Ancient Greece in old New York

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The penchant for furniture, designs and all things Hellenic among 19th century New Yorkers is the subject of a timely new exhibit


  • "The Merchants' Exchange, N.Y.," a lithograph engraving from 1830 is part of the exhibit, “Style, Myth & Modernity in Greek Revival New York” at the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden. C. Burton (artist); Fenner Sears & Co. (engraver, printer); Simpkin & Marshall & I.T. Hinton, London (publisher). Courtesy of Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden

  • Ruth Osborne, the curator of collections at the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden, organized the museum's “Style, Myth & Modernity in Greek Revival New York” exhibit. Credit: Lindsey Mullholand.

  • The Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden's new exhibit, “Style, Myth & Modernity in Greek Revival New York,” is at the East 61st Street institution until Jan. 13. Photo: Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden

if you go

WHAT: Style, Myth and Modernity in Greek Revival New York

WHERE: Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden, 421 East 61st St.

WHEN: Sept. 11 to Jan. 13, 11 a.m. daily

ADMISSION: $8 adults/$7 seniors and students


Ever wonder about origins behind the fluted columns and egg-and-dart motifs that adorn many a Manhattan facade? “Style, Myth & Modernity in Greek Revival New York,” a new exhibit at the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden, has a few answers — and Aristotelian appeals to modern pathos and logos. The exhibit presents some of the myriad designs, artifacts and literature which inspired 19th century New Yorkers to embrace the aesthetics of this ancient civilization.

At a time when modern Greece was fighting for independence from the Ottoman Empire, and the U.S. was keen on exploring the virtues of civic engagement and democracy, lofty ideals from ancient Athens infused the lives of everyday Manhattanites, suggests Ruth Osborne, curator of collections at the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden.

“Even though design can seem like more of an academic topic that doesn’t touch everyday lives, the Greek revival really did touch them [19th century New Yorkers],” says Osborne. “They studied Greek texts, and ancient Greek philosophers’ names would come up in newspapers, which were exploding at the time.”

In addition to traditional displays and specially designated objects that patrons can touch to learn more about their craftsmanship, the exhibit features plaster cast replicas of numerous design motifs like the egg-and-dart, prevalent in the plaster moldings of many homes constructed during the 1800s. Highlights include 1830s plasterwork on loan from the Merchant’s House Museum, formerly owned by the Seabury Tredwell family and the only the only 19th century family home in New York City preserved intact. These same design motifs are present on columns in buildings in SoHo and on railings throughout Greenwich Village — and that’s just the beginning.

The Greek revival was more than just a style trend. It was also a way to signal modern tastes. This melding of form and function meets at Mount Vernon, which is itself an architectural example of 19th century Greek revival.

“The building was built in 1799 [and] it was conceived as a carriage house for a larger estate. When a new owner came in 1826, that’s when he decided to turn the house that remains [the carriage house] into a little money-making operation,” says Osborne.

The estate, once remodeled, became a fashionable hotel that advertised itself as a country escape “intended for only the most genteel and respectable” clientele. Travelers coming up through New York might have seen the stately building with fluted columns and carved marble fireplaces, visual clues that they’d come across a place of refined sensibility and taste.

Yes, the Upper East Side really was the country back then, and plenty of the neighborhood’s 19th century neo-Greek architecture still exists, from discreet decorative flourishes to blocks of row houses, like those on First Avenue between 60th and 61st Streets, painted in tones and blue and green. One of Osborne’s favorite examples is located at 311 East 58th St., home to antique English furniture dealer Philip Colleck, Ltd.

“It’s just sitting there south of the bridge ... it’s Greek revival in design and it’s just a fabulous example, almost like a time capsule, of what the Upper East Side was like in the 19th century,” says Osborne. “There’s this beautiful front lawn and picket fence. It’s right near one of the busiest bridges [Queensboro], but it’s so calming visually.”

In contemporary New York, Osborne sees a connect between the visual boldness of street art — and the way it is often used to signal the culture of a neighborhood — and the Greek designs of yore. Both then and now, people tend to be drawn to clear, bold statements when it comes to design.

Says Osborne, “I’m hoping this exhibit will help visitors make visual connections with the way design and architecture plays into their everyday surroundings in New York, and [help them] discover new neighborhoods and layers of history.”

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