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Art, Books, and Animals in Central Manhattan: Three Less Common Destinations

Three places to stop when visiting New York (one is free)!

Visiting New York and want to check out a few landmarks? Of course you know about the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Broadway theater district. Here are a few others that are centrally located but may be less crowded than the larger attractions. And the first one is free!

THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY

Although the two literary lions in front of the grand stairway entrance to the 42nd Street Library have long been Midtown landmarks, it is only since the re-opening of the refurbished marble palace that free public tours have been conducted of its interior. Everything has been cleaned and polished and new decorations adorn the special collections rooms. The library seems friendlier to the general public now-although its main purpose is still to provide research to scholars and students.

There are two tours a day (11 a.m. and 2 p.m.) and the volunteer docents reel off more facts and figures than you can absorb. The library contains 500,000 square feet of marble and was designed in the Beaux Arts style by the architectural firm of Carrere and Hastings. The original collection was a combination of John Jacob Astor’s private library and that of a millionaire named Lenox. With financial donations by Samuel Tilden (and later, Andrew Carnegie) the Main Library became one of the great learning centers of the world--as befitted a city that was, by the late 19th century, the cultural capital of America.

The Main Library is for reference only, by the way, and it is open to everyone. The famed reading room on the third floor now has computer terminals and new lamps. The Dewitt Wallace Room, devoted to periodicals, features new murals of old-time Manhattan neighborhoods such as Murray Hill and Newspaper Row.

Whether you take the tour or not, be sure to check out whatever special exhibit happens to be on hand--they are museum-quality. The one I saw, entitled Utopia, covered two thousand years of depictions of an idealized society. It included ancient texts and illuminated manuscripts, film clips and audios; TV segments documenting hippie communes in the 1960s and photographs of modern communes. Hope others are up to that high standard

Before you leave the marble halls of the library, be sure to visit the gift shop on the first floor. Although it’s small, it is chock full of unique items. The library is obviously trying to get the tourists to go beyond taking a picture of the stone lions in front and actually walk up the marble steps into its classic hallways.

Also try a saunter through Bryant Park, which takes up the square block immediately behind the library (between 5th and 6th Avenues). It has been restored from its grungy past (it was once a gathering place for derelicts) and now sports lots of metal chairs and tables set among the arching trees. You’ll find kiosks serving coffee and sandwiches so you can enjoy a frugal lunch while lolling around the central greensward. In fact, between the budding trees and the bistro tables you’ll think you’re in Paris for a moment.

The NYPL is free and opens at 10 a.m. (11 a.m. on Wednesdays). No tours on Sunday. Located at 42nd St. and Fifth Ave. Telephone: 212-930-0830.

THE FRICK COLLECTION

Further uptown, at 70th Street and Fifth Avenue, The Frick Collection is another marble palace that affords an hour or two of relaxation. This handsome Beaux Arts museum was created by the same architectural firm that built the library. But the interior here is more homey, with heavy wood paneling and an airy atrium. The the Frick features a magnificent assemblage of art and decorative pieces that the steel magnate amassed during his lifetime. French and English paintings of the 17th and 18th century predominate, with pieces displayed as if in a home.

One room is dedicated to Fragonard, the painter of French aristocratic life just prior to the Revolution. Four delicate panels depict idyllic shepherds and shepherdesses dancing and playing in the garden. (Theatergoers who saw the dance/drama “Contact” will recognize the inspiration for the opening number in these panels). British portrait painters of the 18th century such as Reynolds and Gainsborough are also well represented, and there are plenty of Dutch masters hanging from the paneled walls.

Only the first floor is open, but this is a formidable collection, so expect to stay at least an hour. The Frick does not have an eating area, but there is a nice gift shop available. Children under ten are not allowed and those under sixteen must be accompanied by an adult. Hours: Tuesday to Saturday: 10 -6; Sunday: 1-6. Admission: Adults: $10.00; students & seniors: $5.00. Telephone: 212-288-0700.

THE CENTRAL PARK ZOO

If you have children along, a good place to stop is the Central Park Zoo at East 64th Street and Fifth Avenue. This is a small zoo (oops, the official name is Wildlife Conservation Park) but it is set up much like it’s bigger brother, The Bronx Zoo. The largest exhibit is indoors and is called “Jungle World.” It’s nice and warm in here-in fact, it is a transported tropical rain forest with chattering monkeys and colorful toucans moving along the three stories of foliage. Even tiny animals like leafcutter ants and other jungle insects are displayed.

Across the way, past the sea lion pool, you can find the polar bears who are much more at home during the colder weather. They have limited space but seem to enjoy splashing into their pool. Visitors certainly enjoy photographing them. An adjoining indoor section is devoted to penguins. It is quite dark in this cave and you can watch these funny creatures dive-bomb through the water when they aren’t waddling about. Luckily there is even a bench inside (a rare find in Manhattan) so you can sit and rest your feet. Beyond the regular zoo there is a small children’s zoo which has been retrofitted with interactive play areas for children. The admission fees are reasonable and the zoo is open 365 days a year. Telephone: 212-861-6030.

Barbara Hudgins is the author of New Jersey Day Trips, now in its ninth edition.An earlier version of this article appeared in the Bernardsville News, November, 2000.


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