When the first Saturday morning in December dawns, you may like to be nestled all snug in your bed, but I much prefer hitting the pavement for another now-legendary 15-hour visit to New York City.
The once-bleary-eyed novice in All Things Big Apple has been replaced by a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed sightseer who scurries off the motorcoach and scampers up Fifth Avenue, hot to trot for an ambitious lineup of adventures in store for the day.
The city that never sleeps is somnolent enough at that hour for early birds to have a few prime sights all to themselves. One is the 94-feet-tall, 56-feet-wide Norwegian Spruce tree from Oneonta, New York that towers over Rockefeller Center’s plaza this year, festooned with 50,000 multicolored LED lights and topped by a star fashioned from 25,000-Swarovski crystals.
Others are the dazzling holiday displays that artists spend the better part of a year crafting for department store windows. Lord & Taylor’s “Enchanted Forest” features five vignettes of over 30 hand-sculpted animal figures dancing, ice skating and hibernating their way through a winter wonderland enhanced by LED displays, twinkling lights and over 9,000 feet of garlands. A two-story tree at Henri Bendel is trimmed with ten giant versions of the ornaments for sale in the store. At Macy’s, six windows portray holiday scenes focused on “Believing the Magic,” highlighted by an LED tree made of 1,000 crystals and interactive windows that measure visitors’ love of the holidays.
while others are filled with “Candy Couture,” lavish designer dresses evocative of sweet treats like cotton candy, peppermint sticks and lollipops. After dark, a 10-story-tall multicolored light show stops the crowds that fill Fifth Avenue in their tracks.
“Make the World Sparkle,” urge the lovely vitrines at Tiffany & Co., where clever uses of perspective transform a holiday table, the Rockefeller Center angels and a silhouette of the Manhattan skyline into spectacular bejeweled peep shows that the police officers guarding Trump Tower were happy to help us see.
Across the street at Bergdorf Goodman, five lush scenes are a true “Destination Extraordinary.” In these verdant remakes of natural history dioramas, a fashion-forward tightrope walker makes her way across a lagoon overgrown with cypress trees, orchids and ferns, while a golden-haired lepidopterist nets her latest catch, flanked by a giant pair of praying mantis.
Five years of these New York City red-eye trips have established some favorites worth repeating, like Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a meal and shopping at Scandinavia House, and touring the East 20th Street brownstone where Theodore Roosevelt was born. This time, one particular must was walking past Patience and Fortitude, the lions guarding the entrance to the Stephen A. Schwartzman Building of the New York Public Library, to see some old friends who recently returned from an adventure of their own.
Winnie-the-Pooh, Eeyore, Piglet, Kanga and Tigger — the famous toys who belonged to Christopher Robin Milne, inspired his father’s famous stories, emigrated to the United States in 1947, and now reside at the New York Public Library — were recently sent to a textile conservator to be restored. Pooh and his friends were restuffed, steamed, restitched and fluffed. Worn paws and ears were covered with a thin, protective mesh, while snouts were humidified and secured in their proper position. Small holes were patched with fine silk fabric in a color that mimicked the original velveteen. After vacuuming, they took their place on new mounts and sit before a map of the Hundred Acre Wood, on display in the library’s Children’s Center.
Two new destinations were on our must-see list. One was Momofuko Milk Bar, a nifty bakery to which Martha Stewart introduced us years ago on one of her field trips to her favorite spots around New York City.
Milk Bar tempts New Yorkers with all sorts of unique signature treats featuring “crunches” and “crumbs.” The “crunch” is a staple made by blending a staple like cornflakes or potato chips with salt, sugar, melted butter and milk powder, baking the mixture slow and low, and then using the tender, caramelized concoction to make a snack, a cookie, a pie crust, or a garnish for a cake. The “crumb” are flavorful little bits made by pulverizing the main ingredient for the crumb, tossing it with flour, sugar and salt, binding it together with butter, baking it, and adding it to cookies, pie crusts and festive desserts like Funfetti Birthday Cake.
Milk Bar has several locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn; we found one tucked in a tiny nest on West 56th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Inside, there they all were: Compost Cookies, hefty concoctions of chocolate and butterscotch chips, potato chips, pretzels, graham crackers and coffee grounds. Bagel bombs with bacon, scallion and cream cheese plugs. Volcanoes, bread bursting with scalloped potatoes, caramelized onions and shredded Gruyere cheese. Crack pie, a buttery, sugary concoction in a hearty oat crust. Cornflake-Chocolate Chip-Marshmallow Cookies, like those Milk Bar baker Christina Tosi made with Martha, which you can watch here.
Wash them all down with a swig of another signature Milk Bar concoction: Cereal Milk. Just like that tasty, sweet milk at the bottom of your cereal bowl, Cereal Milk is flavored milk made by steeping toasted cornflakes, or other cereals like Fruity Pebbles, Cap’n Crunch and Lucky Charms. Drink it straight, pour it over more cereal, add it to coffee, or turn it into desserts such as panna cotta or ice cream. Watch Martha and Christina make it here.
Momofuku Milk Bar and Milk Bar Life: Recipes and Stories, both by Christina Tosi, will help me recreate the Milk Bar experience for those not up for spending two nights sitting up on a bus. Momofuku is also mentioned in New York Sweets: A Sugarhound’s Guide to the Best Bakeries, Ice Cream Parlors, Candy Shops, and Other Emporia of Delicious Delights, by Susan Pear Meisel.
The other destination I checked off on my Must-See List was the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum — not so much for its collection, but because it calls Andrew Carnegie’s house its home. Located on East 91st Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues, the 64-room mansion was designed in the style of a Georgian country house and was built from 1899 to 1902. Carnegie saw his home as “the most modest, plainest, and most roomy house in New York.” I wanted to see it because it was the place where the philanthropist donated money to build all of those free public libraries in communities across the United States and Scotland.
The Carnegie home was the first private residence in the United States to have a structural steel frame and one of the first in New York to have a residential Otis passenger elevator. It also featured central heating, innovatively powered by a pair of twin boilers that were fueled by coal that was transferred from a storage bin to the furnace by a coal car that traveled over a miniature railroad track. Its location — far north of where other Gilded Age notables lived — allowed for the creation of a large, beautiful garden, still a unique feature in Manhattan today. In 2011, the museum closed for renovation and reopened in December 2014.
The Cooper-Hewitt Museum — our country’s only museum devoted to historic and contemporary design — moved to the Carnegie mansion in 1970. Established in 1897 by Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt, granddaughters of Peter Cooper, an industrialist who started the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, the museum is a place where visitors can learn about decorative arts. The accomplished sisters were nuts about decorative arts from an early age, traveling across Europe and collecting all sorts of wonderful decorative objects. In 1892, Sarah wrote “Fashions and Counterfeits of Bric-a-Brac,” an article for Cosmopolitan that helped collectors lend a critical eye to antique reproductions. Eleanor was a talented embroiderer, invented a system of stenography and was one of the first female typists.
For more on Eleanor and Sarah Hewitt, click here. To learn more about Carnegie’s home, see The Life of a Mansion: The Story of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, by Heather Ewing, and Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum: The Andrew and Louise Carnegie Mansion, by Andrew S. Dolkart.
Carnegie, compost cookies, candy couture and Christopher Robin’s friends — they were all wonderful to see. However, there were two real reasons I scampered around New York City this December, and both of them were at the Morgan Library & Museum. They’re coming up next.