New York Stories and Tips

New York: Part II: The Arts

Manhattan Skyline II Photo, New York, New York

The first British governor was appointed by Queen Anne. Her cousin, Lord Cornbury, was (probably) New York city’s first drag queen. That same year (1702) one in nine of the city’s residents perished during an outbreak of yellow fever. Less than 30 years later 600 souls were lost to smallpox. But, by 1733 the city had still swollen to 11,000 residents.

Progress was coming rapidly to the city. King’s College (now Columbia) was established in 1754, whale oil lamps illuminated the streets within a decade, the first St. Patrick’s Day parade takes place (1766) and New York hospital opens in 1771. With progress comes change, and some of it is not so smooth.

In 1765 the British pass the Stamp Act which resulted in the formation of the "Sons of Liberty" and protests took place. In retaliation the British created the Townsend Act (taxes on imports) and in 1770, on Golden Hill, the British and Sons of Liberty clashed resulting in first bloodshed. The Boston Massacre occurred quickly after this.

In 1776 George Washington led his troops against 25,000 British soldiers. They pulled down a statue of George III in Bowling Green, melted it down and used the metal for musket balls. In the end, Washington was defeated and the British begin a long seven-year occupation of the city. In 1783 the British departed permanently from Battery Park.

A boom time ensued for the city. The Bank of New York was organized by Alexander Hamilton in 1784 (original location at 48 Wall St.), trading began with the Chinese and St. Peter’s Catholic church (the city’s oldest) was consecrated. The first directory of New York city was published in 1786, and New York’s city council allowed the federal government the use of City Hall thereby becoming the nation’s first capital. In 1792 a stock market was established along Wall Street under a grove of trees (prior to this trading took place in a coffeehouse on the corner of Wall and Water streets), the New York Post hit newstands in 1801 and the first fire department was established. The city’s population was now over 60,000 including 2,500 slaves.

Expansion occurred rapidly. Brooklyn was incorporated as a village in 1816 (and as a city in 1834) and over 1,000 moved northward into Greenwich Village to flee a yellow fever outbreak in 1822. To feed this population, the Erie Canal opened in 1825, connecting midwest farmers to the city. The Erie railroad replaced the canal in importance by 1832.

The Great Fire of 1835 claimed 674 buildings below Wall Street. A massive building boom would follow. Some of the buildings erected over the next few years include: the Astor House hotel, original City Prison and St. Paul’s (Brooklyn). However, most impressive were the churches designed by James Renwick Jr.

Renwick was born in 1818 to a wealthy Manhattan family. At the age of 12 he entered Columbia University to study engineering. He eventually obtained a Master’s degree. In 1843 he secured his first commission, Grace Church, located at 802 Broadway in Greenwich Village. It was built in the Gothic Revival style. He followed up this project with other church projects, including Calvary Church (1846) and St. Patrick’s Cathedral (1858).

It was over the next 75 years that New York really came into its own, and the history of the city can be readily seen. The arts makes their entrance into city life in 1842 when the Philharmonic was organized and the first concert took place in the Apollo Rooms on lower Broadway. Thirty years later, the original Metropolitan Museum of Art opens its doors.

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Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 5th Avenue
(subway: 86th Street & Lexington)

In art school certain museums are spoken of with reverence: the Louvre, Prado, Vatican and Uffizi Gallery. In the U.S. its "the Met", and it was this former art student’s first visit. I scampered up the stairs and was very quickly overwhelmed by the scale of this treasure trove.

Behind the Beaux Arts facade (completed in 1902) lay riches -- over two million square feet of floor space in a building nearly a quarter mile long -- which boasts two million works of art from nineteen different departments. Its all here, from antiquities to Egyptian works, European masters, photography, sculpture and primitive works from around the world. Hard to believe that this developed from a single person’s collection (John Taylor Johnson, a railroad executive) in a building twenty times smaller than the present location in 1872.

You simply cannot take in everything. Instead, we picked a specific area to focus on, and headed to the second floor’s collection of European paintings (roughly, 2,200 works). The walls are lined with the names of genius, Monet, Cezanne, Raphael, Rembrandt and Duccio. What grabbed my attention was Van Gogh. (I had never thought much of the artist, but had only seen a simple self-portrait with my own eyes.) His thick, rich, vibrant Irises, Roses and Oleanders were startling, unexpected treats. You can find each brushstroke hidden in the petals and stems.

I promised myself to research Van Gogh when I returned home, and exhausted we made our way to the roof top terrace. Besides a magnificent view of Manhattan and Central Park, you can find a simple snack shop.

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