NEW YORK CITY – The Museum of the City of New York’s main floor south exhibition galleries is filled with rich evocations of Harlem’s past as well as documents of the area’s bright future with the opening of “” on May 3.
The exhibition, which will run until January 4, traces the architectural history of Harlem from preRevolutionary times to World War I, as it emerged from farmland and suburb to thriving metropolis on the eve of its explosion into world consciousness as the “Cultural Capital of Black America.”
Inspired by the book of the same title by architectural historian and Harlem resident Michael Henry Adams, who serves as the exhibition’s guest curator, “” features images from the museum’s collections and color photographs of contemporary Harlem by Paul Rocheleau. Furniture, sculpture, costumes, tableware and ephemera that belonged to Harlem residents ranging from Alexander Hamilton to Madam C.J. Walker evoke the real-life, everyday Harlem.
The exhibition is organized in two adjacent galleries. It begins with a series of color portraits of contemporary Harlem residents who are guarding Harlem’s past. That section leads into an assemblage of paintings, photographs, furniture, costumes, sculpture and silver that document the early history of Harlem – the Harlem not yet annexed to the City of New York, the Harlem of race tracks and mansions in sylvan settings.
Among the rdf_Descriptions on view are furniture from Hamilton Grange (the Harlem estate of Alexander Hamilton), a dress worn by Madame Stephen Jumel (nee Eliza Bowen) at Morris-Jumel mansion and a painting, circa 1830, by an anonymous artist of the Archibald D. Watt mansion at present-day West 139th-140th Streets. The Watt mansion, remarkably well documented in a 1908 series of photographs by Edwin Levick, was demolished in 1925.
Much of the main 2,400-foot gallery features separate sections on individual neighborhoods within Harlem. Each neighborhood section is realized with both historical and contemporary photographs and with objects of many kinds.
Of special note is the collection of rdf_Descriptions lent by A’Lelia Bundles, great-great-grand daughter of Madam C.J. Walker and great-grand daughter of A’Lelia Walker. Madam Walker, one of the first self-made American woman millionaires, was in the vanguard of the movement to Harlem by African Americans in the years preceding World War I.
Other objects on display singly and in groups include a grotesque gargoyle from City College, removed from the façade of one of the early buildings at the Convent Avenue site designed by George B. Post and recast in terra-cotta as part of the institution’s efforts to preserve its own architectural history.
Architectural elements rescued by preservationist and curator Michael Henry Adams from a variety of Harlem sites – including the former Audubon Theatre and Ballroom – give resonance to the photographs of structures that are no more.
A group of photographs and documents – including a letter written by a black New Yorker who suffered through the race riot of 1900 on the middle West Side of Manhattan, then the major black residential area – provide context for the movement of African Americans into Harlem. These materials also suggest why black New Yorkers regarded Harlem as a “Promised Land” for African Americans and why that sense of promise helped nurture the explosion of talent that came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance.
A variety of programs, ranging from lectures and book talks, to musical presentations and walking tours, will be offered in connection with the exhibition during its eight-month run.
The Museum of the City of New York is at 1220 Fifth Avenue. For information, 212-534-1672 or www.mcny.org.