Danielle Oteri, Lecturer, The Cloisters museum and gardens; Program Director, International Center of Medieval Art; Curator, Feast on History
Washington Heights—the neighborhood in northern Manhattan that houses The Cloisters museum and gardens—is built upon a series of bluffs and cliffs. Concrete staircases and creaky subway elevators connect different sections of the neighborhood, and buildings stand tall on stilts driven deep into Manhattan schist. From a distance, blocks of apartment buildings appear like castellated European villages. However, despite its once-impenetrable terrain, or maybe because of it, Washington Heights is a place where some of the wildest and most romantic medieval-architecture fantasies in New York City have been realized for over 150 years.
The Cloisters, of course, is not a castle, though parents may at times describe it as such to their young children who are excited about visiting with dragons and unicorns. Initial designs for The Cloisters were, in fact, inspired by benefactor John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s boyhood fascination with the ruins of Kenilworth Castle in England, but it was ultimately decided that a monastic plan would better suit The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s newly acquired collection of medieval art and architecture. Rockefeller had felt since childhood that the rough and scrubby “North Hill” would make an ideal park, and decades later, when he acquired the property and helped to create Fort Tryon Park (where The Cloisters is located), he favored elements reminiscent of when the property housed a military fort during the Revolutionary War; the stonework on the Park walls and Museum ramparts reflects this rougher evocation. Today, visitors can observe the difference in stone color and texture on the lower sections of The Cloisters, contrasted against the tower and main structure that serve as evidence of the two distinct aspects of its design: the fortress and the European monastery.