Did you notice? Last December, there were no descriptions of the holiday window decorations at Tiffany’s and Bergdorf Goodman. No tales of commuter train travels to farther-afield destinations with Presidential connections. No accounts of must-see museum exhibitions. No mouth-watering descriptions of Schnitzel dinners or compost cookies.
My mother and I decided not to go on our holiday red-eye trip to New York City last year. And we missed it – terribly! So, while snow flurries were flying one dreary day last January, we made plans to reboard the motorcoach for a summer edition of our now-legendary travel experience. Pack some Bayer Back and Body, a Panera orange scone, and your rain gear (just in case). It’s time for another 15-hour New York City adventure!
Where to first? The southeast entrance to Central Park. There, in the middle of the Doris C. Freedman Plaza, at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and East 61st Street, stands Yinka Shonibare’s Wind Sculpture (SG) I. Standing almost 23 feet tall, the orange and teal fiberglass sculpture was made from a mold, modeled using a three-dimensional printer and hand-painted using stencils. On view until October 14, it is Shonibare’s first work exhibited in New York City.
The British-Nigerian artist uses fabric to explore issues related to identity. In 2013, he was inspired by a sail blowing in the wind to create seven large-scale fiberglass sculptures with multiple twists and folds. Their patterns resemble West African textiles, which trace their roots to the Indonesian batik fabric that 19th-century Dutch traders brought to Africa. The sail symbolizes how many immigrants traveled by sea to cities like New York. This is the first in a second generation (that’s the SG) of these sculptures in which he explores this theme, celebrating and paying tribute to immigrants.
We looked across the street and checked off two more items on our sightseeing list. The Pierre is a luxury hotel resembling a French chateau, with the topmost floors modeled after the royal chapel at Versailles. Opened by Charles Pierre, a Corsican emigrant-turned-restaurateur on October 1, 1930, the hotel has also been the residence of President-Elect Richard Nixon, Elizabeth Taylor, Aristotle Onassis and Yves Saint-Laurent. Its neighbor, the Metropolitan Club, is a social club founded in 1891 by J.P. Morgan and other prominent New Yorkers of the day. Stanford White designed the original building in 1893; author Edith Wharton’s friend, Ogden Codman, Jr., designed the east wing in 1912. Consuelo Vanderbilt, the Duchess of Marlborough, was the original landowner.
Next stop: The corner of Madison Avenue and East 57th Street. A bus stop, to be exact!
“Don’t neglect buses,” Roz Chast wrote in Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York. “These lumbering, oblong lane-hogs are slow as ‘molasses in January,’ and don’t come for a long time, only to arrive in bunches. But sometimes, when you’re not in a rush, they are a fun way to travel and see the sights above ground: the people, the stores, the mish-mosh of architectural styles.”
We concur, particularly the M4 bus that travels between Fort Tryon Park and Pennsylvania Station, passing Mt. Sinai Hospital, Central Park, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Columbia University, Barnard College and Harlem. At 9:50 a.m., we had arrived at the end of the line: The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s showplace of medieval art and architecture, The Cloisters.
Precisely as planned, we entered at the stroke of 10 and became the first two visitors of the day, securing the first two of only 10 complimentary tickets available for “Gardens of The Met Cloisters.” Offered at 11:00 a.m. daily through the end of September, these one-hour tours include horticultural, architectural and historical information about the gardens that were planted in these reconstructed Romanesque and Gothic cloisters not only to enhance the setting, but also to add to visitors’ understanding of medieval life. They have become a major attraction in their own right.
That hour was one of the most fascinating we’ve spent, thanks to our guide, Markus Cruse. Dr. Cruse became a docent at The Cloisters while he was in graduate school at New York University. Now, as associate professor of French at Arizona State University’s School of International Letters and Cultures, he returns to give tours there during the summer.
In the sheltered open-air courtyard of the Cuxa Cloister, known as a garth, we enjoyed nature just as the medieval monks did. Based on a 13th-century plan, crossed paths divide this typical monastic garth into four grassy quadrants, each featuring a tree — a crab apple, a pear, a hawthorn, and a cornelian cherry, a species of dogwood known for the red berries it bears in the fall, which resemble cherries. A central fountain is bordered by fragrant flowers, all chosen to provide continuous color from early spring through late fall.
We paused indoors to receive a mini-art history lesson while admiring the Unicorn Tapestries, seven circa-1500 wallhangings depicting the hunt of the unicorn. Two are set against a dark green field with blossoming trees and flowers, known as a millefleurs background. About 100 species of plants are represented in the tapestries; 85 have been identified, such as lilies, wild strawberries, English daisies, violets, primroses, carnations and medlars.
The tapestries’ brilliant hues are the result of dyes that came from weld (yellow), madder (red) and woad (blue), made more striking by the addition of metallic threads. The cipher “AE” woven into each of the tapestries alludes to their original owners; watch for new research to be shared about that, Dr. Cruse hinted.
The Trie Cloister garden evokes the profuse flowering meadows of millefleurs tapestries, so evident in the Unicorn Tapestries.The Bonnefont Cloister garden was inspired by a list of plants Charlemagne created to be grown on his estates. Medieval wattle fences constructed of woven branches border symmetrically organized, geometrically shaped beds of plants grouped and labeled according to their use, from cooking and medicine to art, housekeeping and even magic. Some of these plants were used by medieval artists, providing pigments for manuscript painting and textile dyeing; for example, weld (yellow), madder (red) and woad (blue). Four quince trees — producing the golden fruits used in medieval desserts and preserves — surround a 15th-century Venetian wellhead at the center of the garden. An espaliered pear tree grows nearby. Passing The Cloister’s orchard, where apples, medlars, quinces, currants and elderberries are grown, we reboarded the M4 for The Met Fifth Avenue, to see two French-themed special exhibitions: Public Parks, Private Gardens: Paris to Provence and Visitors to Versailles, 1682-1789, both in the last weeks before their July 29 closing. A Gallic theme is starting to emerge! What’s more, it was Bastille Day!
“If you think of doing something in New York City, you can be certain that at least two thousand other people have that same thought. And of the two thousand who do, about one thousand will be standing in line waiting to do it,” E.L. Konigsburg wrote in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
“Crowded” doesn’t do justice to describe the throngs of people we encountered at the museum. In fact, it was so crowded that we couldn‘t squeeze ourselves into Public Parks, Private Gardens. You and I both will have to rely on the exhibition’s catalogue and online presence to see how it celebrated the tree-lined boulevards and lush landscapes of France.
Louis XIV intended to awe and impress with Versailles. From diplomats and royalty to musicians, Grand Tourists and properly dressed peasants, everyone was welcome at this magnificent palace. Visitors to Versailles did too, capturing how this grand estate looked to visitors of all classes as they wandered through the dazzling palace and strolled through the spectacular formal gardens, following popular guidebooks and itineraries designed by the king himself.
Galleries presented artifacts like a portable sedan chair that the well-to-do used on the palace grounds; furniture, Sèvres porcelain and Gobelins tapestries from its interior; the luxurious embroidered dress of the French court; and Benjamin Franklin’s plain but distinguishing brown cloth suit, worn to communicate his new country’s values and ideals during a circa-1778/79 diplomatic visit.
Other highlights included one of the original 300 lead figures of Aesop’s Fables animals that adorned the fountains of the labyrinth, as well as souvenir snuffboxes, fans and buttons depicting views of Versailles. Official gifts documenting a visit to Versailles were also displayed, such as the sword presented to John Paul Jones, jeweled miniature portraits of the king and the watercolor albums Marie Antoinette commissioned to remind her visitors of the menagerie, Temple of Love and other places they were entertained.
What was it like to visit Versailles? What impressions did it have on people? Letters and diary entries written by visitors provide fascinating answers, dramatically read by actors in a half-hour immersive audio experience, complemented by sound effects and music. It was created to listen to while in the galleries, but you can also hear it here.
Continuing our Gallic theme, our next stop was Ladurée, at 864 Madison Avenue. Since opening in Paris in 1862, this family of pastry shops is known for its colorful, glossy French macarons in seasonal flavors like blackcurrant-violet and rose-raspberry, offered in refined, elegant packaging.
Brutalist architecture isn’t to everyone’s taste, but I wanted to see one particular example that’s incongruous with its posh, classic surroundings. Off we went to The Met Breuer, Marcel Breuer’s landmark building on Madison Avenue at 75th Street.
“What the hell is that?,” a New York cabbie is said to have asked his passenger when they passed this incongruous structure. “Exactly the reaction I was hoping for,” Breuer — the passenger — reportedly responded.
A similar exchange occurred between us as we approached this big block of a place that Breuer designed in 1966 for the Whitney Museum of American Art, which occupied it until 2014, when The Met began restoring it to house its modern art collection. After all, since our travels in Germany had taken us to the Bauhaus, that famous place for art education that promoted “design for life,” we might as well see the creation of one of its leading figures for ourselves.
With only a 100-by-125-foot corner lot to work with, Breuer fashioned an eye-catching cube of a building that telescoped diagonally upward, creating almost 30,000 square feet of galleries on five levels. We crossed the concrete bridge that shielded Jacqueline Kennedy from the rain on the museum’s opening day and entered the building under a dramatic 115-foot cantilevered concrete canopy. Prefabricated granite panels were bonded to concrete in order to create the striking light-and dark-gray walls.
Having listened to The Met’s 30-minute audio architecture tour about the building, its history and its architect, I arrived thoroughly briefed on some of its identifying features. Its seven random “eyebrow” windows. The passenger elevator, originally painted a bright primary shade of blue known as “Breuer blue.” The lobby’s bluestone floor. The original clock by the coat check, still hanging in its specially created niche in the wall. The floor-to-ceiling windows that stretch from the sunken garden and café. (At the time of construction, they were the tallest windows in New York City — so tall that the glass shattered a couple of times before they were even installed.) And Dwellings, the permanent installation created by Charles Simonds in 1981, above the window in the corner of the stairwell. From here, you can see two similar clusters of miniature buildings atop clay hills that are located across the street on a second-story windowsill and the chimney of 940 Madison Avenue.
By this time, we had worked up a serious appetite. Where did we go? To Donohue’s Steak House, a throwback treasure at 845 Lexington Avenue, between 64th and 65th Streets. Cardinal Timothy Dolan introduced me to this place in the first five minutes of the June 20, 2017 episode of his podcast.
Since 1950, this family-owned restaurant has been serving both celebrities and worn-out travelers like us classics like roast Maryland turkey with dressing, giblet gravy and cranberry sauce; honey-dipped Southern fried chicken; Virginia ham; London broil; Boston scrod; and our choice – a prime chopped beef burger. From investigating just the right bus for us to take to showing us the table where the “Mayor of Donohue’s” sits every night, owner Maureen Donohue-Peters took excellent care of us.
There’s one thing I haven’t covered, and that was the main reason for taking this particular trip: Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. That’s coming up next.
If you’re impressed by the amount of ground we cover on one of these New York City adventures, check out The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City, by William B. Helmreich, and Walking New York: Reflections of American Writers from Walt Whitman to Teju Cole, by Stephen Miller.
Yinka Shonibare contributed “Mrs Pinckney and the Emancipated Birds of South Carolina” to Enlightened Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte, and the Shaping of the Modern World, a 2017 exhibition at Kensington Palace and the Yale Center for British Art. He was featured in this episode of the Historic Royal Palaces podcast. The American Library, another Shonibare work, is on view at the Cleveland Public Library’s main branch until September 30. Also focusing on immigration, this work features 6,000 books, displayed in open bookcases and wrapped in colorful African wax cloth. The spine of each book is stamped in gold with the name of an immigrant who has made significant contributions to art, science or American culture.
For more on The Cloisters’ gardens, read The Cloisters: Medieval Art and Architecture, by Peter Barnet and Nancy Wu, and Sweet Herbs and Sundry Flowers: Medieval Gardens and the Gardens of The Cloisters, by Tania Bayard. If you’d like to learn more about medieval France from Mark Cruse, read what he wrote about a 14th-century ivory writing tablet in The Cloisters’ collection in “Intimate Performance: An Ivory Writing Tablet Cover at the Cloisters,” a chapter he contributed to Cultural Performances in Medieval France: Essays in Honor of Nancy Freeman Regalado, edited by Eglal Doss-Quinby, Roberta L. Krueger and E. Jane Burns. Also see his book, Illuminating the Roman d’Alexandre: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 264: The Manuscript As Monument. And watch his lecture, “The Widow, the Prince, and the Book: How Christine de Pizan Rewrote History.”
Set the tone for a visit to the Met Breuer with “Soundwalk 9:09,” a composition of sounds recorded in the area, designed for visitors to listen to as they make the eight-block walk between The Met Fifth Avenue and the Met Breuer. For more on The Met Breuer and its architect, see Whitney Museum of American Art, photographs by Ezra Stoller; Concrete Concept: Brutalist Buildings Around the World, by Christopher Beanland; and Marcel Breuer, Architect: The Career and the Buildings, by Isabelle Hyman.
Read more about the Pierre in A Different World: Stories of Great Hotels, by Christopher Matthew. Discover more about Ladurée in New York Sweets, by Susan Pear Meisel, and about Donohue’s here.
Visitors to Versailles: From Louis XIV to the French Revolution, edited by Daniëlle Kisluk-Grosheide and Bertrand Rondot; Versailles, by Valérie Bajou, translated by Antony Shugaar; A Day at Versailles, by Yves Carlier; The Gardener of Versailles: My Life in the World’s Grandest Garden, by Alain Baraton, and Fashion and Versailles by Laurence Benaïm are a lovely collection of books about Versailles.