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.
Named after the patron saint of those who heal, St. Catherine's Park is modeled after the Roman Santa Maria sopra Minerva Church that holds the saint's remains with its pew-like play areas and altar-symbolizing flagpole. Renovated in 1996, the park takes up a portion of both 67th and 68th Street, and is frequented by people of all ages. Young children can entertain themselves on the slides, swings or in the sandbox, teens can engage in a basketball or handball game, while adults can find joy running on the track, playing against the tennis wall, or simply seating themselves on a shaded bench. The greenery surrounding this area is maintained by the volunteer-based organization, The Friends of St. Catherine's Park.
The Anita Shapolsky Gallery is named for its founder, whom I had the pleasure of meeting when she invited me to No. 152. Having first opened in SoHo in 1982, by the late nineties, Mrs. Shapolsky told me that by the late nineties she was ready for a change, and so she moved the gallery closer to home – in fact, into the building on 65th Street where she had been living for twenty-two years. Since 1997, the gallery and Mrs. Shapolsky have shared a home. The relationship is truly a symbiotic one. "What would you do in a house without art? " she exclaimed. "They take the paintings down between shows, and I'm sick with nothing on the wall. " Her bedroom is tucked into the second floor of the building, concealed behind accordion doors, and in another room of the gallery, a shoe closet is just ajar. On the day that I sat down to speak with Mrs. Shapolsky, the feature exhibit, , was by the artist Russell Connor, whose art riffed on classic painters, pairing them and their masterworks with references to other, more modern pieces. Mrs. Shapolsky said that she thinks of it as an educational show, as it exposes visitors to art history, and brings the old and the new together. Having been invited to a lecture by the artist, I had the pleasure of meeting Russell Connor, and listened as he elaborated on a number of the paintings; each one has a hidden joke for the seasoned art historian. This exhibit was a change from Russell Connor's accustomed style; he usually prefers abstract art for which the Anita Shapolsky Gallery is best known. When Mrs. Shapolsky opened her gallery, she decided to focus on the Abstract Expressionists of the fifties, especially those of the New York school. She had no experience at the time working in or running a gallery, only a great passion for art. "It was madness, sheer madness, " she told me. But despite the mad ambition of the project, the gallery has been a great success. Mrs. Shapolsky drew on her connections to other artists and friends in order to bring the appropriate pieces into her space. Although she knew that the aesthetic was not popular at the time, Mrs. Shapolsky told me that she had grown up with the abstract expressionists, and felt that they represented an important artistic avante garde. The Anita Shapolsky Gallery excels not only at exhibiting important art, but also at connecting that art to people. To be both in a gallery and a home is a unique experience, and meeting Mrs. Shapolsky was a privilege. She is as much a part of the gallery as is the art. On the day that I met her, she was wearing a piece of art around her neck. Her jewelry was made by Ibram Lassaw, whose work can also be seen at the Guggenheim.
The Roosevelt House is primarily an educational institution, housing two of Hunter College's undergraduate programs and hosting a number of book talks, panels, and other public events. But, as the name reveals, it began as a family home. The Roosevelt's moved into this double townhouse in 1908, with matriarch Sara Roosevelt living on one side, and Franklin and Eleanor on the other, along with their five children. On my visit to the Roosevelt House, I participated in a guided tour that illuminated some of its history for me. The building itself, was designed by architect Charles Platt, who also made the plans for the nearby mansion that was home to The China Institute for almost seventy years. This elegant townhouse among the rows of brownstones would set the tone for many of the other structures in the area to be renovated or replaced. Deborah, the tour guide, took us through the many rooms and their pasts. I was surprised to learn that the house was built with two elevators, one on each side, a rare architectural choice for the early twentieth century. The elevators became especially important after 1921, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt fell ill with polio and was confined to a wheelchair. One of the elevators has been retained in its original state, and is shockingly small – the wheelchairs we use today would never fit - but Roosevelt's had a profile similar to that of a dining chair, and so was able to wheel in and out without difficulty. The second elevator has been expanded to allow full accessibility to Hunter College. Upstairs, the library functions as a little museum, containing a selection of books on the Roosevelt's, along with some historic artifacts. The real history though, is in the building itself. "A lot came out of this house, " Deborah explained. President Roosevelt appointed his initial cabinet members in the upstairs library, and among them, the first woman. That same library is where President Roosevelt practiced tirelessly on crutches until he could stand and move sans a wheelchair during political gatherings. A few steps away, the drawing room was the site of Roosevelt's first radio address as president. One floor up is the bedroom where he recovered from polio, and where he often held meetings so that he could continue working minus the discomfort of his leg braces. I found myself lingering close to the walls, hoping they might whisper some of the things they overheard all those years ago. In 1941, Sara Roosevelt died, and the family put the townhouse up for sale. It was a difficult time to sell a house – everybody was at war except the United States, and the whole country knew that conflict was in the immediate future. The Roosevelt's still managed to find a buyer. Eleanor had a strong relationship with Hunter College, and so when they expressed interest, the family lowered the price, making it possible for Hunter to acquire this historic home in 1943. It was dedicated as the Sara Delano Roosevelt Memorial House. Today, the Roosevelt House works to balance its legacy and contemporary function. The house retains all its original crown molding, but the furniture is new, allowing Hunter students and visitors to sit comfortably and not worry about causing damage to antique sofas or rugs. Students at the Roosevelt House study Public Policy and Human Rights, a fitting tribute to the Roosevelt family's influence on this country.
Match 65 was an unexpected find when walking along 65th Street, but a very welcome one. It was a beautiful spring day and the doors were thrown open wide. I found a few tables set up with friends sitting and chatting while sipping a glass of wine. The bar up front was inviting as was the classic French brasserie's menu. I sampled the artichokes, simply prepared with a lemon and tarragon dressing, while others insisted on ordering the classic onion soup, despite the warm weather outdoors. We decided that we had to share the profiteroles filled with vanilla ice cream and topped with a luscious warm chocolate sauce. A perfect pick me up late in the day before heading across Central Park to the West Side.
After walking down the 65th Street sidewalk, and going through the imposing bronze doors, I found myself in a place of worship, a place of connection, and a place of significant history. Moreover, it is a synagogue that stands as evidence of religious and cultural movements, technological and artistic development, and the evolution from being a Jew living in America to being an American Jew. I have passed by this grand building for decades and always imagined stepping inside. Being invited in by Cara Glickman, Vice President of Finance and Administration, was a welcome moment, but little did I expect to spend the next two hours receiving a comprehensive tour and education on this world renowned building. With only thirty-three German Jewish immigrants, Temple Emanu-El humbly began on Grand and Clinton Streets in 1845. In 1854, the temple relocated to 12th Street, and in 1868, garnering more congregants and support, it moved uptown to 43rd Street until 1925. In 1929, Temple Emanu-El consolidated with Temple Beth-El, another reform institution of Germanic Jewish ancestry founded in 1874, and opened as a new complex on 65th Street, complete with the Beth-El Chapel which features a Byzantine double-dome roof. In 1963, Temple Emanu-El expanded its religious school and opened an adjoining facility up on 66th Street. The move to 65th Street was as much a political statement as an acquisition for a larger religious practice, we learned from Mark Heutlinger, who joined us on our tour of the building. A twenty-five year veteran of Emanu-El, serving as the Administrator, Mark demonstrated his wealth of knowledge and an unprecedented passion for this institution. As we were walking, he explained to us that the move uptown said “we, as Jews, are here, and we are not going anywhere. ” It was an acculturation into society, preserving of faith and heritage, “the Temple’s construction was the embodiment of the ideal of Emanu-El to fit within the mosaic of New York life. ” The main sanctuary was designed as a basilica structure, setting a tone of grandeur with its high ceilings, delicate stained glass windows, and exquisite arc. As a response to a long history of second-class status, the Jewish culture would now be “second to none, equal to all. ” With initial reactions ranging from “how dare they” to “wow, ” the temple was redefining life for Jewish Americans, offering permanence and pride. Aesthetically, the temple is an “eclectic mix of different architecture. ” On the 66th Street wing, the Lowenstein Sanctuary built in 1962 is of modern style. The lobby on Fifth Avenue, known as the Marvin and Elisabeth Cassel Foyer, is a “singular expression of art deco style, ” complete with beautifully designed radiator covers and sculpted door handles. Mark continued to explain that the synagogue was uniquely designed such that the cantor and rabbi would stand at separate podiums so as not to obstruct the vision of the arc (restored during the temple’s restoration from 2003 to 2006). Mark opened the ark for us, revealing seven torahs split into two rows, for “a semblance of congruency. ” Above the ark, one can see a slip curtain opening to the choir room complete with a grand electronic wind pipe organ. Placed in chronological order, some of the most breathtaking parts of this main sanctuary are the stained glass windows. The stained glass sends a message of ancestral and religious history. As we walked to the back of the sanctuary, we stared at the visual representations of biblical stories like Noah’s Arc and meaningful symbols representing the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The Tribe of Reuben was identified by an eagle, which is also representative of the United States, an amalgamation of the “American Jewish Experience. ”Within Temple Emanu-El resides The Herbert and Eileen Bernard Museum of Judaica, featuring both treasured and permanent objects acquired over the years by the temple. The oldest item in the room is a thirteenth century Hanukkah menorah. Other items included collapsible menorahs and even a dollhouse menorah designed to hide their religious identity in response to continuous European anti-Semitism forbidding Jewish expression. One of the Museum objects is a torah breastplate emblazoned with an Eagle and an American flag, sending the message that the Jewish Americans, as early as the 1890s continued to communicate, “We are American. ”In conclusion, Mark announced proudly that Congregation Emanu-El is the largest temple in the United States, and together with the nineteenth century Dahany Temple of Budapest, it is considered to be the grandest possibly in the world. So integral to the Jewish American identity, it is one structure that certainly shapes the cultures and neighborhoods on the side streets of Manhattan.