Your guide to the best obscure museums of Downtown
It takes a lot to impress a New Yorker. Out-of-towners and tourists, newly transplanted co-workers from the West Coast (and, at times, even our Uptown counterparts) get excited about seeing the latest Broadway show or MoMA exhibit, but we shrug our shoulders like we’ve seen it all before. We have our own idea of what’s cool.
Downtown thrives on the charm of unconventional culture—which is why a haunted house museum finds its home on Bowery and not on Museum Mile. Unbeknownst to a lot of us, our exclusive hub south of 14th Street has its own fair share of museums—depending on what your definition of museum is. Some travel from location to location setting up pickle exhibits, some cater to house ghosts and some showcase comic books like the Metropolitan Museum of Art does Rembrandt works. So what if you intentionally missed the Alexander McQueen exhibit this year? There’s a different kind of viable culture thriving in our own quarters that you don’t need to wait two hours in a line to experience.
Across the street from the Jewish History Museum and down the block from the Museum of the American Indian, this tribute to our city’s favorite form of architecture is yet another reason to hop off the train at Bowling Green. A small, one-floor space, The Skyscraper Museum showcases an array of historical documents (including newspaper clippings and World Trade Center floor plans) and an impressive wall exhibit of the world’s tallest buildings.
Black-and-white photographs of New York City construction sites line the ramp leading from the gift shop entrance to the one-floor dedication to our city’s—and the world’s — most famous high-rise buildings. Tall glass windows and overhead mirrors give the illusion of walking through an indoor skyscraper park, allowing visitors to navigate between the pillared cases that hold model buildings, including Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest at 2,717 feet, and the Kingkey Finance Tower in Shenzhen, China.
Interactive touchscreens and wall-mounted television screens teach about skyscraper form and history—did you know there are jumbo skyscrapers (surface area up to 2 million square feet) and super jumbos (up to 4 million square feet)? The museum’s collection also includes a replica New York Times front-page story from 1947 announcing the proposal for the World Trade Center site and the letters exchanged between famed architect Minoru Yamasaki and the paper’s architecture critic.
The Skyscraper Museum, 39 Battery Pl. (at Little W. St.), 212-968-1961, www.skyscraper.org; Wed.–Sun., 12-6 p.m., $5.
NY Food Museum
Because everyone loves food (although not everyone loves museums), the NY Food Museum opened in 1998 with mass appeal, giving New Yorkers a new way to celebrate tasty grub and learn a thing or two while they’re at it. Since originating the city’s annual International Pickle Day nine years ago, the NY Food Museum has continued to give us reason to believe that New York’s tastebuds enjoy food beyond the realm of red velvet cupcakes and Halal food from a cart.
The NY Food Museum is not a sight to be seen one afternoon and never revisited, mainly because of its traveling status. Sans a permanent home, the museum hosts discussion panels, film showings, traditional exhibits (including their first How New Yorkers Ate 100 Years Ago) and the upcoming Lower East Side Pickle Day this spring. Beware of the crowds; pickle day draws tens of thousands of visitors every year.
NY Food Museum, 59 Orchard St. (betw. Grand & Hester Sts.), 212-266-9010, www.nyfoodmuseum.org; call for exhibition dates, times and prices.
Italian American Museum
Appropriately nestled on the corner of Mulberry and Grand streets among the Italian bakeries and aroma of freshly cooked pasta, the Italian American Museum pays homage to the first Italian immigrants to come to New York City.
The museum’s director, Dr. Joseph Scelsa, an extremely knowledgeable—you guessed it—Italian-American sociologist, bought the building in 2008 from the Italian-American Stabile family, with the hope of archiving community artifacts from the last century and a half. The Stabile family emigrated to New York in the 1860s and first opened the space as a bank.
The museum’s interior is built around the actual glass booths where the tellers sat, and includes an array of artifacts from the 19th century through today. The collection ranges from Italian-American currency printed in New Jersey during World War II (when the U.S. occupied Italy) to the first vendor plates from the annual San Gennaro festival. Old passports and luggage tags are showcased beside community photographs, marriage certificates and even a restored wedding dress. The very back of the museum holds an organ that dates back to 1898, a 6-foot-tall bank vault and hand-cranked calculators used in the space years ago.
Welcoming about 100,000 yearly visitors, the museum preserves a culture unique to our city’s Little Italy—“the most famous Little Italy in the world,” according to Scelsa.
Italian American Museum, 155 Mulberry St. (at Grand St.), 212-965-9000, www.italianamericanmuseum.org; weekends, 12–6 p.m., $5.
Merchant’s House Museum
Celebrating its 75th year in business, the Merchant’s House Museum welcomes between 50,000 and 100,000 curious every each year to explore the supposedly haunted, 139-year-old row house on East Fourth Street. The museum first opened in 1936, three years after the death of Gertrude Tredwell, the last person to live at 29 E. 4th St. The Tredwell family lived in the house for over 100 years, and a visit to the museum suggests they—or their ghosts—still do.
Once you walk up the wsix steps from the sidewalk and step through the white marble door, be prepared to hear strange sounds of nonexistent footsteps and catch yourself looking over your shoulder in fear. Through the display of 3,000 untouched possessions from the Tredwell family and their four Irish servants, including old clothes and a wooden piano, the museum evokes a creepy sense of abandonment. Throughout the two floors, stationed amongst the roped-off furniture, fully dressed mannequins of the Tredwells appear more authentic than any sculpture at Madame Tussaud’s.
If you can get past the spookiness, the Merchant’s House Museum also serves as an educational opportunity to learn about New York City architecture and lifestyle history. A double parlor room on the ground floor showcases mahogany chairs, hanging gasoliers and paintings, all dating back to the early 1900s. The intricate mouldings lining the ceilings and brick exterior helped earn the building landmark recognition as the only historic house museum south of 14th Street.
Merchant’s House Museum, 29 E. 4th St. (betw. Bowery & Lafayette St.), 212-777-1089, www.merchantshouse.org; Mon.–Thurs., noon–5 p.m., $10.
Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art
Some of us have a greater appreciation for the brilliance behind Charles Schulz comics than famous Renaissance paintings. The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art lets you know you’re not alone, presenting a collection of the best graphic arts, classic comics and cartoons from around the world. Located amid the tourist frenzy of Broadway in Soho, the museum has its own discreet, quiet space on the fourth floor of an office building.
Though small, the museum offers a collection of newspaper funnies, Japanese anime, comic strips and gag cartoons to bring back feelings of childhood nostalgia and leave you asking why you ever stopped reading Archie comics. It examines how issues of the First Amendment and censorship have tangled with graphics over time and how the images on display reflect the period in which they were created. Should a visit awaken your creative flair, offered classes include the Craft of Comics Writing and Writing for Animation. A gallery-style museum, rotating exhibits are set up every few weeks, so always call ahead to confirm whether the museum is open.
Leave time after your visit to head over to Animazing Gallery on Greene Street, a 26-year-old gallery featuring artwork from greats like Tim Burton and Maurice Sendak, to keep in the spirit of the day.
Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, 594 Broadway Ste. 401 (betw. Houston & Prince Sts.), 212-254-3511, www.moccany.org; Tues.–Sun., 12-5, $6.
Museum of the American Gangster
Scarface fans, rejoice! This museum, hidden behind a 10-foot black gate on St. Mark’s Place, is home to some great gangster paraphernalia. Established just over a year ago in a onetime speakeasy, the museum showcases the scandalous and violent years of the Prohibition era with artifacts ranging from 100-year-old stills (the vesssels used to make moonshine) to the infamous bank robber John Dillinger’s death masks.
A visit to the museum, which more closely resembles a small schoolroom than the MoMA, starts with a showing of a 15-minute video about American history in the early 20th century. Simply furnished with a bench and four wooden chairs, the museum teaches about the history of the building itself and the gangsters who operated out of it, Walter Scheib and Frank Hoffman.
After purchasing the building in 1964, the current owner discovered a copper safe filled with $100 gold notes (equivalent to millions of dollars today), cigarettes and beer bottles left by Scheib and Hoffman. Over the years, the owner’s decision to gather these and other relics and expand the collection into a full-fledged museum came to fruition last spring.
The safe, now covered in rust, sits at the museum’s entrance filled with replica bills and the bottles found inside years ago. Wanted posters, newspaper clippings and Pat Hamou paintings line the walls of the museum, which has a special Valentine’s Day Massacre section and hand-drawn diagrams of American history. Although visited by local school groups and gangster enthusiasts, the museum has some days when nobody walks through the door. Make sure to visit the theater and bar on the ground level to cap off your visit and celebrate the legality of alcohol.
The Museum of the American Gangster, 80 St. Mark’s Pl. (betw. Ave. A & 1st Ave.), 212-228-5736, www.museumoftheamericangangster.org; 1-6 p.m., $15.
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Tags: alexander mcqueen, bowery, downtown, italian american musuem, Merchant’s House Museum, metropolitan museum of art, museum mile, museum of comic and cartoon art, Museum of the American Gangster, museums, new yorker, ny food museum, rembrandt, skyscraper museum, west coast
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