Portraits of famous early Americans are in the Peale Gallery and, yes, one of those faces looks very familiar. Alexander Hamilton's visage, painted by John Trumbull, has been reproduced on the $10 bill.

Last year, in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Audubon's birth, the museum displayed 433 of his "Birds of America" paintings and other memorabilia relating to the business failure and dreamer-cum-artist. Generally, about 50 of the paintings are on view at any one time. As to the two missing paintings, they were never owned by the society and apparently have disappeared.

The silver collection on the first floor is dazzling. Elaborate presentation cups, bowls and trays, along with ornate Victorian tea sets, shine with brightly near tankards and utensils used every day by early colonists.

One first-time visitor who was dawdling admiringly through the exhibit was taken aback when her more impatient companion who had gone ahead to scout the museum returned and told her, "You'd better get moving if you want to see everything. There's lots more down here and there are three more floors!"

Advertising Art

Articles on the "three more floors" include various selections from the million-item Landauer collection of business and advertising art. Posters, handbills, advertising cards and other material delineate the progress of promotional methods from the late 18th Century to the early 20th Century.

That was a time when hucksters did not have to prove their claims, and some posters are eye-poppers. On one, cocaine is touted as a hair restorative and dandruff cure. Many, however, wave the flag or extol the virtues of the family, not unlike current commercial messages.

At a time when American folk art was barely recognized as an art form, the society already owned a collection. Seventy-five years ago it began assembling household utensils, needlework, shop signs, weather vanes, earthenware jars, glass bottles, lamps and candlesticks. Antique tools also are displayed, as is the tool chest of furniture maker Duncan Phyfe, who worked as a carpenter in New York from 1792 to 1847.

A portion of the museum's antique toy collection is behind the doorway and facade of a 1766 Connecticut Valley home on the second floor. Nearby is the Beekman doll house, a replica of the Beekmans' 18th-Century mansion that overlooked the East River.

Anyone with an interest in pewter pressed, molded and blown and Sandwich glass and Staffordshire ware can find them among the decorative arts display. Paperweight aficionados can see more than 300 here.

In commemoration of the bicentennial of the opening of trade between New York and Canton, China, examples of Chinese export porcelain became part of the museum's permanent exhibits two years ago. Among the items donated for the display are a model of the clipper ship Flying Cloud and a 19th-Century mother-of-pearl sea chest.

Hours and Rules

The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $2 for adults, $1.50 for seniors and $1 for children Wednesday through Sunday. Tuesday's admission is by donation.

Reservations are required for group visits. Student groups must have one adult for every 10 children. Call (212) 873-3400 for tour information.

The library, a major research collection of American history, is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Summer hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Non-members pay an admission fee.

In addition to the 8th Avenue subway, you may reach the site via the 8th Avenue and Central Park West buses that stop at the main entrance. The 79th Street cross-town buses stop at 81st Street and Central Park West; walk four blocks south.

The museum has no restaurant, but a variety of restaurants are on nearby Columbus Avenue.

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