WPA Guide Series

By Fern Nesson

Fern Nesson takes us on the road following the original WPA Guidebooks. Follow along as she re-enacts these journeys, discovering what’s old and what’s new.

Travels With the WPA State Guides: Fort Tryon Park and the Cloisters

The American Guide Series, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project, is one of the most well-known WPA projects. Written as a collection of travel guides, the series included suggested tour routes as well as essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. Major U.S. cities and several regions were also given their own separate guidebooks.  

The state guides give a fascinating snapshot of American life in the 1930s. Written in a lively and approachable style, they detail and celebrate the rich diversity that our country displayed at that time. The writers’ enthusiasm is infectious and their guide is as much fun to read today as it must have been for travelers in the 1930s.  

Several historians have written about the American Guide Series over the past 80 years, but no one, to my knowledge, has used them as current-day travel guides. That is just what I set out to do. I am an American historian, art photographer, and enthusiastic traveler. I have read each of these guides. I love them for their wonderful enthusiasm and their curiosity about every aspect of regional life—from food, to linguistics, to folklore, to statistics, to geography, to environment, to history—and especially for their liberal attitudes and respect for diversity. In this series, I will be posting photo essays and articles based upon tours recommended in the guides.

Fern L. Nesson

One of the great pleasures during a New York winter is a visit to the Metropolitan Museum. Not content to display its immense and broad collections in the simple, airy rooms of most museums, The Met has gone to great lengths to recreate the architectural settings that once housed its artistic treasures. Visitors to the Fifth Avenue branch can enter Egyptian pyramids, stroll through rooms of French royal furniture or through garden conservatories peopled with Art Nouveau statuary. 

For its Medieval collection, the museum went all-out, constructing a separate museum, the Cloisters, designed as a monastery. The Cloisters is set in Fort Tryon Park in Northern Manhattan on a promontory overlooking the Hudson River. You can approach it either by walking through the park from the neighborhood below or by a circular drive to the heights. Either way, the views are wonderful. 

The New York City Guide is a perfect companion for your visit. Nothing has changed in either Fort Tryon Park or in the Cloisters since the Guide’s writers described it in 1939. As you ascend, the noise of the city ceases and you can feel the centuries drop away. Truly, you are walking back in time. The park is exactly as it was in the 1930’s. With views across the Hudson, it is a majestic site even on a grey winter day: 

“FORT TRYON PARK is one of the most beautiful public parks of America landscaped with trees, lawns, terraces, rock gardens, paved walks, and many benches, all cleverly ordered in harmonious composition. The precision of its design is explicitly urban. The views from its heights are perhaps the finest Manhattan offers, for they sweep mile after mile of the Hudson and the Palisades.”

NYC Guide p. 303 

The park’s cobblestone paths and carefully constructed stone walls lead to the highest point in the park where you encounter Fort Tryon, the site of a notable battle in the Revolutionary War. You are now back in 1776: 

“A large sloping rock garden forms an approach to the stone ramparts marking the site of old Fort Tryon, built in the summer of 1776.” 

NYC Guide p. 303 

Fort Tryon was the site of a battle in the Revolutionary War. Following the battles of Long Island and White Plains in 1776, 3000 American troops occupied and fortified Fort Tryon hill. On November 16, 1776, they were attacked by 4,000 Hessian mercenaries fighting on behalf of the British. Among the Americans were John Corbin, a cannoneer, and his wife, Margaret, who was fighting alongside him by helping him to load the cannon. 

(This was by no means the only interesting aspect of Margaret Corbin’s life history. In fact, her life was filled with adventure from the start. Born in western Pennsylvania in 1751, Corbin’s father was killed by Native Americans and her mother captured when she was five years old; she survived because she was away visiting an uncle, who then raised her. Corbin married John Corbin in 1772 and, when he enlisted in the First Company of Pennsylvania Artillery, she joined [him] in the war.) 

During the battle at Fort Tryon, John Corbin was shot and killed. Margaret took his place the cannon, continuing to fire at he enemy. She was hit three times by gunfire and subsequently captured. In 1779, the Continental Congress awarded her half the pension of a soldier. She objected and the Congress eventually awarded her a full pension. 

In 1926, on the 150th anniversary of the battle, Corbin was reburied at West Point; she was the only Revolutionary War veteran to receive that honor.) A plaque was placed in her honor at the base of Fort Tryon and, in 1970, the city renamed the access road to the Fort “Corbin Drive.” 

Beyond Fort Tryon, you enter the Middle Ages. The Met received its Medieval collection for John D. Rockefeller who purchased it from George Barnard in 1925: 

“George Grey Barnard, a sculptor, spent many years in France gathering examples of medieval art;
a few of them were found in barns and pigsties near ruined churches and monasteries. […] The Metropolitan Museum bought [Barnard’s] collection in 1925 with funds provided by Rockefeller.” 

NYC guide, p. 303 

In 1930, Rockefeller purchased Fort Tryon Park and traded it to the city in exchange for a site on the East River where he subsequently built the Rockefeller Institute. Rockefeller reserved four and a half acres of Fort Tryon Park, and donated them to the Met as a site for a museum devoted exclusively to the Medieval collection. He also bought four acres of land across the Hudson in New Jersey to preserve the view. 

Construction of the Cloisters was completed in 1938. In keeping with the Met’s desire to display its art in original settings, the interior of the building is comprised of intact cloisters, chapels, and arcades transplanted in their entirety from their original sites in Europe: 

“[It] includes four cloisters and an arcade of a fifth, a chapel incorporating the remains
of a Romanesque twelfth-century church, an original chapter house, and nine other exhibition areas, all chronologically arranged and so constructed as to include original structural or decorative members. […]

The central and largest cloister is that of St. Michel de Cuxa. Open to the sun, and surrounded by pink marble arches and columns, it dates from the twelfth century. Other cloisters are those of St. Guilhemle-Desert (late twelfth to early thirteenth century), Bonnefont-en-Comminges (thirteenth
to fourteenth century), and Trie (second half of the fifteenth century). The latter two overlook the park to the south and the Hudson River.”

NYC Guide. p. 304 

From tomb effigies, to stained glass, to statues and carved pediments, the graceful Medieval courtyards and rooms contain treasures that rival the best of European collections. 

The Guide reserves special praise for a compete set of unicorn tapestries: 

“A set of six hand- woven, fifteenth-century tapestries depicting the Hunt of the Unicorn was given by Mr. Rockefeller in 1935; they are displayed in a special room. These textiles […] portray an allegory of the Incarnation, with Christ represented by the fabulous unicorn, symbol of purity. [They] are remarkable for their beauty of color and design and the intensity and vitality of their pictorial realism.”

NYC Guide p. 304 

For a trip in which the glories of history are on full display, you could not do better than a visit to Fort Tryon Park. 

Fern L. Nesson February, 2021