We spent the long Martin Luther King holiday weekend in New York to celebrate my wife’s birthday and visit some museums; also catching up with our daughter who recently moved to Astoria, Queens, NY. Astoria is surprisingly close to midtown Manhattan, a fact not lost on the Museum of Modern Art when they temporarily relocated there while their latest addition was under construction in 2001-2004. We found a great hotel deal at the Hotel Vetiver, just a block from the N & Q lines, and just 2 stops from Manhattan. There’s lots of new hotels under construction in the neighborhood!
Day one was spent at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria. The Museum promotes understanding and appreciation of moving image media – film, television, and digital – by collecting moving-image related artifacts, screening significant films and other moving-image works, presenting exhibitions, and offering educational and interpretive programs.
It’s housed in the Bldg. 13 of the historic Paramount Studios, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Astoria Studio complex was built by the Famous Players-Lasky company around 1920 to house their east coast operations where many famous silent films were made. The company became Paramount in 1927 and the studios were converted to produce talkies. Paramount left for Hollywood in 1932. During World War II the US Army took the buildings over to produce training films.
Declared surplus federal property in the late 1970s, the complex was acquired by the City of New York through the Federal government’s program to transfer vacant properties to local governments to return historic properties to active use. The Museum took over the building and opened to the public in 1988 with a core exhibit, Behind the Screen, which tells the history of moving images and how movies are made with 1400 artifacts and interactive displays. The museum recently underwent a major renovation and expansion that provides new lobby, café and shop, new theater and screening room and a new education center for student workshops and programs, designed by Lesser Architecture.
The museum is a fine example of transforming a historic building into a vibrant new work of architecture. The exterior is intact; the new addition makes a strong new statement without upstaging the old, and the interior is accommodating and full of interesting and amazing things.
The hot pink letters on the outside announce the entrance. The walls inside create a flowing white space that accommodates media displays projected onto the sloping walls. Walls morph into seating, bridges project into theaters, and stairs invite you up into the galleries. This work is a good example of rehabilitation of a historic building: preserving its historic character while returning it to use in a new way. It also supports Venturi-Scott Brown’s notion of a decorated shed as the most adaptable form of building – sustainable, practical, with layers of historical meaning.
In the core exhibit Behind the Scenes I especially enjoyed seeing the wig Robert DeNiro wore as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. It never occurred to me that he didn’t shave his own head into a Mohawk.
We also took special delight in the historical display of TV sets. We found the first TV we each had as kids and got all nostalgic about the earliest TV shows we could remember.
Another hit was watching early talkie movies, especially this gem, Lamb Chops, by Burns and Allen, one of the first sound pictures made at Astoria Studios.
After re-caffeination, at a nearby coffee shop, we repaired to our daughter’s apartment and a lovely dinner at William Hallet’s.