The New York Historical Society is the oldest museum in New York City, predating the founding of the Metropolitan Museum of Art by nearly seventy years. Thanks to the vision of John Pintard— then secretary of the American Academy of Fine Arts – shared by eleven of the city’s most prominent citizens, he decided to form a committee to keep and preserve current printed material. Together, they drew up a constitution to that effect. On December 10, 1804, the Historical Society was officially organized. It started with a modest collection of about 4,265 books, and eventually expanded to the present Klingenstein Library which holds over three million books on every conceivable subject, including the American travel accounts from the colonial era to the present day, plus the history of the circus.
By 1908 the New-York Historical Society moved into its present building. Over the years, it went through a number of extensions and renovations. Today, it is as solid as a rock, boasting an interactive children’s museum in the basement and the recently re-opened 4th floor that promises to become the Center for Women’s History.
Walking up the steps to the main entrance of the building stands the statue of Abraham Lincoln. Wearing a top hat, he looks rather elegant. The brightly lit main hall is huge. First things I notice are the life-size statues of Burr and Hamilton, pistols drawn, in Hamilton’s fatal duel.
The multimedia film “New York Story” explores New York’s rise from a remote outpost to a city at the center of the world. Running every 30 minutes in the Auditorium, I find it as rambunctious as the city itself. The temporary exhibit, “WWI Beyond the Trenches” is a recollection of a war that happened ages ago.
Taking the elevator to the recently opened forth floor, I’m surprised to see cabinet after cabinet of American Silver.
“Glad I don’t have to polish it,’’ confesses the floor guard.
There are galleries of Tiffany Lamps. Most people flip over them. The just- opened exhibit “The Duchess of Carnegie Hall,” seems to attract a lot of people. Not particularly interested in style and fashion, I ignore it. And, wouldn’t you know, it was the lead article in the next day’s Weekend Arts II of the New York Times!
The second floor features an extensive display of photos of “American Visionary: John F. Kennedy’s Life and Times.” For a bit of comic relief, there’s a brief exhibit of the precocious picture book star “Eloise at the Museum.”
Back to the main floor, I leave the museum through the exit on 77th Street. To the right, is Storico, the museum’s restaurant; to the left is the recently opened Parliament Espresso and Coffee Bar.
Exiting or entering this way is the statue of the Abolitionist, Frederick Douglass.
To me, those two statues alone are worth a visit.
I have stopped by at 8:30 in the morning before my dentist appointment; at 11 am with Luke, prior to visiting the John F. Kennedy’s Life and Times exhibit on the 2nd floor; at 2:30 with a friend because we couldn’t get a reservation at Storico , and once at 5 o’clock, prior attending a 6:30 pm lecture. Not much of a dessert eater, I like their sandwiches and their ready-made salads. Luke’s chicken salad was so copious, the two of us couldn’t finish it. At $8.50 it was some bargain. So far, I’ve been lucky to sit at one of the three round marbles tables. The long freestanding counter with a newspaper rack is a welcoming alternative.
I thought I had the coffee culture licked. But I did not. As for the house blend of coffee, it’s a surprisingly strong brew with a back story explained in minimal detail via a giant mural chalked on the café’s south wall.
Decorated in white and yellow, the place looks extremely cheerful. But why take such pride in running an Italian restaurant (with a British chef to boot), for the most American Museum of them all? Attitude prevails:
“Do you have a reservation?” ask the hostess.
If I do, she searches for my name.
“How do you spell it? What’s your phone number?”
Still, after all has been said and done, these are unnecessary formalities. Since my friend and I usually eat at odd hours (11:30 AM, or 5:30 PM) , we aren’t particularly hungry and often share two appetizers. By far the best is their “Seared East Coast Scallops”, served with endive, olives and Italian green pepper, listed under Antipasti.
A close second is “Verdura d’Estiva Seasonal Vegetables.” While my friend lapped up the blistered shishito peppers, I concentrated on the roasted eggplant and grilled zucchini.
The “Seared Yellowtail Tuna Loin” listed under Salad is so excellent and copious, it could be a meal by itself. Alas, their Tuscan “Panzanella” Bread Salad,” listed under Appetizers, leaves much to be desired.
Their Pasta dishes come in two sizes: $19 or $26. The $19 one is ample. Their Fettuccini & Confit of Rabbit is excellent. I’d gladly order it again.
The waiters are consistently friendly.
No question, if I lived in the neighborhood, I’d probably eat here more often.
Meanwhile, I am just as happy to eat in their Espresso and Coffee Bar.