To some, taking a holiday from the neighborhood means hopping a flight to Miami Beach or to Hollywood, but as Billy Joel sings, we were in a New York state of mind. We didn’t take a Greyhound on the Hudson River line for a springtime getaway; we boarded a sleek white motorcoach bound for the Empire City.
Spending two whole days there could mean a leisurely start at Friedmans, mindfully eating “to-die-for” French toast with berry compote and a gargantuan bowl of homemade granola, Greek yogurt and mixed berries, drizzled with wildflower honey. But the city awaited!
Walking up Eighth Ave. was a welcome alternative to our usual Fifth Ave. route, especially when spring branches hung with hand-painted Austrian Easter eggs beckoned from the window of Seasons floral design studio. Turning on W. 57th St., we took a quick look at the Russian Tea Room, that iconic establishment founded by members of the Russian Imperial Ballet in 1927. Peeking through the antique revolving doors, we caught a glimpse of the red leather banquets, spruce-green walls and 24-carat-gold ceiling that make the interior so exquisite. More window-peeping took place at Carnegie Hall, the famed performance venue in which artists have aspired to appear since it opened in 1891. Funded by Andrew Carnegie, the historic landmark has also hosted lectures on causes championed by noted figures like Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain. Carnegie Hall was saved after being set to be demolished in 1960, in favor of what would become our next stop: Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, commemorating its 60th anniversary this year.
To get there, we took a short-cut through the place that was designed to be experienced on foot: Central Park. The decked-out horses and carriages, luminous light-green tree leaves and blooming spring bulbs made the passages of scenery we experienced just as tranquil and picturesque as they appear in the image on the scarf I was wearing: Spring in Central Park, Adolf Dehn’s 1941 watercolor from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection.
We crossed Columbus Circle, the point from which official highway distances from New York City are measured. Passing the globe sculpture at 59th St. and Columbus Ave., we made our way to Sesame Street. Just two days before, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio renamed the intersection of W. 63rd St. and Broadway — where the Sesame Workshop offices are located — Sesame Street as part of the television program’s 50th anniversary celebration.
We made our way through Lincoln Center’s plaza to the Metropolitan Opera House. Founded in 1883, the Met was first located on Broadway and 39th St., and moved to Lincoln Center in 1966. We walked up the deep-red carpeted steps of its famous grand double staircase of Italian terrazzo, admiring Kneeling Woman – Monument to Debussy, Aristide Maillol’s sculpture on the landing.The Met’s iconic Swarovski-crystal “Sputnik” starburst chandeliers were a gift from the Austrian government, as repayment for the United States’ post-World War II reconstruction efforts. At the Grand Tier’s Revlon Bar, we watched a closed-circuit video monitor of the stage, showing theatrical lighting being tested before the morning’s rehearsal began. Marc Chagall’s famed mural — The Triumph of Music — hangs overhead, with its companion mural, The Sources of Music, nearby. Large curtains are drawn over both murals, each measuring 30 feet by 36 feet, to protect them against damage from sunlight until mid-afternoon.
Before browsing the Met Opera Shop, we visited three exhibitions in Founders Hall. In keeping with the return of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle to the Met’s repertory during the most recent season, one exhibit celebrated Placido Domingo’s 50-year career at the Met with photographs of the magnificent tenor in 49 of his 51 principal Met roles. Another celebrated the centenary of Birgit Nilsson, the Swedish soprano who debuted at the Met in 1959 and became the company’s pre-eminent Wagnerian soprano. The third featured a selection of ten paintings of scenes from Wagner operas by German artist Ferdinand Leeke, commissioned circa 1889 by Siegfried Wagner, the composer’s son. “Nights at the Opera” featured hundreds of photographs of Met artists, a tradition begun at the Met’s original home.
We made a quick trip next door to see the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, home of several special collections related to dance, theatre, music and recorded sound. The Jerome Robbins Dance Division, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, is the leading international repository for the history of dance. Founded in 1944 by Genevieve Oswald, its curator for the next 43 years, the archive includes dance films, photographs, manuscript collections, musical scores, programs, choreographic notations, and special treasures like Anna Pavlova’s ballet slippers and Isadora Duncan’s silk flower garland. In 1965, Jerome Robbins dedicated one percent of his royalties from “Fiddler on the Roof” – he directed and choreographed the original production – for its upkeep.
Off we went down Broadway to Brooks Brothers and its Red Fleece Cafe in the Flatiron District, where we made several additions to our wardrobe wish lists. We continued on 20th St. to Park Avenue, where Herman Miller, the Michigan office furniture company, opened both a retail showroom and its New York corporate offices in 2016. New and vintage Herman Miller furniture, lighting and accessories are displayed in rooms to demonstrate Living Office, Herman Miller’s people-centered approach to the workplace. The building served as the home of George Nelson & Company from 1973 to 1979, following Nelson’s long tenure directing design for Herman Miller from 1947 to 1972. During his time here, Nelson published his classic book, How to See: A Guide to Reading Our Manmade Environment.We took a break for lunch at Shake Shack in Madison Square Park. What began as a hot dog cart in the park in 2001 is now a permanent kiosk reflecting the gray tones of the neighboring Flatiron Building. We joined the long line of people waiting for its famous hot dogs, batter-fried chicken sandwiches, frozen custard shakes and “concretes,” and seared hamburgers served on potato buns and topped with secret-recipe Shacksauce. Next, we made our way to the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. Built in 1863 when immigrants were pouring into New York City and needed cheap housing, the five-story tenement building at 97 Orchard Street was home to 7,000 immigrants from more than 20 countries between 1863 and 1935, when the building’s owner evicted tenants and boarded it up, unable to afford the expensive renovations that new laws required. Since 1994, the Tenement Museum has been telling former inhabitants’ stories through unique tours of four restored, historically furnished apartments.
Located on what was one of the most densely populated blocks in the city, this long, narrow building first had a tailor shop and a saloon occupying the ground floor, one on either side of the front stoop. Inside, a marble-paneled vestibule led to a narrow hallway and a central wooden stairway ascending five flights, with decorative cast-iron treads added to “fireproof” the steps. Several small three-room flats had a dozen or more people living in each one, with the poorest tenants living in the highest flats. One room served as a kitchen/living room/sweatshop; the other was a windowless bedroom. The building had no indoor plumbing or gas lighting until 1905; it was wired for electricity in 1924.
Crowded, cold and noisy, without sanitation, sunlight and fresh air, the tenements were rife with disease and poverty. It was communal living at its most difficult. Yet it was a ripe source of material for journalists searching for human-interest stories. One was Jacob Riis, a Danish immigrant who began reporting on tenement life in the mid-1880s. Appalled by the poverty and squalid conditions he saw, he began a crusade for tenement reform, writing How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, illustrating it with his arresting flash photographs of tenement residents, and giving lantern-slide lectures about their tribulations. Together with Theodore Roosevelt, Riis was instrumental in improving life on the Lower East Side.
It’s a short walk from 97 Orchard Street to 263 Mulberry Street, so we swung by Little Italy and checked out the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral. Completed in 1815, Old St. Patrick’s was one of the first Gothic Revival churches in America. It’s also one of the first and best places to hear fine music in New York City. For example, 17-year-old Maria Malibran performed in an orphans’ benefit concert held at Old St. Patrick’s in June 1826; she would become a great operatic artist within three years. In 1868, Henry Erben, the leading pipe organ builder of the day, built an organ specifically for the basilica that is considered an important historical instrument today. A campaign for its $2 million restoration is under way; in fact, movie director Martin Scorsese, who served Mass there as a boy, invited his friends to contribute to the cause in honor of his 75th birthday in 2017.
Old St. Patrick’s served as the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York until the current St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Ave. between 50th and 51st Sts. opened in 1879. St. John Neumann, who was canonized as America’s first male saint in 1977, was ordained to priesthood at Old St. Patrick’s in 1836. John Curry, the youngest of the 15 witnesses to the apparition of Our Lady in Knock, Ireland on August 21, 1879, was re-interred in Old St. Patrick’s walled graveyard in May 2017, after his 1943 burial on Long Island. The graveyard’s walls were built in the mid-1800s to protect the cathedral from anti-Catholic mobs.
Beneath Old St. Patrick’s are the catacombs where prominent New Yorkers and Catholic clergy are buried; it was also where the baptism scene in “The Godfather” was filmed. “Catacombs By Candlelight” tours are offered daily.
Our last stop of the day was the Chrysler Building. Completed for automotive executive Walter Chrysler in 1930, the iconic 77-story office building was the tallest in the world for 12 months, when it was surpassed by the Empire State Building. This Art Deco marble-and-granite masterpiece features a tapering steel spire and chromium nickel gargoyles modeled after Chrysler hood ornaments. Geometric gray-and-white brick tracery with inset metal circles suggests a Chrysler’s tires, hubcaps and running board. The lobby’s entrance doors, light fixtures and railings are made of Nirosta, a nickel-chrome-steel alloy imported from Germany. The marble floor is inlaid with abstract geometric patterns, while the inlaid elevator doors are made from Japanese ash, English gray harewood, Oriental walnut and Cuban plum pudding wood.
Overhead is Transport and Human Endeavor, a distinctive mural initially painted on canvas and then cemented to the lobby’s ceiling. Incorporating scenes of the building’s construction, it is said to celebrate resilience, energy and the ability to overcome challenges.
We celebrated our resilience and energy as we decided to take the M7 back to Times Square, already planning our strategy for Day 2. As we waited for the bus, we spotted a distinctive Art Deco skyscraper with two distinctive friezes: one with terra-cotta curves and zigzags, and another bronze one depicting scenes of evolution. The surprise destination we checked off from our sightseeing list was the Chanin Building, at the corner of Lexington Ave. and E. 42nd St.
For more on these New York City destinations, check out the DVD titled Carnegie Hall at 100: A Place of Dreams; “Central Park: Nature’s Urban Canvas,” in Adolf Dehn: Midcentury Manhattan, by Philip Eliasoph; A Green Place to Be: The Creation of Central Park, by Ashley Benham Yazdani; and Seeing Central Park: The Official Guide to the World’s Greatest Urban Park and Central Park: An American Masterpiece, both by Sara Cedar Miller. Watch Birgit Nilsson: A League of Her Own and The Opera House, a new PBS “Great Performances” documentary, for more on the Metropolitan Opera.
Three New York Times articles introduced me to the New York Public Library’s Jerome Robbins Dance Division: “Genevieve Oswald, the Soul of a Dance Archive, Is Dead at 97” (March 29, 2019); “Pavlova’s Shoes, Nijinsky’s Diary, and Other Dance Treasures from the Public Library,” (February 7, 2019); and “Dance: Library; Records That Preserve the Most Fragile Art,” (August 8, 1954), written by Genevieve Oswald herself.
Create your own version of a Shake Shack lunch with Shake Shack: Recipes and Stories, by Randy Garutti and Mark Rosati. To learn more about New York City’s tenements, read Tenement: Immigrant Life on the Lower East Side, by Raymond Bial; 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement, by Jane Ziegelman; 97 Orchard Street, New York: Stories of Immigrant Life, by Linda Granfield; and “There’s Life in These Walls,” by Roddy Doyle, in Treasure Palaces: Great Writers Visit Great Museums, edited by Maggie Fergusson; The “All-of-a-Kind Family” series of books for young adult readers by Sydney Taylor is about life on the Lower East Side.
For more on Jacob Riis and his How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, see Rediscovering Jacob Riis: Exposure Journalism and Photography in Turn-of-the-Century New York, by Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel Czitrom; Walking New York: Reflections of American Writers from Walt Whitman to Teju Cole, by Stephen Miller; and The Other Half: The Life of Jacob Riis and the World of Immigrant America, by Tom Buk-Swienty.
Finally, check out New York Art Deco: A Guide to Gotham’s Jazz Age Architecture, by Anthony W. Robins, and The Little Big Book of New York: Literary Excerpts, Essays, Recipes, Poetry, Songs, History, and Facts, edited by Natasha Tabori Fried and Lena Tabori.