Tag Archives: washington heights

An Afternoon on the Edge of Manhattan

Recently my friend Anya visited me for a weekend.  Every trip I try to show her a different neighborhood in Manhattan.  For this visit we picked Harlem and were joined by our friend Beurre.  Our first stop was the Morris-Jumel Mansion, which is the oldest house in Manhattan and technically in Washington Heights/borderline Harlem.

Anya and I at the Morris-Jumel Mansion

George Washington used the Morris-Jumel Mansion as his headquarters during the Revolutionary War.  I last visited the home in middle school and I was excited to see the addition of mannequins in historical costumes.

Cut-out George Washington looks like he's enjoying facebook

Love the historical costumes!

After doing a self-guided tour, we admired the architecture of Sylvan Terrace, which is a block of historic wooden row houses across the street.  All of the homes, with the exception of one holdout, were restored in the 1980’s with Federal funds.

Charming Syvlan Terrace

We walked from Sylvan Terrace to our first official stop in Harlem, the City College of New York (CCNY) campus.  CCNY was the first public institution of higher education in the United States and the school’s Collegiate Gothic campus is GORGEOUS.  The campus is 35 acres and runs from 130th Street to 141st Street.

City College campus is very reminiscent of the Ivies and Seven Sister schools.

We continued our walk to 125th Street, which is the most famous street in Harlem.  There are a lot of large stores on 125th Street and some signs of gentrification (MAC makeup, H&M).  We stopped at the Apollo Theater, where an informal memorial wall was set up outside for Whitney Houston.

Beurre and Anya in front of the Apollo Theater and Whitney Houston memorial wall

125th Street (Hotel Theresa was Fidel's lodging of choice on his 1960 visit to NYC, but it's now an office and school building).

By this time Anya, Beurre, and I were ready for a pick-me-up, so we headed to Patisseries des Ambassades, which is a West African/French bakery and café on 119th Street.  They had tons of delicious looking French pastries.  I asked the waitress what was the most popular (always a good way to go when you are indecisive/everything looks appealing) and she said the almond croissants, but they were sold out.  Instead I ordered a latte and chocolate almond croissant and it was the best (and also the only) chocolate almond croissant I’ve ever had (this sets a low standard, but still it was outstanding!).

Latte art at Patisserie Des Ambassades

After coffee we walked around Lenox Avenue where we passed many beautiful brownstones, the historic Lenox Lounge Bar, and other impressive architecture.  Unfortunately it started raining, so I didn’t take any photos.  We stopped at Swing Concept Shop, which was a very cute boutique with dear prices.  We were planning on checking out more boutiques, but it began POURING, so we headed to the Red Rooster for cocktails.  For those of you not in the know, the Red Rooster is a soul food restaurant owned by the acclaimed Swedish-Ethiopian chef Marcus Samuelsson (formerly the executive chef at Acquavit).  As the site of a $30,800 per plate Obama fundraiser last year, it’s probably the trendiest restaurant in Harlem.  I read online that it’s impossible to get dinner reservations and since I’m not a big soul food fan anyway, I was happy just getting drinks there.  I LOVED the atmosphere!  The décor was lovely and it nice to see such a diverse crowd.  I also greatly enjoyed my drink (the Savoy = vodka, lemon, muddled grapes, agave), which tasted very refreshing.

Relaxing at the Red Rooster

Following cocktails we headed back downtown to change for dinner, but we were all in agreement that we want to go back to Harlem on Anya’s next NYC trip.  Hopefully it will feature better weather!  Even though I don’t love soul food, I liked the Red Rooster so much that I am now curious to try the food.  You might see it in another post soon!


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Fun Times in Washington Heights – Part II

2012 UPDATE: The Madame Alexander Heritage Gallery is closed until early 2013 because the company is moving facilities.

After the museum I decided to walk down Broadway, since I am not very familiar with Washington Heights, and I wanted to check out the neighborhood (it turns out there wasn’t a lot to see on Broadway other than restaurants and bodegas).  On a whim I stopped by the Madame Alexander Doll Factory on 131st Street where I went to a sample sale several years ago.  At the time I wanted to go on a tour, but they were only available by reservation for groups of fifteen or more.  I never bothered trying to put together a group since I don’t have friends who are (still) interested in dolls.

The building is now owned by Columbia University (it may have been several years ago too, but I don't remember seeing a CU sign on my first visit).

Madame Alexander Heritage Gallery and Factory

I collected dolls when I was younger and attended a lot of doll shows with my mother (mostly Madame Alexander and Ginny’s, as well as Steiffs and Muffies, which are stuffed animals).  I also liked American Girl Dolls (I actually worked at American Girl Place as a seasonal personal shopping assistant in college), but I consider those play dolls rather than collectibles.

the reception room

The reception room

I am so happy I decided to stop by Madame Alexander, because not only do they now have a store there, but they also offer daily tours to the public.  On the website it says you need a reservation for the tours, but they no longer have the fifteen person minimum.  I am not sure how often the tours run, but when I got there the receptionist said the next tour would begin in twenty minutes and last about a half hour.  I only waited a few minutes when a group of school children from a local charter school arrived.  A toy designer was going to lead them on a special tour and asked if I would like to join the group instead of waiting for the general tour.  I said of course and we proceeded into the factory.

First, we watched a short documentary about the history of Madame Alexander, which was founded by Madame Beatrice Alexander Behrman in 1923.  Madame Alexander’s father owned the first doll hospital in the U.S. and after seeing so many broken dolls she was inspired to create dolls for play.  The company rarely makes porcelain dolls and most Madame Alexander dolls have hard plastic bodies.

Scarlett O'Hara dolls and a wall of dies (used to cut fabric)

Scarlett O’Hara dolls, doll heads, and a wall of dies used to cut fabric.

Madame Alexander was the first company to make dolls based on licensed characters from books and movies.  In 1955, she created the fashion doll Cissy, which was the first doll to have an adult body and high heeled feet (pre-dating Barbie by several years!).  The tour guide told us that Cissy changed the play patterns of children because previously they considered dolls to be their contemporaries and after the creation of Cissy they viewed dolls as what they would become.  The dolls are made in the U.S., which I think is great because it is important to support local businesses and employee people here.  Although the doll’s bodies are produced in NYC, the tour leader/designer told us that they outsource for specialty finishes (ex. the beading on the clothes is done in India, since they specialize in beading there).

After watching the film we walked through the Heritage Gallery, which had glass displays with antique Madame Alexander dolls and modern dolls (flash use was not permitted in the gallery, so some of the photos are blurry).

the original Cissy doll

The original Cissy doll



more Scarlett O'Hara dolls

More Scarlett O’Hara dolls

I Love Lucy!

I Love Lucy!

Audrey Hepburn/Holly Golightly

Audrey Hepburn/Holly Golightly

modern Cissys

Modern Cissys and a Cisette

Spa Cissy

Spa Cissy



Next we visited the factory where workers were sewing doll clothing.  One worker demonstrated how he makes hats for the dolls on a sewing machine.  As a special treat for the school group we were allowed to pick a hat from a multi-colored selection (I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate for me to take one, but the tour leader offered it to me, so I took an adorable pink hat).

the factory and union workers

The factory

union workers sewing

Union workers sewing

rows of fabric

Rows of fabric

demonstrating hat making

Hat production

Then we went to the Doll Hospital and the tour leader assembled a doll’s head using rubber bands, glue, and a press.  The doll’s body parts are held together with medical grade rubber bands, which can be easily fixed.

Doll hospital admissions

Doll hospital admissions

Tour leader/toy designer showing us the rubber band system

Tour leader/toy designer showing us the rubber band system

Next we saw the conference room, which was beautifully painted by one of the doll designers.  The room can be rented out for birthday parties.  We also visited the showroom where the latest dolls for 2009 were displayed.  Unfortunately we were not permitted to take photos in the showroom because the dolls have not been released yet.

pretty conference room

Pretty conference room

I love the doll's clothes!

I love the doll’s clothes!

 At the end of the tour the children were each allowed to pick one catalogue and the tour leader told me I could take as many as I wanted (they sell the catalogues at the front desk for $12. each).  Before leaving I also visited the store, which had some good deals and was definitely less expensive than FAO Schwartz.

I especially enjoyed talking to the tour leader about her background (she had another career before becoming a toy designer).  She told me there are eight designers on the design team and they studied toy, fashion, or costume design.

Typical MA designer's desk

Typical Madame Alexander designer’s desk (I own the Coco doll in the pink suit)

A trip to the Madame Alexander Factory probably won’t appeal to most adults, but I loved the experience.

Wendy wearing her new hat! (note Wendy is the oldest MA doll model still in production and the most popular)

Wendy’s new hat matches her outfit perfectly! (note – Wendy is the oldest Madame Alexander doll model still in production and the most popular)

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Fun Times in Washington Heights – Part I

Entrance to the Hispanic Society of America

Entrance to the Hispanic Society of America

This afternoon I visited the Hispanic Society of America, which I consider to be the greatest “hidden gem” in NYC.  I visited the society for the first time several years ago, but I decided to go again today after reading that the Dia Center had opened an exhibit there (Dia is an art foundation that supports contemporary artists).  Entrance to the Hispanic Society is free, and they also have a reference library for the study of the arts and culture of Spain, Portugal, and Latin America.  The Hispanic Society is located on Broadway, between 155th and 156th street, AKA Audubon Terrace (property previously owned by the renowned ornithologist/painter).

You might recognize the facade from Law and Order, which was filming outside during my first visit

You might recognize the facade from Law and Order, which was filming outside during my first visit

Dia and the Hispanic Society began a four-year partnership in 2007 for the Hispanic Society to exhibit works that Dia commissions.  The current Dia exhibit Derrotero is by the New York-based artist Zoe Leonard and has two parts.  The first section Analogue is comprised of 400 photographs that the artist took between 1998 and 2007.  The artist originally intended to document the gentrification of the Lower East Side, but she also incorporates photographs of related imagery from her trips to Uganda, Cuba, and Poland (ex. coca cola signs found on facades of buildings abroad and on the LES).

The photographs are organized thematically (i.e. bodega storefronts, rags, etc…).  I thought the photos were interesting, but I grew up downtown/have seen the gentrification of the LES firsthand and therefore didn’t find the exhibit so revelatory or groundbreaking.



The second part of Leonard’s exhibit consisted of antique maps from the Hispanic Society’s collection, which were housed in the main building (Analogue was in another building next door).  I thought the maps were a bit dull, so I didn’t photograph them.  However, the main building also houses the society’s IMPRESSIVE collection of Spanish decorative arts, paintings, sculptures, textiles, and archaeology.  The objects and paintings are installed around a beautiful carved wooden balcony.

NOTE – the Hispanic Society does not allow the use of flash and the interior is dark, so some of the photos are out of focus.


Goya's "Dutchess of Alba?

Goya, Dutchess of Alba, 1797

This effigy looks so serene

This effigy looks so serene

Sadly, my favorite part of the collection, the Sorolla Room is closed for renovation until 2010.  The Sorolla room is a ballroom with SPECTACULAR murals by the artist Joaquin Sorolla, but the murals are in Spain until the renovation is complete.


The sculptures in the courtyard are by Anna Hyatt Huntington, the second wife of the Hispanic Society’s founder, Archer Milton Huntington.

19th and 20th century painting wing with Don Quixote relief

19th and 20th century painting wing with Don Quixote relief

Across from the main building is a recently renovated wing, which houses the Society’s gorgeous collection of 19th and 20th century paintings.  Below are some of the highlights (I am sorry I didn’t note the painters or titles).



I HIGHLY recommend visiting the Hispanic Society of America, even if you are not a fan of Spanish art or culture (although you might want to wait until the Sorolla murals come back in 2010).


p.s. I just read on the Hispanic Society’s website that they offers free tours led by the curators at 2PM on Saturdays.  Also, both times I was there I was the only visitor (not including my mother the first time).  While I hope they attract more people, this makes for a more pleasant and intimate experience than you might have at the MoMA or the Met, although it doesn’t have the people watching appeal.

p.p.s. Across the street from the Hispanic Society is the Church of the Intercession, which has a Tiffany alter and one of the cemeteries of the downtown Trinity Church, where many prominent New Yorkers are buried.



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