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This month, the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY) launched its first app, “A Walk Through Gilded NY,” an audio and visual tour through the past and present of the city’s turn-of-the-century architecture. Available for iPhone and Android, the app accompanies MCNY’s ongoing Gilded New York exhibition featuring opulent jewelry, decorative arts, and other objects from this era that roughly stretches from the 1870s to World War I.
“Gilded New York was the perfect opportunity to launch the museum’s first walking tour because the exhibition focuses on the visual culture of the Gilded Era — the way the city’s monied men and women showcase their money and style through what they bought, wore, and built,” Jessica Lautin, the creator of the app and former Andrew W. Mellon Fellow at MCNY, said in a statement shared by MCNY. “The exhibition shares what they bought and wore. The walking tour allows you to see what they built — the way they expressed their tastes and flaunted their money with velvet and marble.”
While some of the lush (and tawdry) cultural venues and Fifth Avenue millionaire mansions are now gone, such as the demolished 1882 Vanderbilt House, many are transformed. The app highlights structures like the Jewish Museum that was constructed as the Felix Warburg house, and notes that even as a private home it was something of an art gallery with its collection of Rembrandt and Cranach etchings. Recent photographs by Harlan Erskine are compared to archival images from MCNY and other institutions, demonstrating the shadow of a skyscraper now towering over the Plaza Hotel, and the fall of the elevated El tracks outside the Siegel-Cooper department store (now home to Bed, Bath & Beyond, Marshalls, and T.J. Maxx).
Each site is narrated by actress Grace Grummer and accompanied by slide shows of images, although the transcripts are also available to read. It’s designed so that you could walk from the remnants of the 1870 Tiffany & Co. building in Union Square (just a few surviving cast-iron window frames), all the way north to the Conservatory Garden in Central Park with its Vanderbilt Gate (which once guarded the lost grand home). But you can easily experience its anecdotes and history remotely. My favorite was this supposed outburst by author Mark Twain, who, when asked to put his personal items in the new Metropolitan Museum of Art’s cloak room, exclaimed, “Leave my cane! Leave my cane! How do you expect me to poke holes through the oil paintings?”