Serendipity And Enlightenment In New York

9 years ago


The Daily Mantra is dedicated to the journey of enlightenment, and hopes to encourage its readers to put aside preconceived notions in order to allow themselves to be open to all the lessons and opportunities the Universe presents. I'd therefore like to illustrate this idea with a tale of serial serendipities from a recent trip I took to New York.

I was traveling with an English friend, who had the benefit of paid accommodation, due to a small bit of business she had to attend to while there. The first stop on our official, pre-trip, “to do” list was the Frick Museum, which had been recommended to us by some mutual friends who used to live in New York.

The Frick is an interesting combination of historic house and art museum, being a once private mansion, housing a once private, and very personal, art collection that was built up by Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919), a one-time colleague and friend of Andrew Carnigie.

The mansion the collection is housed in was Frick's main New York residence. He built a collection of art there that was "easy to live with." It is notable for being devoid of any images of war or violence (beyond those depicted, ironically, in the collection's religious art). While accumulating his art, he used to get particular pleasure from reuniting family pictures, hanging portraits of long-separated couples side by side once again on his gallery walls. This story served as a window into the gentler side of the anti-union industrialist, who apparently would come downstairs in the middle of the night just to sit and stare at his art by candle and moonlight.

Two of the most significant paintings in the collection are Hans Holbein's paintings of Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. Fans of Showtime's The Tudors may recall that one was responsible in part for the other's death, so these two portraits are hung either side of a fireplace for dramatic effect.

As I was waiting for my friend, who was waylaid by the Frick's rather excellent gift shop, I struck up a conversation with a lady from San Francisco. By some coincidence, she also happened to be called Nicole. Since we shared a name and an appreciation of the Frick, I asked her if there was anywhere else she'd recommend we visit. She suggested The Merchant's House, which I'd never even heard of, but her description made it sound intriguing. My friend and I looked it up on the internet when we got back to our hotel, and decided to make it our first port of call the next day.

After breakfast the next day we took a cab down to the East Village, and arrived at The Merchant's House a little before opening time. We decided to take a walk around the block, and bumped into a delightful, random, one-day only street market that called itself the Clear View Festival. After doing some unexpected shopping (our only retail therapy the entire trip) we walked back to The Merchant's House, which was now open.

The museum is essentially a 19th century time capsule. A merchant called Seabury Tredwell moved into the house in 1835 with his wife Eliza, and seven children. Gertrude, the eighth child, was subsequently born in the house. She never married, and lived there, keeping the home exactly as her parents had until she died in the upstairs bedroom in 1933. The house was opened to the public as a museum two years later.

After touring the beautiful yet practical house, I again found myself waiting for my friend, who was retrieving her previously discarded apparel from the cloakroom. While chatting to the docent, I inquired if there was anywhere else that was similarly off the beaten path that was worthy of a visit. She suggested a visit to the Tenement Museum, but warned me that I'd have to book a tour in advance. I thought I'd file the suggestion away for another trip, since we'd already augmented our pre-trip schedule. As we were leaving The Merchant's House we bumped into the "other" Nicole. It was turning out to be that kind of trip!

Regular Daily Mantra readers will know I'm a bit of a tea buff, so I wanted to stop by Teany, an organic tea shop owned by the recording artist Moby. We walked there next for a little refreshment. The shop itself was packed so we took our restorative elixirs to go, and continued walking towards China Town. As we meandered along drinking our tea, we literally stumbled across The Tenement Museum. I went inside to grab a leaflet, not expecting to be able to tour it that day. But the chap on the cash desk said he had room for the two of us on a tour starting in 45 minutes.

The museum was fascinating. It was founded by a visionary activist turned social historian named Ruth J. Abram. She felt it was important to give history a more balanced perspective, by preserving and understanding the experiences of the poor as well as the rich. She bought the derelict tenement building at 90 Orchard Street, which housed some 7,000 people between 1863 and 1935, and opened it as a museum in 1988. So far they've restored a handful apartments, basing their work on detailed research into the lives of the families who actually lived there (families such as the Levines, from Poland, who ran a garment business from their tiny, three room home).

New York is so filled with monuments to the super-elite (the Guggenheims, Whitneys and Fricks of this world) it's quite moving to see a museum dedicated to the hardworking immigrant poor, who shaped this great nation, but never expected to have their lives remembered in such a way long after they gone. As you can imagine, it's been an emotional experience for surviving relatives and children, some of whom have contributed to the project, recording their memories and stories for visitors to hear.

As we walked out of the Tenement Museum, we realized that, quite by accident, over the past two days, we'd inadvertently done a historical tour of life and art by socioeconomic class (even The Tenement Museum had once fine frescos in the now gas-lamp-smoke stained hallways). Starting at the extremely rich end of life, we'd walked our way through the homes of the modestly wealthy and poor. It was quite a unique perspective on NYC, and an enlightening "tour" we'd highly recommend.


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