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Great NYC Museums Go #BeyondTheVillageAndBack

New York City is blessed with a broad range of historic and internationally recognized cultural institutions across the five boroughs. But few know how many of them have origins here in Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo. A look through our recently released Beyond the Village and Back maps, one covering Manhattan below 72nd Street and the other the rest of the city, shows how many of these respected sites launched from (and perhaps owe their existence to) our neighborhoods.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 5th Avenue

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of the great landmarks, and great institutions, of New York City, the country, and the world. With more than 2 million objects in its collection, it is by far the largest museum in both New York and the nation. Covering what would be several city blocks, stretching nearly a quarter mile long, and housing more than 2 million square feet of space, it’s roughly the size of the Empire State Building. Its grand Beaux Arts facade, fronted by a sprawling staircase and graceful fountains facing 5th Avenue, are among the most iconic images of New York, and form the anchor of the Upper East Side’s elegant “Museum Mile.”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art was officially chartered by an act of incorporation of the New York State Legislature on April 13, 1870, “for the purpose of establishing and maintaining in said City a Museum and Library of Art, of encouraging and developing the Study of the Fine Arts, and the application of Art to manufacture and natural life, of advancing the general knowledge of kindred subjects, and to that end of furnishing popular instruction and recreations.” It opened in 1872 in a no-longer-extant mansion at 681 5th Avenue near 54th Street. Led by a combination of industrialists and artists, the museum began with a modest collection of about 175 mostly European paintings and a Roman stone sarcophagus.

The Met negotiated a deal with the City of New York allowing them to build in a section of Central Park between East Drive and 5th Avenue, 79th and 85th Streets. The museum moved out of the mansion as construction began in 1874 on the Met’s first building, a structure designed by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould, architects of most of the park’s early structures.

The Douglas Cruger Mansion, outside and within on 14th Street.

In the interim between the mansion and the new park home, the Met decamped to what was then one of New York’s grandest private houses, the Douglas Cruger Mansion at 128 West 14th Street, on the south side of the street between 6th and 7th Avenues. After the passing of its owner, Harriet Douglas Cruger, the Museum leased the house, which offered five times the space of 681 5th Avenue, from April 1873 until its new Central Park site was ready. The free-standing mansion had been built in 1853–54 by architect James Renwick, when 14th Street was, for a while in the mid-19th century, the most prestigious address in New York. Long after the Met moved to Central Park, in 1914, Salvation Army’s Red Shield Club for Service Men took over the mansion, and 14 years later built its now-landmarked headquarters there.

The mansion is one of several connections between Greenwich Village and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Read more at the museum’s entry in our Beyond the Village and Back map here.

Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort Street

The Whitney Museum today

The Whitney Museum moved to its new Gansevoort Street home in the West Village in 2011, but it gained renown as a world-respected institution in the decades it spent uptown, in the Marcel Breuer–designed Brutalist building at 945 Madison Avenue. When it opened in September 1966, New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable noted that the inverted ziggurat-like structure had quickly become “the most disliked building in New York.” However, Huxtable also wrote that the building was a “harshly handsome … mannered tour de force in the current mode of architecture for sculpture’s sake.”

The Whitney from its former Madison Avenue location

But how does a 20th-century gargantuan granite museum building on the Upper East Side tie back into the history of Greenwich Village? The Whitney Museum was founded in the heart of Greenwich Village at Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s historic carriage house studio on MacDougal Alley in 1931. Whitney (1875–1942) was an American sculptor and influential art collector who hailed from the wealthy Vanderbilt family and married into the wealthy Whitney family (of Eli Whitney’s cotton-gin fame). Whitney used her immense financial resources to foster an environment for creative exploration in American art.

The New York Studio School’s home on West 8th Street today, which had been the Whitney’s first site

Prior to founding the museum, Whitney founded and hosted the Whitney Studio and Whitney Studio Club out of a townhouse from 1914 to 1931 to nurture struggling artists with unconventional ideas. During this time, she consolidated three 1838 rowhouses to become the first location of the Whitney Museum of American Art, located at 8-12 West 8th Street between 5th Avenue and MacDougal Street. The museum’s first invitational exhibition, which eventually grew into the Whitney’s beloved Biennials, was held here in 1932. The site continues to serve an artistic mission today as the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture, which opened here in 1964.

Learn more about the Whitney’s history in the Village and beyond its borders here.

New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West

The New-York Historical Society was established as the city’s first museum in 1804, a mere 15 years after George Washington’s inauguration. Its present home on Central Park West was built between 1902 and 1908, designed by the architectural firm of York and Sawyer. This venerable institution offers its visitors both online and on-site collections of art, objects, artifacts, documents, books, and photographs. The Beaux Arts structure was originally built without the north and south wings that we see today, which were added in 1937–39 and seamlessly designed by the architectural firm of Walker & Gillette. Even though it is one of the Upper West Side’s most iconic institutions, its foundations are firmly rooted in the East Village.

When the museum was founded in the earliest years of the 19th century, at a site downtown on Wall and Broad Streets, its founders included some of Greenwich Village and the East Village’s most prominent names, including Anthony Bleecker, of Bleecker Street fame; Samuel Bayard, whose brother’s home near present-day Jane Street was where Alexander Hamilton died after being shot in his duel with Aaron Burr; and Peter Stuyvesant, descendant of the director-general of New Netherland who was original owner of much of the land that today comprises the East Village. 

The New-York Historical Society’s first permanent home, on 2nd Avenue

Yet the historical society’s connection with the East Village goes deeper than just names. Its first permanent home, and first purpose-built structure, was located at 170 2nd Avenue at the southeast corner of East 11th Street. The society and its library opened in the grand new home in 1857, just across the street from St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery — a church deeply connected to the Stuyvesant family and built on the site of Governor Stuyvesant’s chapel. Even with the new space, the institution was bursting at the seams by the dawn of the 20th century, and decided to move uptown by 1902. The 2nd Avenue site was demolished in 1932.

Explore more history of the New-York Historical Society on our map here

Federal Hall, 26 Wall Street

Federal Hall is one of New York City’s — and the nation’s — most historic locations. Known as the “Birthplace of American Government,” it’s the site where George Washington took the oath of office as our first President. It was also the site of the first Congress, Supreme Court, and Executive Branch offices.

The original “Federal Hall” was the British colonial city hall, the site where John Peter Zenger was jailed, tried, and acquitted of libel for exposing government corruption in his newspaper, helping to establish freedom of the press in this country. When the Constitution was ratified in 1788, New York and Federal Hall remained the nation’s capital. Pierre L’Enfant, who would go on to design the plan for Washington, D.C., remodeled the city hall for the new federal government. The First Congress met here and wrote the Bill of Rights; George Washington was inaugurated here on the second-floor balcony as the country’s first President on April 30, 1789; and the building became the seat of the new government.

Federal Hall circa 1900

The current structure on the site was built as a customs house, which opened in 1842. In 1862, the building became the U.S. Sub-Treasury. Tons of gold and silver worth millions of dollars were kept in the building’s basement vaults, until the Federal Reserve Bank replaced the Sub-Treasury system in 1920. By the late 1930s, the Sub-Treasury building was slated to be torn down. In 1939, a group called Federal Hall Memorial Associates prevented demolition of the building, which was designated Federal Hall Memorial National Historic Site. It was re-christened a national memorial on August 11, 1955, when the National Park Service began to administer the site. The building opened to the public in 1972 as a museum.

Even with its grand statue of George Washington erected in 1882 as a salute to the first president’s inauguration, the present-day Federal Hall is not the only place in New York where the administering of the first oath of office is commemorated. Washington Square Arch, in the heart of Greenwich Village, was erected to honor the 100th anniversary of that same event.

The temporary Washington Square arch (left) and the permanent version

Prior to the centennial, William Rhinelander Stewart, a wealthy resident of one of the posh townhouses around the square, began campaigning to erect a temporary triumphal arch in the European tradition. He convinced his well-heeled neighbors to help foot the bill, and brought on Stanford White of the renowned firm of McKim, Mead, and White to create the design. The arch spanned 5th Avenue just north of Washington Square. The temporary arch, created with wood and plaster, proved to be very popular, and soon a campaign (and more fundraising) for a more enduring version was underway. By 1890, a new, permanent version of the arch, also designed by White, was under construction. 

There are still more connections between the Federal Hall National Memorial and our communities that you can discover here.

Historic Weeksville, 158 Buffalo Avenue, Brooklyn

Weeksville was a free Black community founded in 1838 by James Weeks in present-day Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Weeks was a Black longshoreman from Virginia who bought the land the community was built on from Henry C. Thompson, a free Black who purchased the land from Edward Copeland, who had earlier purchased the land from an heir of John Lefferts. At this time, many African Americans attempted to gain political and economic freedom via land ownership and building their own communities. Weeks sold off plots to other African Americans, both those born free and former slaves.

By 1855 Weeksville was home to more than 550 African Americans. It had its own churches, including Bethel Tabernacle African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Berean Missionary Baptist Church. Its school, Colored School No. 2, was the first school in the country to integrate both students and staff. It had one of the first if not the first Black newspapers, the Freedman’s Torchlight, and in the 1860s became the national headquarters of the African Civilization Society and the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum.

Weeksville was also home to some extraordinary Black leaders. Susan Smith McKinney Steward was the first African-American female physician in New York State. Her sister, Sarah Smith Garnet, was the first Black female principal in the New York City school system, and the founders of the first African-American women’s suffrage organization, the Equal Suffrage League of Brooklyn.

Weeksville was the most prominent free black community in Brooklyn at around the same time that Greenwich Village was home to Little Africa, New York’s largest African-American community. Many residents and leaders moved between the two communities, but one in particular stands out.

Henry Highland Garnet and the African Free School #2, formerly located at 135-137 Mulberry Street

Henry Highland Garnet was born into slavery on December 13, 1815. In 1824, his 11-member family was given permission to attend a funeral and ended up escaping to Delaware before continuing on to New York City. He attended the African Free School #2 on Mulberry Street and the Phoenix High School of Colored Youth. Garnet began his career as a pastor, leading the congregation of the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church for six years. During this time he published papers that combined religious and abolitionist themes and supported the temperance movement and political antislavery.

Garnet lived at 175 Macdougal Street (among other locations in Greenwich Village), at that time part of the Little Africa neighborhood. He joined the American Anti-Slavery Society and frequently spoke at abolitionist conferences.

Like Weeksville, nearly all physical vestiges of Greenwich Village’s Little Africa community were lost and the memory of it largely forgotten. Village Preservation, among many other organizations, has worked hard to try to call attention to and maintain the memory of the Village’s Black community.

These are just some of the many incredible New York City landmarks and institutions which can be found on our Beyond the Village and Back maps, which can be explored further here and here.

One response to “Great NYC Museums Go #BeyondTheVillageAndBack

  1. Please include some niche museums, e.g., The Poster House, 23rd and 6th Avenue, The Rubin Museum, 17th and 7th Avenue, FIT Museum of Fashion, 27th and 7th Avenue, The Museum of the City of New York, 103rd and 5th Avenue.

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