Wednesday, May 4, 2011

"East Side, West Side....."

On Thursday I’m heading into Manhattan for another day of exploration - this time with a friend who’s familiar with the area around Columbia University. It’s new territory for me, one of the neighborhoods I never walked when I was younger.

Exploring Manhattan’s neighborhoods was a regular Saturday afternoon “adventure” back in the 1950s when I was a young teenager living in Brooklyn. My friend Carolyn and I would take the subway at Flatbush Avenue and during the ride into “the city” we’d decide which area to explore. It was the anticipation of finding something unexpected or new or unusual that made these trips exciting for us.

One day, we “discovered” the Pulitzer Fountain  in front of the Plaza Hotel. Another time we rode up the elevator in the Brill Building on Broadway to see if our favorite singer, Guy Mitchell, happened to be in his agent’s office. Instead, we found the Four Lads who thought we had come to help stuff envelopes. On many Saturdays, Carolyn and I hung around the theatre district and waited outside stage doors to get glimpses and autographs of some of the actors appearing on stage: Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer in Ondine, John Forsyth and David Wayne in The Teahouse of the August Moon, Darren McGavin in My Three Angels, and our favorite, Ralph Meeker, who was the star of Picnic at the Music Box Theatre with an unknown actor named Paul Newman.

The trips with Carolyn ended when we enrolled at different colleges and went our separate ways, although we still get together every couple of years and laugh about some of our silly escapades.

My three children - all born in Brooklyn but raised in Monmouth County - became “street smart” and still enjoy all that Manhattan offers. After they had grown, I moved to Albany. I still came down to meet friends or go to a show but the trips were infrequent and often sabotaged by snowstorms. When I moved back to New Jersey three years ago, I was delighted to find that there’s a bus outside my door that whisks me away to Port Authority in about thirty minutes.

One of my first discoveries since moving back was a little museum I had known nothing about. I had been meandering my way from the Upper East Side to Port Authority when I turned west from York Avenue onto East 61st. That’s when I noticed a small “sandwich” sign advertising a museum shop. A museum? Here? I looked up, past the wrought iron fence and saw the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum.

With time to spare before my bus, I walked up the steps and rang the bell. The docent on duty gave me a 45-minute historical perspective and tour of what had been a 1799 carriage house for a 23-acre estate originally owned by Colonel William Stephens Smith and his wife Abigail Adams Smith, daughter of John Adams.

In 1826, years after the manor house burned to the ground, the carriage house was converted into a hotel. Situated in the countryside, four miles from the bustling area below 14th Street, it was a 19th century resort for New Yorkers who wanted to escape the crowded city. Today, concerts are held in the back garden, an oasis surrounded by tall buildings

The Colonial Dames of America, a woman’s patriotic society, purchased the building in 1924. After extensive restoration to the structure, the Colonial Dames opened the site to the public in 1939. To find out much more about the Mount Vernon Hotel and Museum and Garden, visit

If I “discover” another museum or an interesting book shop or an interesting route to walk, I’ll let you know. Meanwhile, if you have any suggestions, pass them on.