Time for my second site for Open House New York. I left the African Burial Ground about 12:30pm and started walking uptown. There are no buses from that far downtown (Broadway and Duane Street) that go up all the way to north of Sugar Hill. I could have taken the subway all the way or even part of the way but it was a beautiful fall day and I didn’t want to spend any of it underground. My other choice was a bus to the East Village but I didn’t think that far ahead to figure out what bus would take me there and my smartphone is not that smart. While walking uptown I came across the StoryCorps booth and saw a model lightly stepping over and over for a photographer.
I also passed the Museum of Chinese in America, which would be a very interesting place to visit I bet.
It took me a half-hour to get to Astor Place. I remembered my reservation time as 2:40pm and thought I’d have plenty of time. The first bus I got on didn’t go all the way and let us off at 110th Street. I got the next bus, which did continue uptown like it’s supposed to and spent a lot of time stuck in traffic near one of the small bridges that cross the Harlem River connecting Manhattan with the Bronx. It was 2:40, then 2:45 and I wasn’t sure if they’d let me in at all. Then I checked my calendar and saw that my reservation was actually 3pm and I made it off the bus and up the one block so that I arrived at 2:55pm. Turns out the tours at the Musuem of Art and Origins were running late and they wouldn’t be ready until 3:30pm. And they didn’t have a bathroom so they directed me across the street to the Morris-Jumel Mansion. I didn’t realize it was part of OHNY, so I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I didn’t have to beg to use the bathroom and not pay the admission fee. Last time I was there, Washington’s war room was empty for renovations. Now it had wallpaper and furniture.
The art exhibit was over so the other rooms were set up as they were supposed to be. I couldn’t explore the park the last time because they were setting up for a party. This time the front lawn had vendors and the porch was being used as a stage for musicians.
While I waited outside with the other 3pm reservation people I noticed how nice the block was. I later found out that the homes were built between 1894-1898. Italian immigrants did the stonework. The carvings are called Italianate in the US, which is an American term and not an art period term. The stones are purposely rough and uneven to emulate log cabins and pioneers.
The owner and our guide, George Preston, was spending a lot of time on his phone and didn’t seem concerned that people were waiting for him. There were only seven of us and we wanted to go inside. First he took us up the block to Sylvan Terrace, which is always a delight to see. Built in 1874, it was originally an artists’ community and it is slowing becoming one again. The entire area was known for its artists and it is filling up with artists again. Preston grew up in the apartment building up the street and he would see Count Basie, Paul Robeson, Lena Horne, and Canada Lee walking around. When we walked to and from Sylvan Terrace, Preston was greeted by several of his neighbors.
When we got back to his home, the OHNY volunteer reminded Preston that he liked to get to know his group. He asked each of us our names, would sometimes guess ethnicity, and say something interesting about your background. Before we started he was talking to two people in our group, a couple – she was Scottish from (I think) Ghana and he was Dutch. He spoke to her in (I believe) Ashanti and she was shocked and pleasantly surprised. Turns out that he had lived in several cities in that region and had traveled around there for years. One man was French, another Croatian, and his friend’s name was Juan. Preston looked confused when I told him my name, so I explained that my parents were from Puerto Rico. He asked if I knew who Bernie Williams and Roberto Clemente were and, of course, I did. He then explained and demonstrated one of Clemente’s great plays. The last woman was of Pakistani heritage and Preston said he loved North Indian music, which is similar to Pakistani music, and he was a member of a raga society. Inside he had a sitar. It turns out that Preston is a bit of a Renaissance man. Later we found out that his interest in the art he collected was originally academic. He taught politics in art for years. “If you make art you don’t have to put your hands on people.” He did talk about some pieces he’d seen in Africa that represented something similar to swords being turned into plowshares. That evening there was going to be a jazz concert and a three-course dinner for $30. There was going to be another musical event the next night. Based on how full of art that home was, I really would like to know how he was going have a concert and serve food.
It starts in the hallway. There is some Egyptian art (a mummified falcon and a terracotta head), central African art, and contemporary art on the walls by Cuban and Brazilian artists. One of his favorite pieces is a pair of bicycle chain sandals made by a Brazilian artist. Brazilians call their sandals Havaianas. I didn’t get a shot of those but you can see them on the front page of the museum website.
Next was the front room that was filled with art from central Africa and more contemporary art on the walls including one piece by Preston, who will be showing in a gallery next month. Some of the art (especially the contemporary) identified the piece and artist. Older pieces were not identified.
The back room was (I think) more central African art or it was west African art. Preston said he collected furniture (I forgot what period) and his mother had collected Chinese furniture. Both were used as stands for all the African art.
Preston said he asks people what this Brazilian piece is. If they answer “a pear” then he doesn’t want to know them.
Downstairs was more African art from west and central Africa. There were two rooms. The second room had a statue of Preston in African robes. The hallway outside the rooms were also filled with masks and art on the walls and there was a very small room up front that had more pieces on the shelves.
Preston then left us to explore on our own. Turns out we could go upstairs also. There were two floors above us. The walls were covered with artwork. I’m guessing he lived behind at least one of the doors on the second floor and there were two doors on the third floor that looked like they may open to rental apartments.
I loved all the art and was overwhelmed by how much there was in such a small space. My favorite piece was this contemporary portrait. It reminds me of my father.
I thanked Preston for the opportunity to explore his museum and went to the closest subway (right up the street) and went home exhausted.
By Carene Lydia Lopez