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Museum Mile High
It's one of the densest concentrations of culture anywhere -- nine museums along a 22-block stretch of the Upper East Side.

By Sean Daly
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 13, 2003

Quests for enlightenment are so much easier when everyone around you is wearing a tank top. It was the first spectacular day of the season, a mid-March Saturday in New York City with clear blue skies and a blissful temperature in the low 70s. The Upper East Side was teeming with pretty people eager to display some long-winterized skin as they strolled Fifth Avenue and lazed on blankets in Central Park. And, most important, my pursuit of instant knowledge was going great.

My mission that weekend was to visit all nine stops on the city's grand Museum Mile in two days. That's right: nine museums. In a single weekend. The Museum Mile is actually one mile plus two blocks, spanning from 104th Street to 82nd Street -- 22 blocks of architecturally handsome Fifth Avenue -- and is perhaps the densest, most conveniently arranged display of culture in the world. Line 'em up, knock 'em down and just keep following those Museum Mile street signs. Of course, doing the old gawk-nod-and-bolt like Clark W. Griswold dashing through the Louvre in "National Lampoon's European Vacation" didn't count. That was cheating. My good-sport fiancee and I would spend quality time at each location, appreciate the beauty surrounding us -- you know, learn stuff.

I'm the kind of guy who knows more about the Mets than the Met, and frankly, it's become embarrassing as I've climbed further into my thirties. I have visions of my future children asking me about the Great Masters -- and the only thing I'll be able to provide them with is Mike Piazza's lifetime batting average. Mastering the Mile, I figured, could change all that. Maybe even make me a better man.

10 a.m. During a towering breakfast of eggs, pancakes and assorted pork products at Pete's Diner -- a Greek-run joint on Madison Avenue where the chatter among the wait staff is almost as good as the food -- Jen and I planned our mastery of the Mile. We would start at El Museo del Barrio at 104th Street and, over the next two days, work our way down Fifth Avenue, finishing our museum derring-do on Sunday at the granddaddy of them all, the Metropolitan Museum of Art -- where, it should be noted, part of the fun during perfect weather is lounging on the wide stone steps in front and watching the world walk by. Because two of the nine museums would be unavailable to us during the weekend -- the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum is closed until April 22 for an exhibit switch and the Goethe Institut is open only on weekdays -- we'd also have plenty of time to explore this surprisingly lively neighborhood and, at night, have dinner and drinks with friends in the myriad quirky establishments dotting the area.

Wiping pancake syrup from our faces, we entered the glorious light of Saturday and prepared to stock up on knowledge with which we could bore our future children for years.

10:50 a.m. Situated at the highest (and loneliest) point of the Museum Mile and housed in what looks like a rather uninviting high school, El Museo del Barrio at 104th Street is easy to miss. There was little foot traffic outside the museum, and the peaceful patch of park directly across the street was far more inviting. But once inside, we were immediately engrossed in two key exhibits. Dedicated solely to Puerto Rican, Caribbean and Latin American art, El Museo is currently featuring a sprawling tribute to prolific Puerto Rican artist Rafael Tufino, whose intricate linoleum cuts are almost as beautiful as the sweet and fully colored illustrated letters he wrote to his son Pablo.

Also worth checking out is the archaeological display "Taino: Ancient Voyagers of the Caribbean," an extensive, relic-rich look at the colonization of the islands some 7,000 years ago. (The ceremonial vomiting sticks will no doubt be a sure-fire hit with any frat boy.) I didn't miss much in El Museo del Barrio. In fact, I paid scholarly attention to almost everything, and quickly forgot about the track-meet approach I thought I'd need this weekend.

12:30 p.m. Many folks familiar with Museum Mile will tell you that their favorite stop along the route is the Museum of the City of New York at 103rd Street. Five floors of exhibition space are in this converted Colonial mansion that looks like the White House inside. Much like the city it chronicles, the museum has a never-boring flair, detailing the history of the Big Apple in a multitude of clever ways. We started at the top, with the dressing room and bedroom of John D. Rockefeller Sr.'s West 54th Street estate from the early 1880s, which was moved here intact. The American Renaissance design style -- or, in layman's terms, how the other half of the other half lives -- features "maple woodwork with rosewood and mother-of-pearl inlay," "carved cherub heads and footed urns overflowing with fruit" and lots of other features you'll never be able to afford.

We also took our childish time walking through the "New York Toy Stories" exhibit, with its tribute to children's-book brat Eloise, plus two dozen over-the-top 19th-century dollhouses that are bigger than most studio apartments. "The Restaurant That Nickels Built" is a puckish tribute to the mid-20th-century Horn & Hardart Automat vending machines ("Art Deco food palaces") that dispensed every type of food imaginable, including, scarily enough, oysters.

And no one should miss "Between Worlds: Kabul New York," by photographer Anthony Suau. Via in-your-face black-and-white prints, the artist depicts the that-was-then horrors both here and in Afghanistan circa Sept. 11, 2001. Tight schedule and all, it was hard to walk away.

1:45 p.m. We were feeling pretty cocky -- although, yes, we were also starting to get throbby little hints of "museum feet." So we bought a couple of sodas from a street vendor and took a breather in Central Park, sitting on a rock and watching a fleet of golden retrievers saunter by, the dogs even happier to be out in the sun than their owners desperately trying to keep pace behind them.

2:30 p.m. The National Academy of Design (89th Street), housed in a lavish Beaux-Arts townhouse, credits itself with "preserving and fostering the visual arts." That's a nice thought, but as far as I'm concerned, this small museum -- while architecturally impressive -- is strictly for the students in the accompanying School of Fine Arts. Abstract paintings and out-there photography are the main attraction, and we found ourselves taking far less time here than at the previous museums. The main rooms feature the works of representational painter Edwin Dickinson, whose "premier coup" paintings, all done in three hours or less, are disturbing, and whose "symbolical" paintings, some of which took more than 10 years to finish, are dark, abstract nightmares of the sort that David Lynch surely suffers.

3 p.m. Fighting off the urge to return to the park for more people-watching, we moved on, to 88th Street. Upon walking into the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum -- the astounding architectural achievement designed by Frank Lloyd Wright that looks like a cross between the Michelin Man and the Mad Hatter's cake -- a docent actually warned me, "You know this is really bizarre, right?" He was talking about Matthew Barney's "The Cremaster Cycle," an enigmatic-and-then-some creation based on -- and I'll try to be delicate here -- the muscle that controls the contractions of the male genitalia. Oh, if it were only that simple.

"The Cremaster Cycle," which runs until June 11, takes up three-quarters of the modern art museum and comprises videos, photographs and sculptural installations involving half-naked chorus girls, murderer Gary Gilmore and rivers of goo. Also, Barney as a bagpiper (okay, Barney as an "Entered Apprentice" from Celtic mythology -- he just looks like a bagpiper).

We were in the Guggenheim for almost three hours and had absolutely no idea what the heck was going on. (At one point, we actually sought normalcy in the Robert Mapplethorpe Gallery.) We crankily trudged higher and higher into Barney's cockamamie fantasy, kicking ourselves for not checking our coats. When a woman next to me nodded sagely and shouted, "Brilliant!" as she watched a video of a marching band forming the shapes of contraceptive devices on a football field, I wanted to tackle her.

5:45 p.m. We decided to give up solving Barney's riddle. We tried; we really did. If our future kids ask us about this one, well, we'll just have to fess up. But now I desperately needed a six-pack of hot dogs at the 86th Street Papaya King -- with onions, sauerkraut and that super-spicy mustard that'll clear your head of bagpipers and whatever else is up there. And maybe a six-pack of something else, too.

8 p.m. Never underestimate the restorative powers of a good margarita. At Zocalo, a casual but stylish Mexican restaurant on East 82nd Street, we met some friends for comfort food (I won't soon forget the chicken mole), stiff drinks and a little bit of museum detox. As we gathered both pre- and post-meal at the tequila bar -- more than 30 brands are served here -- the talk kept returning to the oddities we'd discovered at the Guggenheim. "I hate that stuff," my friend Kevin said. But Jen and I defended Barney anyway: We were suddenly feeling proud of our find.

Relishing the cool night air, we all walked north, in search of one more nightcap. Jen and I were tuckered out. But the Upper East Side has such a calming, welcoming atmosphere, so different from go-go-go midtown, that we didn't want to head back to our hotel, the Regency, way down there at 61st and Park Avenue, just yet. We settled at the art deco Blue Grotto restaurant, which has a good neighborhood-bar vibe. As we finished our last drinks of the evening, Jen whispered, "I could live here."

Sunday, 11 a.m. God bless Mel Brooks. At the Jewish Museum (92nd Street), one of the largest Jewish museums in the world, the "Young Frankenstein" director and his brethren in shtick are honored in the must-see exhibition "Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting." It was just what we needed after perhaps too late a night -- and with the memories of the Guggenheim still leaving us feeling clueless. Through videos, artifacts and interactive displays, this hilarious showcase -- complete with an entire room devoted to "Seinfeld" -- chronicles what seems like the entire timeline of Jews in Hollywood, from the Marx Brothers' rise to fame to Marilyn Monroe's conversion to Judaism in 1956 to Sammy Davis Jr.'s infamous "Man oh Manischewitz!" TV ads. "Entertaining America" runs until Sept. 14, and whether you're doing the Mile or simply visiting the city, you'd be wise to stop by, get educated and have a few laughs.

1 p.m. "We're gonna do it!" Jen cheered as we left the Jewish Museum, grabbed a couple of only-in-New York bagels at the Corner Bagel Market on 88th Street and headed for our penultimate stop, the Neue Galerie, the most recent addition to the Mile. Let me offer a quick warning about this destination: The Neue is dedicated to German and Austrian art, and most of the displays are not for the squeamish. Especially the Christian Schad show, which takes up several rooms of the marble-enforced townhouse.

The Austrian painter, part of the New Objectivity movement, not only liked his rather severe-looking subjects to be naked, but he liked them doing potentially perilous things while in the buff. His "Two Girls" (1928) and "Boys in Love" (1929) look like graphic inspiration for the filthy spam e-mails I get every day. That said, the Neue Galerie is where you go when you want to feel part of the in-crowd, so we stayed for 90 minutes, eventually wandering to the peaceful Gustav Klimt Room to view his lush paintings after seeing one nipple too many.

2:30 p.m. The best part of the trip? Easy -- soaking up the sun on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art at 82nd Street. This is people-watching to the extreme, as tourists mingle with locals, and vendors see who can shout the loudest for attention. We were waiting for Jen's mother to accompany us through the museum and were more than happy when we found out she was running late. So we sipped from our water bottles and marveled at how the sun, for the first time in a long time, was actually making us sweat. (Okay, so we also had a chuckle at all those people who planned on meeting friends "on the steps." As if playing a perverse game of "Where's Waldo?" dozens of people paced along the foot of the steps, squinting into the sun and hopelessly trying to find familiar faces in the crowd. Cruel entertainment, yes, but fun.)

3 p.m. The Met sprawls over some 45 acres, so we had no intention -- and, to be honest, no chance -- of seeing all of it. Tackling the Museum Mile is fulfilling, but it's also exhausting. That said, if there's anywhere that can make you forget about museum feet, it's this place. The impressionists were hypnotizing (Monet!), as were the miles of modern art (Mondrian!). Walking through the cathedral-like European Sculpture Court makes you feel as if you're in a movie (either "Gladiator" or something by Woody Allen -- your pick). Then there are the American Wings and the Japanese Art and Medieval Art and that monstrous Temple of Dendur and . . .

Remembering how much King Tut's tomb fascinated me in my younger days, I went back to the labyrinthine display of Egyptian art twice, both times beelining for those golden canopic jars containing the internal organs of kings. Ah, yes: There's nothing like reading aloud wall text about embalmed viscera to a grossed-out room of grade-school students.

6:15 p.m. At Pesce Pasta, a cozy Italian restaurant just a few blocks from the Met, we lifted our wineglasses and smiled. It was over. We had conquered the Mile. The vino went down pretty darn easy; enlightenment, apparently, makes you thirsty.

"Hey," Jen's mother asked, "did you see the Broadway exhibit of the City of New York museum?" Jen and I exchanged looks, then laughed.

Oh well. We'll get to it next time. Maybe even bring our kids.

Sean Daly is an editor at the Washington City Paper. And he's still really freaked out by "The Cremaster Cycle."

Join Sean Daly and the Travel section Flight Crew online Monday at 2 p.m. at www.washingtonpost.com to discuss this special New York issue.

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