It is hard to escape it once you enter the room. It haunts you as you peruse the city-themed images and artifacts that line the walls and grace the display cases. It’s a slat-backed deck chair salvaged from the RMS Titanic, which sank more than 100 years ago en route to New York from Southampton, England. Some 200 of 1,500 victims were headed to the city. The beechwood chair, with torn cane seat, is a potent symbol of loss and destruction. It is one of only 10 known surviving chairs from the shipwreck, which famously claimed the lives of such distinguished New Yorkers as John Jacob Astor IV, Benjamin Guggenheim and Isidor Straus, an owner of Macy’s, and his wife, Ida.
The chair is a gift from Aerin Lauder Zinterhofer, granddaughter of Estée Lauder and daughter of Ronald Lauder, a founder of the Neue Galerie on the Upper East Side. It is the centerpiece of this small show, “From Teaspoons to Titanic: Recent Acquisitions,” an assemblage of some 40 gifts to the museum since 2013. The exhibit is a prelude to a larger, permanent installation opening in November, “New York at Its Core,” which will showcase more than 400 items from this institution’s collection of over 750,000 treasures that chart the city’s history since 1609, when Henry Hudson entered the waterway that would later bear his name.
The one-room gallery on the second floor, with the famed Stettheimer Doll House just outside, represents more than 100 years of New York City history and memories told through photographs, drawings, paintings and ordinary objects like sewing needles and silver spoons. The latter, we learn, were the product of the “souvenir spoon craze” which caught fire in the 1880s and extended into the 1940s. Donated by journalist and urban development expert Roberta Gratz, the six highly polished specimens on view here are festooned with images of city landmarks like City Hall and Grant’s Tomb — and personalities like Henry Ward Beecher, a minister, abolitionist and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Note the spoon with the Statue of Liberty for a handle and an image of the Flatiron Building in its delicate bowl. Another boasts a skyline for a handle.
These sterling collectibles that had their origins in the Gilded Age are surrounded by a bevy of bleak, mostly desolate photos that document the city’s changing landscape in the second half of the 20th century. Jan Staller worked the fringes of the city, recording the demolition of the abandoned West Side Highway in a series of eerie color prints from the late 1970s. Curtains contain debris from sections of the highway that have been smashed into oblivion.
R.D. Smith memorialized another fringe area, the Bowery in 1970. He said of his experience capturing residents of the former Skid Row in black and white: “Our conversations were brief and friendly, just small talk, but in those moments and in the photographs I made, I tried to tell a story, and show that often within the despair there was dignity.”
Danny Lyon tells the story of the demolition in the late 1960s of 60 acres south of Canal Street to pave the way for progress in the form of the World Trade Center, a Brooklyn Bridge ramp, an expansion of Pace University and more. He spent three years documenting the area before and after the destruction, which included razing almost half the buildings in his neighborhood, the corner of Beekman and Williams Streets. Three of the four gritty photos here record the wreckage on Beekman Street. “Huey and his crew inside 81 Beekman Street” (1967) offers a dramatic close-up of hard hats demolishing an elevator. Another “after” photo from 1967, a mass of bricks in the place of a building, is dispassionately captioned, “Brick crew on the west side. Bricks are salvaged and sold as antique brick for use in new homes.”
A rare book, “Fifth Avenue, New York, From Start to Finish” (1911), is presented at the opposite end of the gallery and brings us back to Gilded Age glory. Horizontally formatted, it traces the stately boulevard’s buildings from Washington Square to the Felix Warburg mansion (now the Jewish Museum) on West 92nd Street, with handwritten annotations by the late Louis Auchincloss, a former chairman of the museum’s board. One poignant aperçu: 417 Fifth (now gone), on the southeast corner of 38th Street, was built by his great grandfather in 1862.
Two immigrant identification cards from the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society, dated 1913, are included in the show and make the point that New York has always been a city of strivers. One bears the name of a clerk, the other the name of a waiter. The passengers headed to the city on the Titanic were titans of industry but also immigrants hoping to improve their prospects. Silver spoons and a deck chair, immigrant cards and images of Skid Row tell the story of a city that has historically embraced everyone.