While the newest, the biggest, or the most fashionable are always interesting guideposts to urban wanderers, it can be just as satisfying to dwell on the older, the smaller, and the old-fashioned. The contrast is of course what makes urban neighborhoods interesting; too much of one or the other and that palpable tension gives way to monotony. Luckily New York City still has plenty of these lesser elements: as an example, see the small 5-story tenement building above at the corner of West 57th Street and 9th Avenue, which used to be part of a larger block of similar structures back when the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood had lots of cheap housing for new immigrants in the late 19th century. In later years, the neighbors were demolished for large, modern apartment buildings but this one clings on to the corner, a reminder of a much earlier era.
On a quiet East 4th Street in the Noho neighborhood is the Merchant’s House Museum (above), a townhouse built in 1832 whose upper-middle class family occupied it continuously–with little redecoration or renovation since the 1850’s–before leaving the house and its contents as a museum in 1936. Considered one of the finest Greek Revival-style row houses extant in the US, it’s one of those places you can walk by daily and never notice amidst the busy city that grew up around it.
A testament to the fast pace of this city, the house was built on spec in a newly desirable location; within a few decades neighbors were leaving for leafier places further north but the Tredwell family stubbornly stayed put as both neighborhood and family fortune declined. Stepping inside is like finding a time capsule filled with pier glass mirrors and Victorian Rococo furniture.
A similar time capsule is found in the Fort George neighborhood at the upper tip of Manhattan island, where the ubiquitous chain stores seen in trendier locales are nonexistent (above). In the commercial center, you can buy a bottle of rose at the wine shop, enjoy a tuna melt at the lunch counter across the street, and then treat yourself to a fresh cookie at the bakery. The place has a faded charm that’s blissfully remote from the faster pace of neighborhoods below it.
Emphasizing the remoteness is the remarkable Cloisters Museum (above), administered by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This Fort George landmark was designed in the 1930’s to incorporate architectural elements–including entire courtyards–from medieval European churches and abbeys. It has a breathtaking collection of medieval art as well, all surrounded by parkland facing the Hudson River.
The austere, quiet interior is punctuated by stone portals, priceless tapestries, and carved reliquaries (above). It’s an easy way to transport oneself back 800 years.
Finally, a trip to the Woodlawn neighborhood of the Bronx reveals the Van Cortlandt House (above), nestled within Van Cortlandt Park, which is part of a former colonial wheat plantation of thousands of acres. The house,constructed in 1748, is furnished with family and period pieces. You can stand in the bedroom where General Washington slept and look out over the fields where both British and American troops gathered during the Revolutionary War. You can also see how the house’s position near Broadway, the Boston and Albany Post Roads, and the Hudson River were essential to the Van Cortlandt family’s mercantile wealth. As adjacent farms were sold to developers in the 19th century following the extension of subway lines, this house and property were instead preserved. And happily so, as visiting it gives us a deeper understanding of how this great city came to prosper.