Friday, November 20, 2015

30 Days in NYC (Day 9) - The Metropolitan Museum of Art

   Day 9 is all about one of the greatest treasures in New York City, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It would take weeks just to fully explore the museum. The figures are staggering. The museum's front stretches along for five blocks of 5th Avenue. Inside is two million square feet of exhibit space and a collection of more than three million pieces. The museum includes everything from contemporary 21st century art all the way back to a Persian jar from 5,700 years ago. It features fully reconstructed rooms from ancient Egypt, renaissance Italy, and 20th century Wisconsin. What I'm trying to say is, you aren't going to see the whole museum. Don't even try. In fact, even trying to spend a whole uninterrupted day there is exhausting. So I've developed a few strategies. I actually love going to the museum on Fridays and Saturdays when it is open until 9 PM. That allows me to break up the day by going for a few hours in the morning and then returning in the evening. So that's the way I'm going to lay it out today. As for what to see at the museum, that's really up to each visitor individually. There's so much to see that there's no need to focus on an area that doesn't interest you. So I'll focus on some of the most popular highlights as well as some personal favorites. But by no means will this be an exhaustive guide to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
   Finally, a note about the museum's admission policy: The Met requires visitors to pay to access the museum but visitors may pay any amount they like. So yes, if you want to be a jerk you can pay with a penny. As you enter the museum, there are ticket counters displaying an adult admission prices at a "recommended" $25. However, when buying your tickets you can pay any amount you feel comfortable with. I fully support anyone who pays the full admission fee. I also realize many people are unable or unwilling to pay the full amount and that is perfectly fine. The Met is meant, in both law and spirit, to be a place where everyone can appreciate the finest works of art in the history of the planet. There's no pressure to pay the full amount. And I've never found the ticket agents disagreeable if I decide to pay a smaller amount. It does make it slightly less awkward to have the exact amount in hand you want to pay, that way you just slap it down and ask for however many tickets you want.

Day 9 - Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Upper East Side

Morning - Arrive right for the opening at 10 AM to avoid the biggest crowds. Morning is also when the light hits the museum's grand 5th Avenue facade. The museum may have opened in 1872 but the current beaux-arts entry wasn't built until 1902. Over the years, the museum has kept expanding, often swallowing old wings of the museum into newer galleries. Some of the original walls of the museum are actually preserved. The decorative brick and stone wall of the European sculpture court is actually the museum's 1888 south wall. But the grand entry has remained unchallenged since the turn of the 20th century and it is a great place to sit and people watch. If you're breaking the museum up into to two parts of the day, it makes the most sense to focus on the first floor for one part and the second floor for the other. Let's spend the morning downstairs. The highlights here are the Greek, Roman, and Egyptian collections. On your right as you walk into the museum is the Egyptian wing. The major highlight here is the Temple of Dendur, which sits in a modern glassy exhibit hall on the north side of the museum. The temple was built just over 2000 years ago, but it was slated to be submerged by the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s. UNESCO, the United States, and many other groups helped the Egyptian government save the historic relics from destruction and as a thank you, the Egyptians gave the temple to the United States.

The Temple of Dendur

   If you double back to the main lobby and walk through to the opposite wing, you'll find the recently expanded Greek and Roman collection. The main highlight it the newly renovated and skylit Roman sculpture court. The first floor also contains the Met's currently under renovation contemporary wing, European sculpture and interiors, the American sculpture court, and the fantastic arms and armory collection. I suppose it's a bit gender sterotyped that I've spent way more time among the armor than the armoires but I just enjoy the sense of motion imbued in the full body, mounted suits of armor that march in formation through the armory hall. The American court is the best spot for a break in the museum. The space is flooded by light and is anchored by the whole facade of the former Branch Bank of the United States, reassembled after its demolition on Wall Street. Make sure to head through the American interiors wing to see the fully reconstructed living room of one of Frank Lloyd Wright's Midwestern homes.

The American Court
   Head out of the museum after a few hours. Make sure to keep your little admission sticker to re-enter the museum later. The Met is only one of many museums along 5th Avenue's "museum mile." Walk up 5th Avenue to 88th Street, home of the famous Guggenheim Museum. This is one of New York's iconic architectural masterpieces. Opened in 1959, the building is Frank Lloyd Wright's last work and it is a stunner. Wright famously said his Guggenheim would make the Met "look like a Protestant barn." I actually feel that it's only worth going to the Guggenheim if the featured exhibit looks interesting to you because the main collection is not as large as some other museums. They tend to dedicate the main space of the museum to the current exhibition. So it's not necessary to go in, but it's always great to walk by the building.

A photo posted by Shawn (@nytourguy) on

   Just up the street on 5th and 90th is the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum. Here too the building outshines the museum. The museum is housed inside Andrew Carnegie's 1903 mansion, which was a marvel of design in its day and serves as a fitting home to a museum of practical items.

Lunch: There are a few nice options along 97th Street on the edge of the Upper East Side. East 96th Street is one of the harshest socio-economic borders in America with the incredibly affluent Upper East Side on the south and the much poorer East Harlem to the north. Even the geography changes from tall buildings on hilly streets to low flat streets dotted by housing projects. So it's no surprise that the best food options are right on the border. Da Capo on Madison between 96th and 97th makes wonderful paninis. Earl's Beer and Cheese is a great craft beer bar with all kinds of cheesy plates. It's located right on Park Avenue between 97th and 98th, just as the railroad tracks appear from under the street marking another visual transition from one neighborhood to the next. It's also a great idea to make the short walk--or one stop ride on the 6 train--to 103rd and Lexington in East Harlem. East Harlem is the heart of Hispanic heritage in New York. It's long been a home to Puerto Rican, Dominican, and now Mexican immigrants. Check out the Casa Azul bookstore on 103rd, just west of Lexington for a look at local literature. On 104th and Lexington is the enormous "Spirit of East Harlem" mural that celebrates the Puerto Rican culture of the neighborhood. And for a lunch you will have to walk off, go to El Nuevo Caribeno on 105th and Lex for huge portions of roast pork, mofongo, tostones, and rice and beans.

A photo posted by Shawn (@nytourguy) on
Afternoon: Walk east on 105th Street and take a left on 2nd Ave to catch the M15 Select Bus on 106th and 2nd. This is a new setup for New York City buses where you slide your metrocard into a machine at the bus stop and keep your receipt. That way everyone boards the bus at once through all the doors, and you only have to show the receipt if the transit police ask for it. Take the bus two stops and get off at 88th Street. This section of the Upper East Side was once known--and still sometimes is--as Yorkville. It was the heart of a thriving German and Central European community that has mostly disappeared. But on 1st Avenue between 88th and 87th is the century old Glaser's Bake Shop, one of the last great German bakeries in New York. It features incredible danishes, cinnamon rolls, and most famously the classic New York black & white cookie. It's not actually a cookie but a small thin cake frosted in half chocolate and half vanilla, and Glaser's makes one of the best. Though it's the cinnamon roll that keeps me coming back. Grab something for now or later and keep heading east to Carl Schurz Park. The park looks out over the East River and has a nice view of Roosevelt Island and Astoria, Queens. The notable landmark of the park is Gracie Mansion, a country home built in 1799 when the park land was distant countryside. Since 1942 the home has served as the official residence of the Mayor of New York and his or her family, so it's a bit high security. There's not much to see of the lovely clapboard home above the security walls, but it's still worth a trip to Schurz Park for the river views.
"A Gorge in the Mountains" by Sanford Robinson Gifford
   Walk back to York Avenue where the M86 Select Bus will pick you up at 86th Street and bring you back to 5th Ave and 86th Street, a close walk back to the Met. Head back in and go upstairs where the great painting collection of the museum is held. The most popular wings of the 2nd floor are the European masters. At the top of the grand staircase are the galleries of European painters from the Renaissance and into the early 19th century. My favorite is El Greco's "View from Toledo" which looks centuries ahead of its time. To the left, in the south wing are the impressionists and post-impressionists. Great works from Monet, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Degas, and more are hung one after the other. But for me the greatest paintings on the second floor are the American painters that hang in the north wing. This is an American museum after all, so while the museums of Europe can claim greater collections of European masters, they will never surpass the Met's collection Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, Mary Cassatt, Thomas, Cole, John Singer Sargent, and all the rest of America's venerable art history. The Hudson River School landscapes are my pilgrimage every time I visit the museum. I just love the sweeping American landscapes painted onto oversized canvases. But the biggest painting in the collection the is grandiose "Washington Crossing the Delaware" by Emanuel Leutze and it is instantly recognizable to every American schoolkid. The second floor also features art from Asia and the Middle East. Enjoy the galleries until the late Friday/Saturday closing at 9 PM.

Dinner: There aren't very many restaurants within easy reach of the Met. Mostly they are clustered back around 3rd and 2nd Avenues. Two of my favorites are Beyoglu, a casual and delicious Turkish restaurant on the corner of 81st and 3rd, and Boqueria on 2nd Ave between 76th and 77th, a Spanish tapas restaurant with memorable bacon wrapped dates. The venerable NYC mini-chain Meatball Shop is also located next to Boqueria on 2nd Ave.

Evening: You'll already have taken up most of the evening with the museum and dinner if you stay late, but if you'd rather leave the museum early, you could always check into the offerings at the 92nd Street Y, on 92nd and Lex. It's renowned for the variety of programming they put on, particularly lectures, interviews, and talks with leaders in food, art, and culture. They have performances of dance, music, and theater most nights as well. Even if you don't know the performers, it's a beloved community space that always makes for an interesting night.
   And for one of the classiest nightcaps in the world head over the the nightly jazz set at Bemelmans Bar, located in the Carlyle Hotel on 76th and Madison. This is the kind of bar a man in a tuxedo can feel right at home in. The name of the bar comes from Ludwig Bemelmans who created the timeless "Madeline" children's books. He spent time living at the hotel and painted the murals that line the bar and help to add some whimsy to what would otherwise be a very stiff setting. Cover charges in the evening range from $15-$30, and the drinks aren't cheap. But it's one of the few places on the Upper East Side where the elegance of the neighborhood comes alive and is accessible to everyone.

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