5,280 Feet of Culture
Fronting Central Park on Manhattan’s well-moneyed Upper East Side, Fifth Avenue was once chockablock with millionaires’ mansions, but is now home to riches of another kind. Far removed from midtown’s hustle and bustle, the twenty-two blocks between 82nd and 104th Streets contain one of the greatest concentrations of museums in the world, with several others just a few more blocks to the south.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is the largest museum in the western hemisphere and one of the finest, with a collection of more than 2 million works from around the world, from the Stone Age to the 21st century. Founded in 1870 and moved to its present location in 1880, the museum has expanded to such a degree that its original Gothic Revival building is now completely surrounded by additions. Highlights include the Roman and Greek galleries; the Costume Institute; the collections of Byzantine and Chinese art; the collection of European paintings, with works by Tiepolo, Cézanne, Vermeer, and Monet; the Arms and Armor collection; the Egyptian collection, with its mummies, sphinx, and the amazing Temple of Dendur, a complete 1st century B.C. Egyptian temple presented as a gift of the Egyptian government. Also notable is the Frank Lloyd Wright room, set up to mirror the former living room of Francis W. Little. The museum’s Roof Garden Café is a favorite summertime haunt for New Yorkers with its great view of Central Park, while a classical concert series is held in many of the museum’s finest rooms September to June.
For more Wright, walk uptown to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Designed by Wright as a spiral wider at the top than at the base, the structure reflects the architect’s use of organic form. Take the elevator to the top and walk downhill through the uninterrupted gallery to ground level, viewing a collection that spans the period from the late 19th century to the present, including Mr. Guggenheim’s original collection of nonobjective art; Peggy Guggenheim’s collection of Surrealist and abstract paintings and sculptures; and works covering the Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, early Modern, German Expressionist, Minimalist, Environmental, and other modern and contemporary schools.
A little farther uptown, the Museum of the City of New York is a must for Gotham aficionados, with its collections of prints and photographs, paintings and sculpture, decorative arts, costumes, toys, and memorabilia that trace the city’s history from a small Dutch colony to the capital of the world. The Theater Collection is one of the world’s best, covering New York theater from the late 18th century to the present, with original set and costume renderings, photos, and original scripts, costumes, props, posters, and window cards. The Marine Collection concentrates on New York’s maritime history, with 100 scale models of historic ships and as many paintings of New York harbor through the years. On the fifth floor, John D. Rockefeller’s 19th-century bedroom and dressing room are preserved intact, moved here from his house at 4 West 55th Street.
At 91st Street, the Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design occupies the former mansion of another famous New York tycoon, Andrew Carnegie. Part of the Smithsonian Institution, it’s the only museum in the United States devoted solely to historic and contemporary design, with collections of product design and decorative arts, drawings, prints and graphic design, textiles, and wall coverings. The museum’s libraries and archives are open to the public by appointment.
One block north, the Jewish Museum celebrates 4,000 years of Jewish culture through painting, sculpture, drawings, photos, and archaeological and everyday artifacts – some 28,000 pieces in all. The permanent exhibition, Culture and Continuity: The Jewish Journey, tells the story of the Jewish experience from ancient times to today through art, archaeology, ceremonial objects, video, and interactive media.
Technically not part of Museum Mile, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Frick Collection are so close (and so important) that it’s silly to quibble. The Whitney is home to possibly the finest collection of 20th-century American art in the world.
Founded by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in 1930 to showcase the works of neglected American artists, the museum holds an ever-growing collection that currently numbers more than 14,000 works. Highlights of the collection include works by Edward Hopper, Alexander Calder, Georgia O’Keeffe, Reginald Marsh, Claes Oldenburg, Alex Katz, and Stuart Davis. The museum’s stern granite building, described as “an inverted Babylonian ziggurat” by one critic when it went up in 1966, was designed by Hungarian-born, Bauhaus-trained architect Marcel Breuer.
The Frick occupies the other end of the art spectrum, concentrating on European masters. It is housed in a lovely re-created French-style 18th-century mansion, built in 1914 by steel and railroad magnate Henry Clay Frick. The interior mirrors its time, looking like what it once was: the home of an inordinately rich man with a penchant for art. Much loved by New Yorkers for its intimacy and the relative absence of crowds, the museum features beautiful decorations at Christmastime. Works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Holbein, Velázquez, Titian, El Greco, Bellini, and Goya are highlights.
Other museums on the Mile include El Museo del Barrio, the only museum in New York dedicated to Latino history and culture; the National Academy Museum, with its collection of 19th- and 20th-century American art; the Goethe House German Cultural Center, which hosts exhibitions by German artists; and the Neue Galerie New York, devoted to early-20th-century German and Austrian art and design.