Thursday, February 27, 2014

Hamilton Heights / Harlem

Although I'm convinced that New York is actively trying to kill me — I am currently sick for the fifth time since I moved here 8 months ago — I still spend most of my days just completely in awe of the wonderful (and seemingly endless) delights that this city has to offer.

A few weeks ago, somewhere in between taking a "private" tour of Hamilton Grange and gargoyle hunting on the campus of City College, my friend Trent and I took a mini tour of some notable sights in Hamilton Heights and West Harlem. I have found it to be true that you can find something interesting, historical or just nice to look at in almost every neighborhood in the city if you look hard enough.

Usually I'm the one dragging my friends around to obscure filming locations or nerdy National Parks tours, but Trent was actually the one who led me around and showed me things I had never even heard of before. As much as I enjoy doing things by myself, it was definitely nice to have a willing and enthusiastic guide for a change.

The first place we went was Strivers' Row in West Harlem. This was definitely one of those times where we both wished we had done more research beforehand because we actually ended up only seeing one of the "rows" of townhouses, not knowing there were two more.

Constructed between 1891 and 1893, the houses sit back to back and share rear, gated courtyards. The rows were designed by three different architects: McKim, Mead and White, James Brown Lord, and Price and Luce. We ended up only paying attention the Price and Luce row, and I would definitely like to go back now that I know more about what I should be looking for.

Next up was the Royal Tennenbaum house at the corner of w144th Street and Convent Ave. in Hamilton Heights. Convent runs right into City College and is lined with some of the most beautiful houses I've seen in the city. I've never been a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, but when Trent pointed out the house I have to admit it was exciting to see it in person.

I went home and watched the Royal Tennenbaums after reading that they actually did a majority of the filming inside of the house. I love re-watching movies or TV shows with the new perspective of having just been to the location, especially when it's so immediately recognizable.

The next place we went was a tiny, cobblestone street called Sylvan Terrace. Originally a carriage pathway leading to the Morris-Jumel Mansion, in 1882 20 uniform, wooden row houses were built. In the 1960s the houses fell into disrepair, but had been fully resorted by the 1980s. Today they look basically brand new — in fact the whole street feels like it's straight out of a Hollywood backlot.

The fact that these still exist is incredible, even more so that 20 lucky people (or families) get to call this street "home." Sylvan Terrace is one of those quiet, sneaky New York places that not many people know about, and that makes you feel as if you're light years away from the city and/or the present day.

One last place that Trent pointed out on our walk was the James Bailey house at the intersection of 150th and St. Nicholas Place in Harlem. The castle-like house was built from 1886-1888 for James Bailey, the business manager of the Barnum and Bailey Circus. It has stained-glass windows designed by a cousin of Louis Comfort Tiffany, and was turned into a mortuary in the 1950s.

I would love to be able to walk through the inside of what has been referred to as the "Grey Gardens of Manhattan," but I'll probably have to settle for this video of the interior. It was recently put on the market for $6.5 million, and ended up selling for a mere $1.4 million — which is 75% off the original asking price and despite the necessary repairs, still an incredible steal.

I have still yet to do much exploring in the northern portion of Manhattan but after such a great experience I'll definitely be back. There is so much history around this city and I'm grateful that so many of these great buildings are still around, even if I can only dream of one day owning one.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Calvary Cemetery

I finally got a real deal camera (aka not a point-and-shoot and not my iPhone) last week, and I couldn't think of a better place to break it in than a cemetery. I adore cemeteries (the older the better), and I've already been to Woodlawn and Greenwood, in the Bronx and Brooklyn, respectively.

I recently found out about Calvary Cemetery in Queens, and it seemed like the perfect place for a Sunday stroll. The weather was absolutely beautiful this weekend, so Sunday I headed out to Queens via the 7 train. It was a bit of a hike to Calvary, but I definitely didn't mind the sunshine.

Calvary was the first major cemetery to be established outside of Manhattan, and dates back to 1848. It's an enormous spread, especially by New York standards, and I spent a few hours just wandering around, taking it all in. It's definitely the "tallest" cemetery I've ever been to, meaning that most of the headstones are very vertical in nature and a majority have some sort of figure or cross on top.

The hilly landscape makes for sweeping views, and the Manhattan skyline peeking out over the headstones is pretty perfect. I hardly saw anyone on my visit and I love when I feel as if I have a place all to myself. Cemeteries are such beautiful and peaceful places and I find them infinitely fascinating. The designer in me loves the variety in lettering and decoration, and I love the huge expanse of history covered in such a small area.

Calvary has a few mausoleums, but it's definitely the tall headstones that make the most impact. The more vine-covered and crumbling a cemetery is, the more I love it, and although Calvary has its share of decay it's still a very well-kept place. There was also something about the partially snow-covered ground that made the landscape even more striking and I bet it is unbelievably amazing after or during a big snowstorm.

Calvary is definitely my favorite of the New York cemeteries I've been to thus far and I can't think of a better way to spend all of eternity (or at least a sunny Sunday) than in such a peaceful place, with a view that's hard to beat.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Lucky in Love

I love Valentine's Day. I know it can be kind of fun to be one of those "I hate Valentine's Day" single girls, but even when I find myself "unattached" as February 14th rolls around, I still can't drum up anything but love for a day that's all about love. Even when I was a kid I remember my crafty mother and I having so much fun going way overboard decorating my Valentine's shoebox. Finding the perfect cards to hand out to classmates was always a fun challenge and the "everyone gets one" mentality of school Valentines always soothed my fear of being left out.

I have very specific feelings about the meanings and celebrations of different holidays, and for me Valentine's Day has always been about thoughtfulness. While expensive gifts are always appreciated, I think the real goal of the holiday (and any other day, really) should be to make sure the people you love really know how you feel about them. Yes, Valentine's Day has become incredibly commercial and contrived, but is there really anything wrong with reminding people how much they mean to you — something all of us should probably do a little bit more frequently.

Last night my friends Jim and Katie hosted a Valenfriends Day party (I'm the only one calling it that) and it was such a great time. We all exchanged cheesy, (mostly) store-bought cards, drank grapefruit margaritas and basically ate nothing but desserts and candy (my contribution was two plates of chocolate-covered strawberries). It was a great group of wonderful people — some are married, some have children, others have boyfriends, girlfriends or fiances and some of us are single — but none of that really mattered.

I brought Little Mermaid valentines (with stickers!), which the four-year-old in me was thrilled to find at Duane Reade, especially 25 years (!) after the movie came out. My haul included a Disney Princess (with bookmark ruler!), a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle sticker, a super adorable gray cat, a wrestler, a beautiful hand-painted card (for once I wasn't the one to go overboard in this department) and a very funny, very 90s valentine. I can't remember the last time I actually participated in a valentine exchange, but it was so fun and easy that I don't see why I shouldn't organize one every year.

Earlier in the day I had eaten Chinese for lunch, and got the fortune "You will be lucky in love," and I can't help but think that that has always, and continues to be, very true. No matter what my relationship status has been, currently is or will be in the future, all that really matters is that I'm surrounded by people that I love and adore. I have amazing friends, caring family and so many people in my life that I love and are loved by in return. Very lucky indeed.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Saturday Stroll

I didn't have any plans on Saturday until the evening, so as with most of my adventures I picked a starting-off point and just sort of went where the day took me. These type of wandering days usually end up to be some of my very favorite, and I always encounter something unexpected and wonderful. This is one of the things I like most about New York — no matter what I end up doing or where I end up going I'm never, ever bored.

I stared the day off by taking the 1 train to the Franklin stop in TriBeCa. My intent was to find one of the last Banksy pieces from his time here in October that hasn't been completely destroyed. I did find it (the 9/11 one on Staple Street) but the flower was long gone and half of it was tagged over. Staple Street is a tiny, almost alley-like street that I definitely would have missed had I not been specifically looking for it. Downtown Manhattan is an area that I'm not super familiar with, so it's always fun to explore.

I walked over to the Hudson River and watched the ice floes float downstream for a while before walking through the rest of Nelson A. Rockefeller Park. I always manage to sort of forget that Manhattan is an island and essentially a coastal town. I adore the Hudson River under normal circumstances, but when it's covered in gorgeous ice I could stare at it for hours.

I stopped at the Shake Shack on Murray Street for lunch, where I was actually able to get a seat — the perks of going to the downtown location relatively early (by New York standards, anyway) on a weekend. The next stop on my tentative list was the West Village, so I decided to walk up Greenwich Street.

Ever since I found out about the privately-owned house at 121 Greenwich Street, I had kept it in my mind to check out if I was ever in the area. It was originally on the Upper East Side, but was moved to its current location in 1967 (I'm apparently into moveable houses lately) and is definitely a strange sight in the middle of the West Village. They even have a cute little yard — something that I (living in Ohio) never would have thought would seem like a novelty.

I love discovering little odd city tidbits like this little house and reading the interesting stories behind them. It would be so neat to be able to own something so special one day, but I think I chose the wrong profession if I could ever hope to be able to afford it — special doesn't come cheap in New York.

When I realized that I was right by Bethune Street, my morbid curiosity got the best of me and I decided to walk by Phillip Seymour Hoffman's apartment building. I'm still sort of in shock about his death. I always considered him to be my male Meryl Streep — he was just superb in everything he did. I hugely regret not seeing him on stage in Death of Salesman last year, not because I didn't want to but because I just could not get a ticket.

It was sad and sort of eerie walking through his neighborhood and standing outside of the apartment where he died. There were flowers, cards, drawings and candles on either side of the doorway and I would be lying if I said I didn't get a little choked up reading all of the mournful notes from fans.

I wasn't meeting my friends (at the Guggenheim) until 5:30, so I spent the rest of my day browsing the dollar section at the Strand. I hadn't been in a while so I found a lot of great books, including: The Westing Game, which I always buy when it's cheap to give out as a gift, a novel about publishing in 1950s New York, Sweeney Todd, and nonfiction books on the plague, the Skull and Bones Society and lobsters. My taste in books is just as varied as it is incredibly off-putting and probably a bit alarming to strangers sitting beside me on the bus.

It was pretty much a perfectly ordinary, yet wonderful New York Saturday that ended with me paying a dollar for admission to one of the most famous museums in the world (more on that later) — in New York even the ordinary is sometimes so much more than that.

The City College of New York

After Trent and I received our private tour of Hamilton Grange, we walked a block next door to explore the campus of the City College of New York. I hadn't really known that City College even really existed until I read this Scouting NY Post about it, and immediately added it to my list of must-sees.

Founded in 1847 and moved to its current location in Hamilton Heights/Harlem in 1907, CCNY was the first free public institution of higher learning the United States. The campus is fairly small (at least when compared to other universities around the country), but most of its neo-Gothic campus buildings are landmarked. 

The best thing about the gorgeous buildings, of course, are the hundreds of gargoyles and grotesques hanging out all over the place. A lot of them are too high up to even get a good look at, which is kind of a bummer since I was so fascinated with them, and they're all so different.

The grotesques have actually been restored, replicated and replaced over the years since the originals were deteriorating, and the whole campus feels as if its been scrubbed clean recently which is nice, of course, but still a bit of a disconnect with the old-world feeling.

The campus was basically deserted on a Saturday morning, which is always preferable to me when I'm exploring and snapping photos. Although I haven't yet been to Europe (I'm working on it!) City College felt very old-world-European to me and I didn't feel at all like I was still in New York City.

There are a few modern buildings sprinkled around, but they definitely feel out of place and can't possibly compare when plopped right next to the beautiful landmarked ones. I would love to go back with a better camera (I'm working on that too!) to try and capture some of the less accessible details. I'm sure I missed a lot in our first run-through, but thankfully City College is only a few subway stops away so I will definitely be back soon to explore further.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Hamilton Grange National Memorial

On Saturday I wanted a city adventure, and Trent was available so I sent him a link to my Google map of New York to-dos and told him to take his pick. He suggested that we do City College and Hamilton Grange, two things right next to each other and not far from either of us that neither of us had explored before.

We met at Hamilton Grange, the first (and only) home that Alexander Hamilton ever built and owned. He only lived there for two years before his death-by-duel, but it's now a National Memorial, controlled by the National Parks Service. The house has an interesting history beyond when the Hamilton family lived there: it had actually been moved twice before coming to rest in its current (and third) location in St. Nicholas Park. In 1889 it was moved half of a block east and two blocks south so the city could put in a street (adhering to the Manhattan grid).

In 2006 the house was moved again (you can still see its imprint on the apartment building next door) one block east to the park to allow for reconstruction and restoration of the original structure, and to provide a more spacious and suitable surrounding landscape. It seems absurd that this large house was completely moved two different times (and globally didn't really even change locations), but I'm glad that despite everything it has gone through that it not only remains, but has been restored to its original glory.

They offer free tours of the interior and when Trent and I went at 11am on Saturday we were the only two people on the "tour." It's a little awkward to receive a private tour of something as nerdy as the Alexander Hamilton house, but not having to endure other people's embarrassing questions was a definite upside.

The tour is relatively short and there are only three rooms available for viewing: the living room, dining room and Hamilton's study. The upstairs is off-limits due to fire code, as well as historians' inability to find any concrete evidence on how it was ever supposed to look.

The most interesting house fact we learned was about the three large windows facing the porch. Apparently houses back then were taxed by the number of doors they had, so in order to avoid larger taxes there are no doors to the porch. The windows actually open upwards in two sections, thereby turning them into doors in a roundabout, tax-evading way.

I also learned, or rather came to the realization that Hamilton wasn't actually a President, a fact on which I probably would have bet some Hamiltons of my own toward proving otherwise. He was a Founding Father, however, and a good friend of George Washington's (not to mention his appearance on the money, due to his position as Secretary of the Treasury) so he was still pretty important.

I love that I am still able to find things to explore so close to my apartment (Hamilton Grange is only two stops away on the 1 train) that feel like they're world's away. Since I'm not-so-secretly 80-years-old I will always be delighted by nerdy, historical tours — even more so when they're free. The best part of the tour, however, might have actually been the two other people who almost joined us, if not for the fact that they were running late picking up their Super Bowl tickets. If Hamilton Grange can make it onto the must-see list of tourists visiting New York for the Super Bowl, then maybe it's not so nerdy after all.*

*Nope, it's definitely still nerdy

Wintery Wonderland

It seems to me that every time a winter storm is really hyped up, it ends up being a disappointment (see: the six-inch blizzard, hyperbolically dubbed "Hercules"). Monday we were supposed to get three inches of snow and it ended up snowing steadily all day, blanketing the city in the most gorgeous snow I've seen in the seven months I've lived here.

It's slightly warmer than it has been lately, and the heavy, wet snow covered the trees, street signs and benches, making the whole city into a real life winter wonderland. I know a lot of people are totally over winter by this point, but I would be content on having snow until spring is good and ready to begin.

As usual I tried to make the most of my time with this batch of snow, and I walked to work through Central Park on Monday and Tuesday. Yesterday the sun was shining and the entire park was blindingly white. I love how fresh the air smells in the snow, and how quiet the whole world seems. I felt like I was far away from New York in a magical wintery land not unlike Narnia. Every new snowy scene I encountered was more beautiful than the last.

On Monday I took advantage of my new job's proximity to Central Park, and on my lunch break I went straight to my favorite spot: the Literary Walk, which was more beautiful than I can ever even possibly describe. The park was pretty empty because it was still snowing heavily and I was even able to get a shot of the Bethesda Fountain without a single person in it, which is always a lofty goal in heavily trafficked areas of the park.

The best part about this particular snowfall is that after weeks of near- and below-zero temperatures, anything from 20-35 degrees has felt downright balmy for my outdoor adventures. It definitely makes a difference in my enjoyment of the snowy city when I can walk around for any amount of time without my phone actually refusing to turn on because it is too damn cold, which has actually happened to me twice this year.

On one of my walks around the park, I started to think about how odd and special snow seems, and how thanks to climate change it might become virtually nonexistent in the future (at least in New York). While everyone is complaining about how snowy this winter has been, I still try to treat every snowfall like it's a special gift and I don't really have any interest in living in a world without snow.