Lost NYC landmarks are found again at this New-York Historical Society exhibit

"It is about loss but also about recovery and also about remembering."

Rossilynne Skena Culgan
Things to Do Editor
A museum-goer looks a painting.
Photograph: By Rossilynne Skena Culgan for Time Out

There’s only one constant in New York City: Change. A new exhibit at the New-York Historical Society explores the rapid development of the city and what’s been left behind. 

The exhibit, titled Lost New York, transports viewers to a time when pigs roamed the streets, shopping was a radical act, and New Yorkers used to brave polluted waters for a swim. The exhibition also documents long-gone landmarks like the original Penn Station, Met Opera House, Chinese Theater, and Croton Reservoir. See it at the Upper West Side museum now through September 29. 

RECOMMENDED: The best museum exhibitions in NYC right now

More than 90 paintings, photographs, objects, and lithographs combine to tell the story of the city’s history and the importance of preserving pieces of our otherwise vanishing past. Though the idea for an exhibit like this had been brewing for some time, the concept solidified when the museum acquired two trompe-l’œil paintings by Richard Haas. One painting depicts Manhattan in 1855 with the Crystal Palace and original Croton Reservoir in view. The second painting depicts the same view during 1994 with Bryant Park and the Empire State Building in focus. The contrast is dizzying. 

Paintings by Richard Haas looking out onto Manhattan.
Photograph: By Rossilynne Skena Culgan for Time Out | Paintings by Richard Haas.

Museum curators focused not just on lost landmarks but also on lost communities (think Seneca Village), environments (like bathhouse culture), monuments (such as the Hippodrome), pastimes (cruising on a penny farthing, for example), and transportation (the horse-drawn omnibus). 

"I hope for visitors it's a fun dive into the many and deep layers of our past. But I hope that it becomes clear throughout the exhibition that it is about loss but also about recovery and also about remembering, and the importance of knowing our history," Wendy Nālani E. Ikemoto told Time Out New York on a tour. As vice president and chief curator of New-York Historical, Ikemoto served as curator for Lost New York.

It is about loss but also about recovery and also about remembering.

While the exhibition draws from the past, it stays contemporary by including quotes from living New Yorkers who reflect on many of the places, often with first-hand memories.

For example, next to an oil painting of Klein's discount department store, there's a quote from New Yorker June Goldberg who remembers shopping there for bargains because her family didn't have much money growing up. Different than a typical department store, the clothing at Klein's sat unfolded in piles on tables. The store was also noteworthy for its racially integrated lunch counter, a rarity during the Jim Crow era. A beautiful 1930s-era watercolor piece depicts a Black man eating lunch elbow-to-elbow with a white woman. 

The original Penn Station at left and Keith Haring's artwork in the center.
Photograph: By Rossilynne Skena Culgan for Time Out | Note the original Penn Station at left and Keith Haring's artwork in the center.

In another section, stunning images capture the soaring arches and ornate columns in the original Penn Station. The railroad station opened in 1910 and stood for only 54 years. Its demolition spurred the creation of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, an organization that later saved Grand Central Terminal from destruction. Quoted next to the artwork, Justin Rivers of Untapped New York says you can still find remnants of the original Penn Station—you just need to know where to look. 

A powerful landmark from the 1980s was Keith Haring’s Pop Shop, a place where the artist tried to make artwork accessible to anyone. Though the late artist’s iconic designs still live on today on everything from posters to sweatshirts to backpacks, the Soho Pop Shop closed in 2005 due to rising rent costs. You can see a portion of the shop in the exhibition, along with a Bowery subway sign emblazoned with Haring’s signature artwork. 

Painting by William Seaman titled "Knickerbocker Stage Line Omnibus"
Photograph: Painting by William Seaman titled "Knickerbocker Stage Line Omnibus"

Other sections of the show spotlight river bathhouses where New Yorkers cooled off before the existence of public pools; activist posters from Alphabet City; the first Chinese-language theater on the East Coast; and the Central Park Hooverville that emerged after the stock market crash in 1929. 

The exhibit chronicles decades of New York City's major moments with crisp descriptions and vivid detail to create an unflinching portrait of the city's history. Its paintings and photographs hold lessons for us all. 

Lost New York is included with museum admission ($24/adult). Or check it on during pay-as-you-wish Friday evenings, which will expand 5-8pm with live vintage music and specialty "lost" cocktails during the spring and summer months. Friday night activities begin on May 3 and continue through early summer. 

Popular on Time Out

    More on Spring
      You may also like
      You may also like