The Manor Reborn

New 90th St Garden Entrance

April 2015

The Manor Reborn
by James Panero

The renovated Cooper Hewitt Museum harmonizes new, immersive exhibition spaces with the elegant, century-old infrastructure of New York's Carnegie Mansion

THE DECEMBER 12, 1902, inauguration of Andrew Carnegie’s New York mansion on Fifth Avenue, between 90th and 91st Streets, captivated the city and solidified Carnegie’s ambitions in brick, mortar, steel, wood, and stone. When the Carnegie family returned from their Scottish castle, Skibo, to see the home for the first time, a crowd gathered at the New York pier to greet the famous industrialist. “Why, I am fit as a brand new piston rod and solid as a rock!” he told waiting journalists. Across a city blanketed with snow, a team of horses carried the family through Central Park to what was then an underdeveloped neighborhood still far to the north of midtown high society. Arriving at the entrance, Carnegie turned to his five-year-old daughter Margaret, his only child, and gave her the key to their new home.

Since that first day, the keys of the Carnegie Mansion, on the heights of what came to be known as Carnegie Hill on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, have passed through several hands. In a ceremony following Louise’s death in 1946, Margaret handed over the same front-door key to the New York School of Social Work, part of Columbia University, which occupied the buildings for the next 20 years before moving onto the Columbia campus. Beginning in 1976, after losing the original support of the Cooper Union and being taken on by the Smithsonian, the Cooper Hewitt design museum has called the mansion home.

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Following a three-year renovation—112 years to the day since the Carnegie family first set foot inside—the Cooper Hewitt has now handed over the keys for us to explore this museum in a mansion. In her diary entry for her first evening in residence, Louise Carnegie concluded she was “very pleased with the house.” With a revitalized museum, thoughtfully brought to life by 13 design teams working closely with museum staff through a $91 million capital campaign, we can all be very pleased.

Through the latest renovation, Carnegie’s original imprint has been brought back to the forefront of the mansion. At the same time, the Cooper Hewitt has been able to update its approach with the latest forward- thinking concepts in museum presentation, improved efficiencies, and a 60 percent increase in exhibition space (achieved largely by clearing out its underused third floor), all without enlarging the campus footprint.

The genius of the renovation has been not to fight old with new, but to find synergies between the two, tapping Carnegie’s own sense for design, education, and betterment through technology. For example, his was the first private residence in the United States to have a structural steel frame (supplied, of course, by his own state-of-the-art mills) and among the first to have an Otis passenger elevator along with central heating and air conditioning. Carnegie’s philanthropic vision, now manifested in the latest technologies of the revamped Cooper Hewitt, lives on through a principle he stenciled along the frieze of his library wall: “the highest form of worship is service to man.” Carnegie’s philanthropy was greatly inspired by Peter Cooper, the founder of the Coo- per Union, whose three Hewitt granddaughters created the initial design collection that formed the Cooper Hewitt. “I feel very proud,” Cara McCarty, the Cooper Hewitt’s curatorial director, explains. “We are repurposing a historic home, celebrating its design, not denying it or covering up the historic features. We’ve tried to work with it. And I think it makes our objects feel so much richer. Because it’s landmarked, there are a lot of limitations for what we can do with an intervention. We turned those limitations into an asset.”

By “knowing so well what we wanted to achieve,” McCarty says the museum avoided “the Bilbao syndrome” affecting many museums, in which spectacular expansions by celebrity architects take precedence over collections. The Cooper Hewitt’s sensitivity continues the approach of Lisa Taylor, its inaugural director, who maintained, “The use of an old building for a modern purpose is the essence of urban recycling, so...we have a museum that exemplifies in its facilities the very principles we are trying to communicate through our collections.” From its arrival in the Carnegie mansion, the Cooper Hewitt has respected the building’s original design, which helps explain why the museum now has so much to draw on for its latest revitalization.

The design of the mansion, by the architects Babb, Cook & Willard, reflected Carnegie’s desire to create a proper home for his family around art and nature that, given his extreme wealth, was still relatively modest in its exposed brick and Georgian style but full of personal details inside. The most sumptuous space, now newly restored, is the small second-floor family library, better known as the Teak Room, designed by the painter Lockwood de Forest. With intricately carved teak paneling from India decorating the ceiling frieze, corbels, door, and fireplace, the room is the most intact de Forest interior still in place. The room also shows the wide scope of Carnegie’s design interests, here drawing on the same Eastern influences that informed Olana, Frederic Church’s Persian-inspired country home in Hudson, N.Y.

Tools- Extending Our Reach controller of the universe with people v1

“Tools: Extending Our Reach,” the inaugural exhibition in the new 6,000-square-foot third-floor Barbara and Morton Mandel Design Gallery, brings a cross-cultural 2001-like consideration to the instruments that make such design happen, with 175 objects ranging in date from a Paleolithic hand chopper to a live feed of the sun transmitted by an orbiting satellite. Especially impressive here is Controller of the Universe, a sculpture by Damián Ortega made of old hand tools suspended on string that appears to radiate from a central point that a viewer can walk through. There is also “Beautiful Users,” an exhibition on the ground floor that explores “user-centered design,” from thermostats to telephones to hand grips for kitchen implements to the latest in innovations for the handicapped to open-source 3D-printing “hacks” to connect Legos to Lincoln Logs. Next door, “Maira Kalman Selects” invites the beloved author, illustrator, and designer to “raid the icebox” of the permanent collection and tell a story with a selection mixed in with her own personal artifacts. Especially tempting here is a pair of trousers draped over a bench with a handwritten admonition: “Kindly refrain from touching the piano and Toscanini’s pants.” The “Process Lab,” in Carnegie’s sumptuous library, poses museumgoers with their own design challenges through hands-on interaction.

Among a host of new digital displays underwritten by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the “Immersion Room” stands out for using digital and projection technologies to help visualize wall- covering design in a new way. With access to hundreds of patterns digitized from the museum collection, and the ability to sketch their own designs on a digital table, museum goers can now see patterns projected full size and floor-to-ceiling on the room’s walls, rather than having to extrapolate from see- ing a single strip of paper.

Such interactive engagements elevate the making along with the made and use historical examples to challenge museum goers to think about contemporary design in a new way. The exercise is not all that different from the challenges faced by the Cooper Hewitt as the institution thought through its historic home.

Immersion Room

The Code of the City


Winter 2015

The Code of the City
by James Panero

The New York Genome Center’s project to map Gotham’s diverse genetics

Ever since James Watson, Francis Crick, and their colleagues discovered the double-helix molecular structure of DNA in 1953, scientists have dreamed of unlocking the secrets of our genetic code. Tightly folded strings of just four molecular letters, DNA contains the equivalent of a gigabyte and a half’s worth of data about our identities, ancestry, and the illnesses to which we might be prone. As Peter W. Huber explains in The Cure in the Code, understanding and harnessing the data in our genetic fingerprint “will eclipse everything that the information age has delivered so far.”

No one knows when that will happen, but geneticist Nathan Pearson thinks that he knows where the breakthrough will come—at the New York Genome Center in downtown Manhattan, which is attracting world-class geneticists to the city. A young prophet of genomic science with a soft-spoken, wide-eyed intensity, Pearson is the center’s senior director of scientific engagement and public outreach. “Here, in just a few blocks, you have this incredible diversity of humanity,” says Pearson of New York. He isn’t just referring to the broad-ranging ideas that a city can promulgate, though that helps explain why ten major medical and academic institutions came together to found the consortium behind the Genome Center in 2011. He also means genomic diversity—the variations of DNA in the city’s multiethnic population that form his source data. If the New York Genome Center had a bank of data from “a thousand Yemeni New Yorkers, a thousand Maltese New Yorkers, a thousand New Yorkers from diverse backgrounds that are still understudied in terms of genomic diversity,” Pearson says of the center’s aims, it would have a unique understanding of genetic variations in the world’s population. So when health issues with a genomic basis arise in any area of the globe, the center could check specific variants against these known ethnic differences. “We have data here that could be immediately useful,” he says.

Tapping a wide network of public-private partnerships, the Genome Center looks to advance a civic mission to improve public health while becoming a distinctive New York institution alongside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Carnegie Hall, and the New York Public Library. “There’s this great pride of place here in institutions,” says Pearson. “There’s the sense that if you want to find the finest version of a civic institution, you will find it here. I see a chance for the Genome Center to anchor itself as a cornerstone scientific and cultural institution, where New Yorkers have a place to entrust the data in us in ways that we know will help propel health care forward.” The Genome Center hopes that, by decoding and understanding the city’s diverse genetics, it can help diagnose and cure illnesses the world over.

Until recently, New York lacked a significant biotech industry. A Center for an Urban Future study found that the city’s biotech firms employed only 563 people in 1996, compared with 22,200 industry jobs then spread among 59 public companies in the San Francisco Bay Area. Gotham’s share of the burgeoning biotech industry further declined between 1996 and 1999 because of the high cost of New York City real estate (especially in creating and zoning city buildings for laboratory work), the often adversarial relationship among the city’s health-care institutions, and Albany’s apparent lack of interest in creating an attractive climate for biotech investors.

In 1998, recognizing that New York’s biotech industry was underdeveloped, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani promoted a biotech incubator at Columbia University and created the Task Force on Biomedical Research and Development. “Since 1981, New York has fallen behind California and Massachusetts in total funding from the National Institutes of Health,” Giuliani said. “Unfortunately, the multiplicity of medical schools and health care institutions that once made New York the dominant player in medical research have frequently acted as a hindrance to growth because these institutions have traditionally competed with one another for money, talent, and prestige.”

Still, Gotham’s biotech sector continued to lag. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s push to create a biotech center on Governors Island fell short, and the city missed out on the “genomic decade” in the years following 2003, when the first representative sequence of a human genome was published. In the 1990s and early 2000s, biotech required large, expensive machines and specialized workers, putting New York at a disadvantage compared with regions that could offer tech firms massive academic laboratories and office-park build-outs. Today, most established institutions for gene sequencing are located elsewhere: the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard; the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute outside Cambridge, England; and the Genome Center of Washington University in St. Louis. Each has a focus. Washington University, for example, specializes in tumors.

The hope is that New York’s late arrival to biotech will mirror its history with tech in general. While the city was not an early leader in the tech industry, it recently surpassed Boston to become the nation’s second-largest (and fastest-growing) tech center. The reasons are similar. In both computers and biotech, the early years were dominated by expensive machines and specialized workers who benefited from academic settings and office-park build-outs. Today, the cost of whole-gene sequencing has plummeted. In 1990, an estimated $3 billion was allocated for the decade-long project of sequencing the first human genome; today, the cost has fallen to just $1,500 for thoroughly reading one human sequence. With the big-data challenges of DNA partially overcome, biotech is increasingly turning to analyzing and applying genetic data to solve real-world problems. And that requires the diverse social capital that only cities can offer.

Despite the city’s slow start, the Genome Center has put down fast roots in New York. In 2010, “we were operating with a cell phone and a Hotmail account,” said Nancy Kelley, the center’s founding executive director. Kelley then brought the idea for a genome center to molecular biologists Tom Maniatis of Columbia University and Tom Kelly of Sloan Kettering. A year later, they had raised $120 million and built out an institutional consortium. By September 2013, the center was ready to open its state-of-the-art headquarters at 101 Sixth Avenue, just north of Canal Street. The building was already zoned for a wet laboratory along with office space—the Service Employees International Union had previously used it as a clinic—meaning that research could start right away. “Innovation seems to be in our DNA,” then-mayor Michael Bloomberg said at the ribbon-cutting. Last summer, the center hired its 100th employee. Its eventual goal is 500.

The Genome Center’s diverse consortium of partner institutions has helped it overcome the problem of the competing local health-care interests that Giuliani identified. Nancy Kelley’s successor, physician Robert Darnell, has assembled an all-star team of scientists from laboratories, hospitals, and medical colleges around the tristate area. Much of the center’s funding has come from individuals and private foundations, as well as through support from its member institutions. In April 2014, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the state legislature had approved an additional $105 million in funding to support a partnership between SUNY Buffalo and the Genome Center to advance medical science in New York. As part of this initiative, the Genome Center will receive $55.75 million from the state and has committed to match it dollar for dollar with funds raised separately.

The New York Genome Center’s offices are divided among four mid-rise floors. One level is dedicated to laboratory space, with glass walls, reinforced floors, and positive air pressure—that is, to prevent outside air and contaminants from leaking in—pumped through the rooms. One way the center hopes to fulfill its civic mission is through urgent diagnostic sequencing—the use of genomic analysis to diagnose sick patients by examining, say, the irregular DNA from someone’s tumorous tissue to optimize treatment. Currently, says Pearson, “if a child has a really puzzling syndrome, the family may spend years and thousands of dollars . . . to try to figure out what’s wrong. People call that a ‘diagnostic odyssey.’ Full genome sequencing can help some people get an answer faster and cheaper.” Eventually, the center plans to make available its entire facility for this use while also supporting prognostic screenings: “In the long run, the dream is that everybody will have lifelong, birth-to-old-age prognostics, managing their health at every stage from pediatrics to geriatrics. ‘Should I get braces’ will eventually be partly a genomic question.” Laboratory rooms are already built out and set aside; the center now awaits regulatory approval to begin this work.

Next door to these rooms, sequestered behind glass walls, are the center’s active sequencing laboratories, where the genomic research database is being built. Here the process of reading DNA and RNA is getting faster, cheaper, and more efficient. The research now typically begins with a blind blood sample provided by one of the partner institutions. In building its database, the center acquires both healthy and sick samples from the population, as well as ancient DNA and DNA sequences from the full spectrum of life—including, when I visited, from African starlings, courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History. Another focus is “microbiomes”—the bacteria in the gut, on the skin, or in the eye.

When observed through the glass walls of the Genome Center’s laboratory, the process of reading our genetic code can seem almost routine. First, white blood cells, which contain the DNA, are separated from red blood cells in a centrifuge. Chemicals then cause these cells to burst open, spilling the DNA. Filters remove other materials so that only a solution of DNA and water remains. The strands are then chopped into short pieces and copied. Dyes are added to distinguish the chemicals in the sequence, and the samples are fed into a bank of machines, which read the chunks in 100-letter snippets. The countertop machines that conduct these readings are among the most sophisticated in the world. The Illumina HiSeq X retails for $1 million and is sold only in groups of ten. Finally, a computer takes the samples, compares them with others, and assembles the snippets back into a full genetic picture. The whole process takes a few weeks. Now that all the machines are up and running, the center is able to analyze 50 genomes a day.

But the readings are just the beginning. Directly above, in an open-floor plan with standing desks, collaborative work spaces, and the latest in office ergonomics, are the programmers, doctors, physicists, and mathematicians working to make sense of the biology that the machines pick up downstairs. The open, contemporary feel of this part of the office is deliberate and necessary, says Pearson—to compete for the country’s best talent, who might otherwise choose to work in financial services, big pharma, or the latest tech start-up. The center relies on mathematicians, computer scientists, and physicists to partner with the doctors and biologists in developing algorithms to sort the data out, while much of the data storage and processing occurs in computer centers off-site. The center sits over a data pipe that leads directly to its offsite data-storage and processing facilities.

Among its current clinical trials and projects, the center’s scientists are researching glioblastoma (GBM), a brain tumor for which the median survival rate is a mere 14 months. Harnessing the computing power of IBM’s Watson, the center has partnered with 27 doctors and scientists in hopes of improving patients’ chances through a better understanding of the genomic basis of the illness. In addition, the center’s autoimmune disease project is investigating why rheumatoid arthritis flares up in patients with debilitating autoimmune diseases, by sequencing RNA before, during, and after a symptomatic episode. The Sohn Conference Foundation has approved a two-year grant to study the causes of pediatric neuroblastoma and leukemia; the center will act as the grant coordinator among partner institutions. The center has also won a federal grant that would help it develop infrastructure to become a data hub—safely storing and communicating the genetic information of 6 million patients.

While New York City and State have encouraged the center’s growth, current health-care regulations remain a hindrance to genomic innovation. Today’s standards still largely rely on population-wide studies that ignore an individual’s data. “A drug might not work on the population scale,” says Pearson. “But it can actually work for a subset of people” with the right genomic makeup.

Restricted access to genomic information and privacy laws that “lock down” patient information are additional obstacles in New York. “It’s much easier for you, as a citizen, to see your genomic data in other states than it is here,” says Pearson. “It’s your data. It’s in you and belongs to nobody else on the planet. But the state has been paternalistically concerned about what you might do with it.” Studies show that anxiety levels decline in patients who become aware of their genomic predispositions. Nevertheless, “right now, it would be very hard for you to get sequenced in New York State, and get your sequenced data back,” Pearson says.

Zoning regulations and the city’s tight real-estate economy also inhibit biotech’s urban growth potential. The Genome Center would not have been able to get off the ground as quickly as it did if 101 Sixth Avenue had not been zoned for laboratory use. Unlike the broader tech industry—which needed only ample broadband to move into the loft buildings around Union Square and Madison Square Park—biotech needs lab space and room to grow. If the city wants biotech to flourish, it must fast-track zoning and regulatory approvals and create incentives for landlords to convert real estate for laboratory use. Without such policy changes, the center, and the city’s biotech industry in general, will have a harder time fulfilling the mission “to make people’s genomes a more useful part of life in New York.”

In the Genome Center’s “innovation lab,” a smartphone-size device, plugged into a computer’s USB port, can read DNA at the flick of a switch and without expensive dyes. While less accurate than the million-dollar machines and currently unable to sequence whole human genomes, such handheld devices will soon retail in the several-thousand-dollar range and could expand the public-health potential of genomic research by inexpensively testing, for example, the genomic indicators in our air quality. “You could have sensors like this that are helping maintain public health in restaurants, potentially avoiding contamination,” says Pearson. One day soon, we may even use devices that check our bedroom dandruff each morning for the first signs of cancer, or that can monitor air quality for infectious diseases, including Ebola. “We have thought of trying to develop quick ways of sequencing microbes like Ebola on site in West Africa,” says Pearson. “Or in the air in a plane that might have trace amounts of Ebola. We haven’t done anything yet, but we have been thinking about it and talking with authorities.”

So what does genomic science mean for the future of medicine? “I’m speaking personally right now,” Pearson says. “I really can’t speak for the center because views vary a lot about this, even in our field. But doctors will have to adjust, and the staff within our health-care system will have to adjust, to patients who are more informed and empowered about their own care.” If Pearson is right, the New York Genome Center will be a big reason why.


The Real Reason School Stayed Open


February 14, 2014

The Real Reason School Stayed Open
by James Panero

Ideology trumps safety and common sense

In Bill de Blasio’s New York, apparently, you do need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

How else to explain the rash decision to keep city schools open during yet another dangerous blizzard, which slammed the city Thursday just as predicted?

When it comes to declaring a snow day, the safety of city parents, children, teachers, school staff and caregivers should come first. But that’s not what happened during this current storm — and the reason is ideological.

Wednesday evening, Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña declared that schools would stay open despite the “anticipated inclement weather conditions.”

The strange logic of this decision was made even stranger by what de Blasio had said earlier in the day: “Because of its timing and intensity, this storm is going to make both the morning and evening rush hours extremely difficult. If you do not need to drive, you will help yourself and everyone else by staying off the roads.”

So, adults should stay off the roads, but kids need to come to school?

The paradox left families scratching their heads. Judging by the online reaction, it also gave some young de Blasio supporters a bit of buyer’s remorse.


“It is pouring snow and de Blasio says no snow day, my 7y old just said ‘I miss Bloomberg,’” school parent Richard Bonneau wrote on Twitter Thursday.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, had harsher words: “I understand the desire to keep schools open. The only thing that trumps that is safety. Having students, parents and staff traveling in these conditions was unwarranted. It was a mistake to open schools today.” Public Advocate Letitia James agreed.

What they’re not saying is that there’s a philosophical reason why de Blasio and Fariña have now kept school open despite several severe storms.

Fariña believes in the social-justice mission of city schools. This means that for her, schools are the custodians as much as the educators of children.

“My decision is where the kids are safest and the most taken care of, and the answer to that is in schools,” she has argued. When schools are closed, “Many of our kids don’t get a hot lunch and, in many cases breakfast.”

Such logic appears to have led Fariña to declare that schools would be open before waiting to see conditions on the ground. Her indifference to meteorological reality even continued through the storm: “It is absolutely a beautiful day out there right now,” she said Thursday morning.

The problem is that, while some city families may indeed be safest inside school, Fariña put all families in danger by deciding they should attempt to come to school in such hazardous conditions. What’s worse: missing breakfast, or breaking your leg trying to get it?

The street-side danger of heavy snow is no joke. Last week, the video of a man getting knocked down by the spray of a speeding plow in Sheepshead Bay went viral. And Thursday, a 36-year-old pregnant woman was killed by a snowplow in Brooklyn.

There’s a reason why the city’s independent schools, which in the past tied their closings to the city’s decision-making process, now largely make their own calls.

Thursday morning, my wife and I made our own decision to ignore the city’s illogic, and kept our daughter home from nursery school. Statistics show that a majority of public-school families did the same thing: Attendance Thursday was a dismal 44.65%.

Last month, de Blasio said that pedestrian safety would be a top priority of his office. He also renewed his campaign pledge to work for the elimination of traffic-related injuries and deaths through an initiative known Vision Zero.

Unfortunately, when he keeps school open despite serious street hazards, he merely demonstrates zero vision.