“I’m at the Historical Society,” I texted my husband during our recent trip to New York. “At the bar.”
I probably didn’t need to tell him either of those things. In a city of over eight million people, where else would I be? The New-York Historical Society was closed during my last two visits to the city, so this was my first chance to check it out. I planned to take the 3:00 tour and before that I spent the intervening hour and half walking through Central Park in orthopaedic shoes that turned out to not be orthopaedic enough. My feet hurt. I needed to rest somewhere before the tour. And I could sightsee from my bar stool. Why not?
It turns out the Caffè Storico restaurant and bar is just one of many features to recommend about the NY society. The high-ceilinged space, decorated with shelves of heirloom china, manages to feel airy and refreshing but also homey and comfortable. The bar features a good selection of craft beers and wines and an amiable staff. And though it was hard to drag myself away, I found that the friendliness continued over to the staff at the welcome desk and the tour guides. As it turned out, I got a private tour because no one else arrived at 3:00. This left me free to ask lots of questions. I took pages and pages of notes, most of which would bore the pants off anyone reading this, so I won’t be repeating them here.
The tour began with the exhibits in the lobby. My favorite was “History Under Your Feet” where guests are invited to look through holes in the floor to view artifacts once buried beneath the city streets. Many of the paintings in the lobby depict scenes of New York history during the colonial period. While viewing a painting showing patriots pulling down a statue of George III astride a horse, my guide explained that the statue was melted down into musket balls, but the tail was found years later in a swamp on property that had been owned by a loyalist family at the time. That they were able to salvage something from the horse’s hindquarters is just one of those nice little circumstances of history, since many people no doubt equated the king with just that part of a horse’s anatomy. The guide also pointed out a transparency painting, a form of art with which I was not familiar but that was popular in the 18th and19th Centuries. These paintings were designed to be illuminated from behind at close quarters, and since the only method of illumination at the time would have been an open flame, not many of these paintings survived.
Another rare 18th Century piece on display in the Society is the Beekman carriage which dates to about 1770. It’s in immaculate condition and one of only three surviving carriages of the period anywhere in the U.S. I think very often I imagine my characters riding in elegant coaches like this when they would not have been doing anything of the sort. I guess the modern equivalent would be having all my characters traveling in Hummer limousines. Not very realistic.
So back to the tour. The Society displays an amazing array of Tiffany lamps. My tour guide told me most of the soldering was done by women known as the Tiffany girls, and even most of the designs were created by a women named Clara Driscoll. When you think of the fashions in vogue at the time these lamps were put together, with women wearing voluminous skirts and giant sleeves, it’s a wonder that they could get close enough to the glass to actually work on it.
My favorite part of the society was the Luce Center where the tour ended. It’s basically like looking in the attic at all the different types of artifacts collected and donated over the year. Not everything is labeled, so I had to make a guess at the details surrounding the use of some of the artifacts. It was a bit frustrating, but I’d rather see it on display and not labeled than have it sitting in a box somewhere out of view. My only problem was that part of the collection was illuminated by motion activated lights. So if I stood still to read a description, the light would turn out. I was constantly waving my arms around to get the exhibit to light up again and after a while, I felt like a student at Hogwarts (except that I was so good I didn’t even need a wand to produce light). Unfortunately I see that the Society’s website says the Luce Center just closed and won’t open again until 2016. Hopefully they will fix the lighting, but keep most of the collection on display. It would be a shame to hide it away again.
After the tour, I visited a special exhibit on my own. The exhibit, “Facades,” consisted of a collection of photos taken over a number of years by Bill Cunningham. He photographed women wearing clothes from different time periods as they posed by city landmarks and neighborhoods of the same time period. The action and costume detail in the photos was quite striking, but occasionally ruined by 1960s mod makeup.
The New-York Historical Society never makes anyone’s top ten list of things to see in New York, and it’s not as good as the Tenement Museum or The Ellis Island Museum. But the latter is closed due to storm damage and the former can be viewed only during specific tours. So for a history nut in the mood to wander and explore, the New-York Historical Society offers a pretty good way to spend an afternoon in the city.