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New York museum history: learn the origins of nine museum buildings

Get a lesson in New York museum history and find out what nine museum buildings were before they housed cultural institutions.

 (Museum at Eldridge Street)
Museum at Eldridge Street

Museum at Eldridge Street


 (Photograph: Courtesy New York Transit Museum)
Photograph: Courtesy New York Transit Museum

Court St station (which would become the New York Transit Museum) in 1976

 (Photograph: Graham S Haber)
Photograph: Graham S Haber

The Morgan Library & Museum

 (Photograph: Queens Museum)
Photograph: Queens Museum

New York City pavilion (which would become the Queens Museum) at the 1939 World's Fair

 (Photograph: Courtesy the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space)
Photograph: Courtesy the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space

Mural at the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space

 (Photograph: Courtesy MoMA PS1)
Photograph: Courtesy MoMA PS1

MoMA PS1 building in 1920

 (Photograph: Markus Hartel)
Photograph: Markus Hartel

Museum of American Finance

 (Photographer: R.A.Whiteside)
Photographer: R.A.Whiteside

Interior views of the National Museum of the American Indian

 (Photograph: Collection of Fraunces Tavern® Museum)
Photograph: Collection of Fraunces Tavern® Museum

Fraunces Tavern Museum circa 1890

Some New York museums weren’t always museums. This New York museum history guide will tell you what occupied nine current cultural institutions, including the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space and the Queens Museum, before they became home to some of the best New York attractions.

RECOMMENDED: Museums in New York

Museum at Eldridge Street

What it was: A synagogue
This erstwhile house of worship first opened in 1887, attracting newly settled Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side. But in post-Depression NYC, the synagogue had lost much of its congregation, and the main sanctuary was practically in ruins by the 1980s. It’s looking as good as new today—a tremendous restoration effort included the 2010 installation of a gorgeous stained-glass window designed by artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans.

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New York Transit Museum

What it was: A subway station
Before it housed transportation artifacts, this institution was a functioning IND stop. Built in 1936, it was part of a three-block shuttle to Hoyt-Schermerhorn, but was decommissioned in 1946. (Initially, it was meant to be a stop on the Second Avenue Subway—but we all know how that went.) The unusual digs allow the museum to display vintage subway cars along tracks on its lower level.

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Boerum Hill

The Morgan Library & Museum

What it was: J.P. Morgan’s library
The überwealthy financier got turn-of-the-20th-century starchitects McKim, Mead & White to design a structure to house his extensive collection of books. That structure remains, and has since merged with an annex; a brownstone owned by Morgan’s son, Jack; and a 2006 addition designed by Renzo Piano. The library itself, completed in 1906, is three stories high and has hidden staircases tucked behind its bookshelves—alas, visitors can’t actually climb them and sniff all the old books.

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Murray Hill

Queens Museum of Art

What it was: Part of the 1939 World’s Fair
How many landmarks can say they once housed the United Nations? Okay, technically a few—but the Queens Museum’s edifice is among the most storied, since it was constructed for the 1939 World’s Fair and hosted exhibits for both that event and the one in 1964. (The latter is when the Panorama of the City of New York was installed.) By October, the Flushing spot’s footprint will have doubled, thanks to a years-long expansion project, but the original building will remain.

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Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space

What it is: A squat
MoRUS exists to chronicle the history of activism in the East Village, so what better venue for the organization than a still-functioning occupied dwelling? The museum opened on the ground floor of C-Squat, a seminotorious punk house that’s sheltered bands (Leftöver Crack, Star Fucking Hipsters), skaters, Occupiers and artists throughout the years. Visitors can learn about grassroots movements and public protests while mingling with some of the folks who’ve made them happen.

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East Village


What it was: A public school
If wandering through the galleries in MoMA PS1’s red-brick building gives you flashbacks to your middle-school days, that’s not a coincidence: The structure, built in 1893, was originally the First Ward School, which could hold up to 1,000 students in its more than 30 rooms. It was renamed P.S. 1 in 1898, but closed in 1962, and reopened as the Institute for Art and Urban Resources Inc. 14 years later; the public-school theme remains at M. Wells Dinette, with its chalkboard-lined walls and desk seats.

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Long Island City

Museum of American Finance

What it was: Headquarters of the Bank of New York
It’s fitting that exhibits devoted to the history of money would be displayed in the former headquarters of a financial institution. The Bank of New York, established by O.G. finance guy Alexander Hamilton, called this staid building home until 1998, when it left for One Wall Street. MoAF took over, opening on the ground-floor space a decade later and becoming only the second tenant in that spot in the building’s history.

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Financial District

National Museum of the American Indian

What it was: U.S. Custom House
Alexander Hamilton’s fingerprints are all over lower Manhattan: This 1907 goliath, named for the founding father, was the headquarters for New York’s customs offices until 1971. But the site’s history goes even further back: It was ground zero for the Stamp Act Riots in 1765, and as Fort Amsterdam, was used as a stronghold by both American and British soldiers.

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Financial District

Fraunces Tavern Museum

What it was: A Revolutionary War–era saloon
The 18th-century pub where sailors and patriots once got drunk is no longer—it was restored in the early 1900s—but this restaurant and museum is chock-full of history. The Sons of Liberty plotted protests here; George Washington famously addressed officers in the Continental Army here when the war ended in 1783; and the bar was home to the Departments of Foreign Affairs, War and Treasury immediately following the Revolution.

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Financial District