27 December 2010

Seaport Surprise

The Peking, a 1911 barque at the South Street Seaport.

The South Street Seaport is a place in the city that I normally do not visit. Like Times Square, it’s where tourists go and therefore an area to be generally avoided. But a recent visit proved to be a pleasant surprise. For amid the chain stores and crowds is the South Street Seaport Museum, a small museum that puts on great exhibits, is home to a fleet of old ships, and has the coolest museum gift shop in the city—Bowne & Co., Stationers.

My visit was specifically to see the two current exhibits on display—“Alfred Stieglitz New York” and “DecoDence: Legendary Interiors and Illustrious Travelers Aboard the SS Normandie.” They were both worth the trip.

"Winter on Fifth Avenue" Alfred Stieglitz (1893)

The Stieglitz exhibit concentrates on images of New York that the artist made over a 40-year time span. His early photos from the turn of the century are simply amazing. The snow covered streets and horse drawn carriages seem to appear out of the mist and his nighttime shots have a dreamlike quality about them that our digital cameras cannot replicate. These photos are juxtaposed with images he took in the 1930s filled with gleaming skyscrapers and water towers, modern and bright. Together they show the growth of both a city and an artist.

The first class dining room on the SS Normandie.

DecoDence gives visitors a tiny glance into the glamour that was the SS Normandie. The idea of modern day cruise ships makes me shudder but I think I would have enjoyed sailing in the art deco splendor that was the Normandie. From her maiden voyage in 1935, the Normandie was arguably the most beautiful of the famed ocean liners that carried countless celebrities and others between Europe and America before the outbreak of World War II ended her voyages.

The exhibit includes items that would have been found on board, like the tiny Lalique designed bottles filled with a Jean Patou fragrance created just for the Normandie passengers as well as souvenirs that could be purchased like a handbag shaped like the ship (one of my favourites). There are also mini recreations of some of the rooms with furniture from the ship including a table and chairs from the famed mirrored-lined, first class dining room, which was said to be longer than the hall of mirrors at Versailles.

 Inside Bowne & Co., Stationers.

Across the street is the museum’s gift shop— Bowne & Co., Stationers, which resembles a print shop from the 1870s. In addition to selling an assortment of paper goods and general ephemera, the shop acts as a real letterpress, creating customized cards and stationary with the text set by hand. I could have bought everything in the shop, including the adorable tiny jars of ink that I have no need for but they were so pretty. I settled for some postcards.

The Stieglitz exhibit runs through January 10; the DecoDence exhibit through January 31. A ticket to the museum also allows you to visit the ships across the way (something I may do at another time).

 photos by Michele.

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