When the industrialist magnate Andrew Carnegie built his sixty-four-room mansion way up north from where his peers were living, he said he wanted a big garden. A hundred odd years later, that garden is an enticing part of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. Now called the Arthur Ross Terrace and Garden — named after the philanthropist — the garden is open to the public without museum admission. Since the museum’s café can best be reached from the garden entrance, on 90th Street, that’s a double blessing.
The merits of the café depend on your expectations. For out-of-towners, or New Yorkers unfamiliar with the museum, just sitting in the garden, is a treat. However, enjoying a meal in style is another matter. Andrew Carnegie had fourteen domestic servants to look after things. However, at the café, you are on your own: this is a self-service, cafeteria-style place, no matter where you sit. It took me quite a while to figure out how best to do it. By now I have become a pro.
I like to come midweek, around 2 o’clock, after my classes at the 92nd Street Y. I put my belongings on an empty table, preferably on the upper terrace, shaded by an umbrella. Ready for lunch, I walk down the few steps to the café and place my order — usually lemonade, Panini and coffee — and pay. Then I put the lemonade on a tray, take some napkins, a plastic knife and fork, and carefully walk up the steps to the terrace, telling the server that I’ll pick up the Panini and coffee later. Chances are, whoever is in charge will bring it up for me. Of late, I have become a Panini fan providing it is properly prepared. My favorite is the Prosciutto/Mozzarella one; with the Smoked Salmon/Cucumber/Dill a close second. Since I know beforehand that I probably will not finish the second one, I come prepared with a plastic bag to take it home.
Around 3 o’clock, kids from the neighborhood private schools arrive en masse. The young ones come with their nannies.
If it is too hot, or raining, I sit in the indoor dining place, located between the gift shop and the Café. Since this space only has five tables, chances are you have to share. That’s how I met the couple from Minneapolis. Still sporting the MET button– from the Cloisters — they had specifically come to the Cooper Hewitt to see the current Jazz Age exhibit. As it turns out we have a mutual friend who now lives in New York. We exchange addresses and agree to stay in touch.
Except for a Poster exhibit a few years ago, I hadn’t paid any attention to Cooper Hewitt’s exhibits. But Jazz Age sounded interesting. Off I go on Saturday when the museum stays open till 9:00, taking my grandson Luke with me. We take the main entrance on 91st Street, get our tickets at the reception desk, go past the magnificent staircase, take the elevator to the third floor, and enter “The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s.
This was the age of the Zeppelin, Josephine Baker, Duke Ellington, night clubs, flapper dresses and speakeasies. American women had just gotten the right to vote. From fashion, textiles, paintings, posters, tableware, wallpaper, jewelry, music and film, everything was new and daring.
It is still early. We go downstairs, past the gift shop, get some bottled water and biscotti, and settle down on a bench. Luke is taking pictures. Facing west, we watch the sunset, followed by ever changing red clouds.
“Wow! Somebody lived here?” Luke is impressed.
“Yes, remember I told you, Carnegie did.”
“Carnegie?” Luke seems puzzled.
“Yes, Carnegie. He also built Carnegie Hall.”