Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Open House New York

The Irish American Historical Society on 80th and 5th.
The Ukrainian Institute of America on 79th and 5th.
The Xavier Chapel.
This past weekend was open house New York, and I felt fortunate that I happened to read something about it on Wikipedia just in time to check it out this year. Historic buildings all over the city were offering free tours, and it seemed like a perfect opportunity for an amateur historian like me. Of course, the most famous places, like Ground Zero and Grand Central Station, were booked way in advance, but there were still some good ones.

So I took a walk uptown a-ways to some of the old mansions along 5th Avenue, and came across the Irish American Historical Society on 80th Street, that's been in its current home, an old Beaux-Arts building, since 1940. The public rarely gets to see the inside of these old buildings, so it was a fun experience to be able to walk around one of them. After I signed in, I took a ride up the old elevator, the type you might find in a Prohibition-era movie. Only the second floor was open to the public, which is still more floors than most. The display currently there was modern art from Irish artists, all-in-all it was a big contrast from the old furniture and paintings that were on the walls. Looking out the large windows on 5th Avenue I could only imagine what it would be like to live in a place like this.

The mansion on 79th and 5th, which now serves as the Ukrainian Institute of America, is even bigger. Built for banker and railroad investor Isaac Fletcher in 1898, it was bought in 1920 by oil Tycoon Harry F. Sinclair, and then in 1930 by the last direct descendants of Peter Stuyvesant until 1952 -- a brother and sister who lived there alone with ten servants. (Five each, I guess.) All of the main rooms were massive, with a small kitchen off to the side which seems to have not changed much since the early twentieth century. I even got to show off my tourist-guide skills a little when I offered the corner where St.-Mark's-in-the-Bowery Church is, where all the Stuyvesants, including the last private owners of this house, are now buried.

The following day I went down to the Church of St. Francis Xavier, otherwise known as the Xavier Chapel, on West 16th Street near 6th Avenue, the chapel of Xavier High School next door, where my father, his brothers, and his father all went. It really was a beautiful church, and the tour guide pointed out a number of architectural points that otherwise would have been completely overlooked by the common observer. My favorite part was when we got to go upstairs to the choir loft, which is under some major construction. What were formally smaller private altars for the Jesuit priests on either side of the chapel on the upper level are now being reconstructed into something else, but not even they know what yet.

Open House New York is a great opportunity for a guy like me to learn more about some of the city's most important landmarks. Next year, I'll be on the lookout for it, so I can better prepare for what I want to go see. As for now, I'm glad I was able to find out about it in the nick of time, so I could go check out a few gems.

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