The Cloisters

Far up the coast on the west side of Manhattan (some would say, “cloistered away”) is the dramatic Cloisters. This extension of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the full description of this facility is in another entry), is in Fort Tryon Park with dramatic views of the Hudson River and George Washington Bridge. In its walls are valuable works of art from the Middle Ages. In addition to the art inside, the building itself is a classical work of art.

Commissioned by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. after he acquired a large quantity of Medieval art, The Cloisters was eventually built on a parcel of land 4 acres in area in Washington Heights. Rockefeller even bought land on the New Jersey side of the river to preserve the somewhat rustic view of the area from the museum. The building itself The Cloisters is housed in is from four different abbeys in the south of France built in the Middle Ages. There are additionally three chapels located in the museum that were once situated in France and Spain. The structure was completed at the end of the 1930s and houses nearly 2,000 pieces of art from the Middle Ages.

The Cloisters has a collection that includes stained glass windows, rare tapestries, and religious objects from the Medieval period. There are also many illuminated manuscripts and even one of the only known complete sets of playing cards from that era on display as well. The admission to this museum is “pay-what-you-wish” and can be combined with a visit to the main Metropolitan Museum of Art campus on Fifth Avenue for a same-day visit (linked by the MTA’s M4 bus). This is the type of information you will learn on a Sights by Sam walking tour. A tour of the building, nearby Fort Tryon Park, or other attractions in the neighborhood can be done through Sights by Sam.

The Museum of Modern Art

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is one of the most famous art museums in the country and the world.  The permanent collection of the museum has several notable artworks by artists such as Van Gogh, Picasso, Seurat, Matisse, and Dali, among many, many others.  The museum also has several temporary exhibitions that bring subjects as diverse as artist retrospectives to trends in mid 20th Century furniture design.

The MoMA was first formulated in 1929 and opened shortly after the stock market crash of that year.  It moved to its current location in 1939.  It gained prominence early in its history with exhibits about Van Gogh and Picasso.  The museum has been expanded several times—in the 1980s and in the early 2000s.  A satellite campus has been opened in Long Island City, Queens, at P.S. 1 to showcase contemporary art.  Another large expansion is in the works to be completed by 2020.  In addition to its painting and sculpture collection, the MoMA houses thousands of sketches, books, and movies deemed important for preservation.

The museum is very popular on Fridays after 4:00PM when admission fees are waived.  The MoMA is worth a spot on the itinerary of any visitor to the city.  This is the type of information you will learn on a Sights by Sam tour.

Studio Museum in Harlem

On 125th Street is the Studio Museum in Harlem, an art museum dedicated to displaying artwork completed by African Americans and people of African descent from all over the world. It sees thousands of visitors annually and anchors a stretch of 125th Street that is close to the Apollo Theater and the Hotel Theresa.

Founded in 1968, the museum was established by African American artists and residents of Harlem. The museum has an emphasis on contemporary art and has a collection of over 2,000 pieces of artwork in its permanent collection. The Studio Museum is known for its temporary exhibits that showcase everything from retrospectives on famous African American artists to displaying artwork from local students. It is also known for having an artists-in-residence program that showcases emerging artists and their work.

The Studio Museum is housed in a former bank building on 125th Street and is known for its American flag in the colors of the African American flag (black, red, and green) flying over its entrance. This museum can be seen at the end of a Sights by Sam “Upper Manhattan” tour and is the type of information that is presented on all Sights by Sam tours.

Skyscraper Museum

Perhaps no other invention typifies New York more than the skyscraper. This invention was the result of the dual inventions of steel and the safety elevator. Before these inventions, people could only tolerate walking up six flights of stairs to live and work (think about older buildings in the Lower East Side and Chinatown). Only the spires of churches and some other large items (the Brooklyn Bridge towers) rose above several stories. Although Chicago lays claim to the first skyscraper in the U.S. and the world, New York was the most eager adaptor of this new building type. The limited space on Manhattan coupled with hard rock on the island that made buildings easy to securely anchor led to a proliferation of skyscrapers that created the manmade canyons known the world over.

The Skyscraper Museum in Lower Manhattan is the perfect place for lovers of tall buildings. In addition to captivating changing exhibits, the permanent collection of the museum has details about the tallest buildings in the world and famous skyscrapers in New York. Given the location of the museum in Lower Manhattan, the museum has made an exhibit about the World Trade Center twin towers part of its permanent collection, celebrating these marvels of engineering and giving pause to their demise. Predictably, the museum also has a first-rate gift shop for everything tall buildings.

This museum is a must for fans of Manhattan’s most recognizable architectural form. Participants on Sights by Sam tours are guaranteed to receive detailed explanations of skyscrapers and other sights worth seeing on every tour.

The Frick Collection

Nestled in the Upper East Side among several of the museums on the world-famous Museum Mile is the Frick Collection. A small art museum that bears similarity to the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia or the Taft Museum in Cincinnati, and the collection of Frick’s artworks in Pittsburgh at the Frick Art and Historical Center, the Frick Collection contains works of art collected by wealthy industrialist Henry Clay Frick.

Similar to fellow Pennsylvanian Solomon R. Guggenheim, Frick was a titan of industry as one of the founders of U.S. Steel. Frick’s massive wealth allowed him to collect art, especially paintings by European old masters. He housed many of his collected works in a New York mansion designed by the firm of Carrere and Hastings (who also designed the main New York Public Library). Frick only lived at the mansion for a short time, but turned the house over as a museum after he and his wife passed away. The Frick Collection also contains a massive art reference library. Although it functions solely as a museum today, the Frick Collection is housed in one of the last mansions on Fifth Avenue. In the coming years, the amount of the facility on view will expand as the upstairs of the mansion will open to the public.

Although the Museum Mile is dominated by several larger museums, including the Metropolitan Museum, the Frick Collection is worth a visit for those interested in the art of old world masters and fans of architecture. This is the type of information your will learn on a Sights by Sam tour.

City Reliquary 

When I was in high school history, teachers were moving gradually away from teaching names, dates, and important events as the only things going on in history.  The new emphasis was on social history, which depicted how normal people lived during historical times and how events affected them.  I was relieved that I no longer had to memorize that the Erie Canal was completed in 1825, but now learned more about revival movements in Upstate that were sweeping through the populace at the time.

New York is unrivaled by nearly every other city in terms of the richness and diversity of its museums.  While I am very interested in history, and hope that those who take Sights by Sam tours have at least a passing interest in the subject, the great masses of immigrants and arrivals are the biggest part of who made New York what it is today.  While great monuments and museums were built by some of the most well known New Yorkers, what of the eight million stories out there of its citizens?

Enter the City Reliquary.  Located in Williamsburg in Brooklyn, the museum is only a small storefront.  The main gallery of the reliquary contains a permanent exhibit of the everyday objects of the city and its people.  The City Reliquary contains a collection of neon signs, subway signs, World’s Fair memorabilia, items manufactured in the city, and all sorts of other knickknacks.  There is also a temporary exhibition hall that has changing exhibits pertaining to topics ranging from doughnuts to artworks.

Although not on the itinerary of most tourists, the City Reliquary is a worthwhile walk off of the beaten track.  The museum is in Williamsburg, which has become somewhat of a hipster haven in recent years—with many interesting shops and restaurants located not far from the Reliquary.  Consider taking a tour through this area with Sights by Sam to learn about this and other locations worth knowing in New York.

Museum of the City of New York

New York City has not one but two historical museums about the city.  With the New-York Historical Society on the Upper West Side, the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY) guards the Upper East Side.

The MCNY was founded in 1923 to preserve the history of the city.  It has moved around several times, including briefly occupying Gracie Mansion (the Mayor of New York’s residence—more on this in a future entry).  The current museum is a purpose-built structure that was completed in 1932.  The collection of the museum contains 1.5 million objects.  The most notable of these are a collection of children’s toys and period rooms of different stages in New York’s history.

The most notable reason to visit this museum are the temporary exhibits about the city’s history.  Exhibits have been done on baseball in New York, subway graffiti, the grid plan of Manhattan, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission to name but a few.  The museum’s gift shop carries an incredible assortment of books about the city—including catalogues of the many temporary exhibits.

The MCNY sits far up on Fifth Avenue at the edge of the world-famous “Museum Mile” district.  The MCNY and other attractions important to the city are pointed out on any Sights by Sam tour.

New York Hall of Science

Located in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park is the New York Hall of Science (Hall of Science).  This structure dates back from the 1964 World’s Fair.  Along with the Queens Museum, the Hall of Science is on the top of the radar for many visitors to this part of New York and residents of the Borough of Queens.

As I mentioned before, the Hall of Science opened in 1964 for the World’s Fair, which was held in New York in that year through 1965.  After the closure of the fair, the Hall of Science stayed open and showcased the achievements of the various nations in science and space (with an emphasis on the United States).  This remained the basic format of the museum until the 1980s when it was renovated to cover more science-themed exhibits (it had been drifting into exhibiting items about science fiction to bolster attendance numbers).  After the renovation, the museum became one of the first science museums in the U.S. and now has 450 exhibits.  Every year, over 500,000 people come and tour the museum.  The museum has doubled in size since the 1964 World’s Fair.  The Hall of Science’s architecture is famous for the “Great Hall” in the interior, which uses blue stained glass to give the illusion that guests are in outer space when inside the room.

If you are at or near Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, the Hall of Science is worth your time, if only just to look at the fascinating structure.  Children also love the science-themed playground on the museum’s grounds—one of the most popular in the city.  This structure can be visited with a trip to a Mets game at Citi Field, a visit to other structures in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, or before or after a trip to Flushing Chinatown on the 7 train.  This is the type of information you will learn on a Sights by Sam tour.

Costume Institute

One of the major collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is its collection of costumes held in the Costume Institute.  Officially named the Anna Wintour Costume Center (after the longtime editor of Vogue magazine), the Costume Institute concentrates on changing exhibits of costumes and gowns that help to preserve these unique objects and show the history of fashion.

The Costume Institute can trace its origins to the 1937 Museum of Costume Art.  While this institution was supported with contributions from the fashion industry (who naturally sought to bring awareness to the history of fashion and costumes), the museum merged with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1959, becoming the Costume Institute.  In 2009, the Brooklyn Museum donated its collection of costumes to the Costume Institute, bolstering its collection to over 50,000 objects (many of them rare).  The Costume Institute receives its funding through donations (via the “Friends of the Costume Institute”) and the annual Met Gala in spring, which not only raises money for the institute, but also shows off the new exhibit for the Costume Institute every year.

Famous exhibits at the Costume Institute in the past have centered on the fashion of U.S. First Ladies, Chinese imperial court wear, and works of the great European fashion houses among many others.  Being located at the flagship Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue, the Costume Institute can easily be combined with a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or another museum along the world-famous Museum Mile.  This is the type of information you will learn on a Sights by Sam tour.

The Brooklyn Museum

The Borough of Champions houses one of the largest museums in the U.S. that sadly does not feature on the itinerary of most visitors.  The Brooklyn Museum is one of the greatest overlooked museums in the city.

The museum’s current structure dates from 1897 and was designed by the firm of McKim,Mead, and White, with some structural embellishments by Daniel Chester French (the sculptor of President Lincoln’s statue at the Lincoln Memorial in D.C.).  After decades of deferred maintenance, the museum restored galleries and built a monumental glass entrance in 2004.  Other renovations and additions are still ongoing.

The museum contains an incredible collection of Egyptian art and artifacts that rival, if not exceed, those of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  There is also an impressive collection of African art, early American portraiture, and impressionist art.  A wing of the museum is dedicated to feminist art and female artists.  Although rumored to have been constructed as the largest museum in the world, the entire collection is not displayed as it is too vast for the building.

One of the Brooklyn Museum’s best bargains is the Target First Saturday’s program.  Sponsored by Target Department Stores, the museum is free on the first Saturday of the month (excluding September).  These last from 5:00PM to 11:00PM.  As Admiral Chester Nimitz would have said about getting tickets before they run out on these dates, “Get there firstest with the mostest.”

The immediate neighborhood around the Brooklyn Museum is worth exploring as well.  The museum sits at the entrance to Prospect Park—Brooklyn’s answer to Central Park (it was even designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux as well).  Near the entrance to Prospect Park is the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, showing the sacrifice Brooklynites made in the Civil War.  The Brooklyn Children’s Museum is also a manageable 20 minute walk from the Brooklyn Museum.

Brooklynites have often sat in the shadow of Manhattan.  A trip to the Brooklyn Museum and the surrounding neighborhood give the people of the Borough of Champions reason to hold their heads high.  Sign up for a Sights by Sam walking tour to learn about the treasures of the city.