There are many hidden gems to be discovered on the side streets of Manhattan, but the beginning of my walk on 61st might trump any that I have had thus far. For it was here that I was suddenly convinced that I had stepped into a time portal. Nestled between the skyscrapers that perch along the East River is a stone house dating back to the eighteenth century with a glorious garden (even in the middle of winter) tucked behind it. "Eighteenth Century" may be a bit misleading, since the building, which was built as a carriage house to go with a central mansion, was constructed in 1799. Originally named the Abigail Adams Smith Museum, as this is where she and her husband owned the land on which it was built, it was turned into a "day hotel" in 1826. This was a popular kind of institution that possibly resembled a country club more than an inn. With the rise of the middle class, centers for leisure were popping up all over the island. The city proper mainly existed below 14th Street, causing 61st to be considered a vacation getaway. Though the Mount Vernon Hotel is the only day hotel left standing, at one point in time there were numerous similar ones dotting both rivers. In 1833, the building returned to being a private residence. During the following century, it changed hands multiple times, once even being used as a soup kitchen, until it officially opened as a museum in 1939 in the capable hands of the Colonial Dames of America. To this day, their overall mission continues to be to preserve and teach America's history. The Museum also hosts guests and events of many different kinds: One of their largest affairs is Washington's Birthday Ball, but they also host pie-making workshops, school programs (which are often booked solid for three months at a time), and public events in the auditorium next door.
The Neighborhood Playhouse is both a great community resource and an old-fashioned reminder of the timelessness of great theater. Virtually invisible from the street, the only clue to its existence is a red, unmarked door and a modest sign. Once inside, however, I discovered that this almost one hundred year old building holds within it a proscenium theater, a full-size dance studio, and plenty of dressing rooms and classrooms. What a fascinating tour I was treated to by Emily Duncan, the admissions administrator, where I learned about their history and mission. The lobby, with its shabby elegance, features photos of famous graduates, as well as scenes from plays over the course of the school's history. The top two floors of the building are devoted to a beautiful dance studio with wood floors and soaring ceilings. A lover of dance, I was particularly moved when Emily announced that I was standing in the former domain of dancer and choreographer, Martha Graham, who taught at the Neighborhood Playhouse alongside actor and teacher, Sanford Meisner. I was also enrapt by Christine Cirker, the librarian, who proudly discussed their vast collection of plays and theatre criticism. Incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about the world of theater, she told me that she also teaches classes on script interpretation. Christine went on to explain the playhouse's claim to fame: the Meisner Technique, a method of acting that emphasizes that one should "live truthfully under given imaginary circumstances. " Sanford Meisner developed his famous improvisation-based technique at the Playhouse in the mid-1940s, which continues to train actors to this day. It counts among its list of prominent alumni names: Gregory Peck, Robert Duvall and Steve McQueen; and more recently, it has added to its roster, Allison Janney and Chris Noth. The playhouse trains about one hundred students at any given time, seventy-five first-years and twenty-five second-years who have been invited back as a result of a unanimous faculty vote. According to Emily, graduates have an easier time finding work than most aspiring actors due to their alma mater's extensive network of influential writers, directors, and actors. Much of the faculty is closely involved in the theater world, and as Pamela Moller Kareman, the playhouse's executive director, shared, "It's a big leap to become a professional actor; we want people to know that you can do this with your life. " And from the time that I spent here, it became apparent that the staff at Neighborhood Playhouse is there to guide and support students every step of the way.
There is an entrance to the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge (also known as the 59th Street Bridge) between First and Second Avenues, making maneuvering back and forth across East 58th difficult. Notwithstanding this challenge to life and limb, nothing was going to deter me from making my way to the front door of the perfectly kept, precious red brick house with its white picket fence. From across the way, I was intrigued, and could not wait to learn the story of this nineteenth century home. Inside, I was warmly greeted by Diana and Mark Jacoby, the couple who own and run the almost seventy-seven year old antique store, Phillip Colleck. Mark and Diana met at Phillip Colleck, where they began working in 1980 on 57th Street. When Phillip Colleck, himself, passed away in 1987, the couple ran the business for six months before deciding to purchase the company. They moved into the current location in 2000, turning what had previously been a private residence into a space used partially for commercial purposes, and to my utter delight, the remainder as their home. The history of the Jacoby's pre-Civil war house is rich and fascinating. The oldest building on East 58th, it was originally the home of the brick mason who built it for his family in the 1850s. Since then, it has undergone various changes. In 1967, the owner was offered a million dollars for the building, but instead of taking the money, he had the house landmarked. When Diana and Mark renovated the front of the house - which had been painted a color they described as 'blueberry yogurt" - they had to carefully peel off the paint in an effort to preserve the layers underneath. Considering its proximity to the entrance to the bridge, I commented on how remarkably quiet it seemed indoors. Mark explained to me that the windows are the original ones and that they do not allow much sound to penetrate them. He went on to tell me that the walls are "three layers of brick thick, " then proudly boasted, "this house was solidly built. " And if I wasn't already in awe, the Jacoby's then took me out back to their charming garden where Diana said that they often entertain guests and clients. Phillip Colleck specializes in English furniture and art pieces from the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. From tables to chairs to mirrors and other fine pieces, my favorite among the many treasured items was an exquisite Spanish chandelier, still in its original design with candles to keep it lit. Although it is of course for sale, Diana announced that they are in no hurry to sell it, as it is perched over the table that they dine, and she feels it fits in perfectly. The previous tenant was a composer and professor at Julliard, and would often invite students to his home for master classes. Mark and Diana also welcome scholars into their house, allowing professors from different universities to host classes. "Our mission is largely to educate about English furniture and its place in history, " said Mark. In addition, the Jacoby's invite outside collectors to exhibit their pieces. On the day of one of my visits, during the 2014 Christmas season, I had the pleasure of meeting Harry Heissmann, who was there displaying his antique German Christmas tree stands from his own business on West 45th Street.
Stepping inside Jim's Shoe Repair is like walking into a time capsule. At first glance, it appears that nothing has changed since the store opened in 1932. Wooden saloon-style booths line the wall opposite shoeshine chairs equipped with golden footrests and leather backrests, while the original cash register still stands proudly in the front of the shop. Jim's is the place for the customer who wants "the best shoe shine" with a bit of small talk or a glance through the daily newspapers. It is simple and unpretentious, which explains its long history of celebrity customers. Vito Rocco came to New York by way of Italy in the 1920s and opened up his shop in 1932, across the street from where it stands today. He called it Jim’s as an ode to America — short, simple, and recognizable. His son, Joseph, began working in the shop in 1940 and did not retire until 2019. “At age ninety, he still wants to come in, but I won’t let him anymore, ” his son, Joe, said lovingly. He and his son, Andrew, are now “honored” to be continuing this family business. Although Jim's has largely stayed the same since its inception, Joe noted that they no longer clean hats, as this was deemed a fire hazard in the 1940s. Joe emphasized, however, that their shoe repair is performed the traditional way, with most of it being done by hand. There are no nailing guns used and machine work is kept to a minimum — only for stitching and sanding. Walking through the back is like being granted a tour of Santa’s workshop. Joe strolls through the various departments of the repair services, patting his employees on the back and exchanging laughs along the way. There are rickety ladders to go up and down where one finds every nook and cranny converted into a cozy but busy workspace. “Even if we wanted to change up the place, our customers would never allow us. They appreciate it the way it is after four generations. ”
Directly across from the imposing statue of Christopher Columbus, marking both the epicenter of Columbus Circle and New York City as a whole, stands the Museum of Arts and Design. Founded in 1956 - and in this spectacular building since 2008 - the museum celebrates contemporary artists, designers, and artisans who apply the highest level of ingenuity and skill to their work. Inside the light-filled interior, this accessible museum explores a rotating series of exhibitions profiling makers, who work in a wide range of materials and processes, in an effort to explore the intersection of art, craft and design. When I visited the museum with members of the Manhattan Sideways team, I was thrilled to have them walk around with a dear friend who has been a docent at MAD for several years. We were fascinated by the global reach and depth of the Latin American exhibition, "New Territories, " as Felicia explained in detail what we were seeing. Our team was also intrigued by the museum's show celebrating its founder, Aileen Osborn Webb, entitled "What Would Mrs. Webb Do, " featuring objects from their permanent collection, curated by Jeanine Falino. We then went on our own to explore the technical skill made apparent in the neckpieces and sculptures of Joyce Scott in the exhibit, "From Maryland to Murano. " In addition to the shows on each floor, MAD invites guest artists to work in their studios, allowing visitors the opportunity to engage in conversation, and to observe them as they are sculpting, drawing or creating something unique with a mixture of materials. Having been to the museum many times, I consistently find myself absorbed in the variety of art displayed, and when possible, I make my way to the ninth floor where the innovative Robert restaurant allows guests a bird's eye view of Columbus Circle from its exquisite interior.
Guastavino's gets its name from the Spanish architect, Rafael Guastavino, who designed an arcade of Catalan Vaults to fit under the Queensboro Bridge in the early part of the twentieth century. Initially, the arcade was host to a year-round marketplace, but it was shut down during the depression. Not long after this, the NYC Department of Transportation took over the space. In 1973, Guastavino's was designated a landmark as part of the Queensboro Bridge. Terrance Conran opened his British home furnishings shop here for some time, and now on one side is the Food Emporium, while on the other is Guastavino's magnificent private event space. And a very special place, indeed, to one of my daughter's dearest friends, Jenny Posen Cohen, who got married here in 2012.