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Home | Articles | The Museum of the City of New York, 1923–2001

stablished in 1923, the Museum of the City of New York is a private, not-for-profit urban history museum, modeled after the Parisian Musée Carnavalet, with the mission of presenting the history of New York City and its people through exhibitions, educational programs, and publications. It also acquires, preserves, and documents original cultural materials that provide insight into New York City’s historical experience. A northern anchor of the city’s famed “Museum Mile,” the Museum of the City of New York is housed in a Georgian Revival structure designed by architect Joseph H. Freedlander and constructed from April 1929 through December 1930 on Fifth Avenue between 103rd and 104th Streets. Installation of the growing collection proceeded over the course of the following year, culminating in the museum’s grand opening on January 11, 1932.

Fig. 1: Dressing room from 4 West 54th Street, Manhattan. Decorated ca. 1881 by George A. Schastey & Co. for Mrs. Arabella Worsham; property acquired by John D. Rockefeller, 1884. Installed in the Museum of the City of New York, 1937–1938. Courtesy, Museum of the City of New York;

By 1939, the museum had served over 600,000 New York City students, inaugurated a radio show on New York City history, and assisted in the development of exhibitions on the city’s history for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Over the succeeding sixty years, the museum has continued its innovative programming, including the development of Please Touch facilities in the 1950s, an early version of the current Big Apple media presentation produced in the 1970s, and a museum Web site, www.mcny.org, in the 1990s.

Beginning with its crowd-pleasing inaugural exhibition entitled Old New York, mounted in 1926 at the Fine Arts Building on West

57th Street, the Museum of the City of New York has displayed and acquired diverse artistic and cultural materials related to the city’s history. Now totaling an estimated 1.5 million objects, the collections include portraits of New Yorkers, cityscapes, marine views, sculpture, prints such as the renowned Harry T. Peters Collection of works by Currier & Ives, drawings, and photographs, including the Jacob Riis, Berenice Abbott Changing New York, and Look Magazine archives.

Selections from the museum’s collection of furniture, ceramics, glass, silver, brass, pewter, household artifacts, and domestic textiles are installed in its six Period Alcoves (which range in date from the late seventeenth century to the early twentieth century) and in the Rockefeller Rooms, decorated in early-1880s style [Fig. 1]. These spaces allow domestic artifacts to be viewed in their appropriate architectural setting.

Fig. 2: Skating in Central Park, 1865. Signed, Johann Mengels Culver house (1820–ca.1891). Oil on canvas. 19 3/4 x 35 1/8 inches.
Featured in the exhibition Painting the Town: Cityscapes of New York. Courtesy, Museum of the City of New York.
The museum houses a comprehensive collection devoted to New York professional theater, including costumes, props, costume sketches, set designs and models, production photographs, playbills, scripts, and theatrical memorabilia. Its Costume Collection features garments from the eighteenth century to the present worn by New Yorkers, from christening gowns and swaddling bands to down-filled outerwear. Rare and unique toys, fire-fighting equipment through the centuries, ship’s figureheads and models, and transport vehicles—from a nineteenth-century police paddy wagon to a 1980 Checker cab—join a seat from Yankee Stadium, hats owned by Congresswoman and women’s rights activist Bella Abzug, and an early-twentieth century barber’s chair all chronicle the history of New York City.

Visitors to the museum in January 2001 may view New York Century: World Capital, Home Town, a survey of twentieth-century collection highlights; Painting the Town [Fig. 2] featuring cityscapes and marine views from the collection; a revised New York Toy Stories highlighting the newly conserved Stettenheimer doll’s house, a fiftieth anniversary tribute to the musical Guys & Dolls; and the City Partners’ exhibition The City Shops: Photographs by Martha Cooper and Fred W. McDarrah. Through January 14, 2001, Life of the People: Realist Prints and Drawings from the Ben and Beatrice Goldstein Collection, 1912–1948, organized by the Library of Congress, will be on view; A Portrait of Paris: Eugene Atget at Work, organized by the Musée Carnavalet, Paris, runs through February 4, 2001.

To implement its “A Museum for a New Century” strategic plan, the museum is engaged in a $48 million capital project to renovate and expand its landmark Fifth Avenue structure. The end result will provide double the space dedicated to exhibitions and educational programs following designs developed by James Stewart Polshek and Partners, with exhibition installations planned by Ralph Appelbaum and Associates. Concurrently, the museum is developing an off-site storage facility to house its collections.

For additional information about the museum and its collections, visit the Web site at www.mcny.org or contact the Office of Collections Access at 212.534.1672, ext. 216. For hours, programs, and group tours, call the Department of Learning at 212.534.1672, ext. 206.

Deborah Dependahl Waters joined the Museum of the City of New York as curator of decorative arts in 1986. A graduate of the Winterthur M.A. Program in Early American Culture, she obtained her Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization from the University of Delaware.

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