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American Latino Heritage

The Hispanic Society of America

New York, New York

The Hispanic Society of America in the Washington Heights Neighborhood of New York City

The Hispanic Society of America in the
Washington Heights Neighborhood of New York City
Courtesy of masck, Flickr's Creative Commons

In the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, one of the most significant landmarks of Hispanic culture in the United States sits largely tucked away and off the beaten path. At its creation, The Hispanic Society of America, a National Historic Landmark, was the foremost institution of its kind in the United States and a cultural cornerstone. The Hispanic Society of America Complex reflects a very important change in attitudes and understanding of Hispanic culture and Hispanic-American history in the United States.

Famous philanthropist Archer M. Huntington founded The Hispanic Society in 1904 as a museum and research library to provide Americans with resources and knowledge regarding their heritage from Spain, Portugal, and the directly related cultures of Central and South America. He was responsible not only for the Hispanic Society’s establishment but also for its immediate success – during a time when American attitudes toward Hispanic cultures were still highly influenced by what the Spanish came to call the "Black Legend." This negative stereotype of Spanish people in the New World grew out of European criticism of Spanish colonizing practices that greatly colored perceptions of Hispanic culture through the 19th century. Huntington’s Hispanic Society was directly responsible for promoting a new and updated scholarship that recasts Hispanic heritage in the United States in a positive, more celebratory tone. The complex is of great importance for this achievement and its association with Huntington.

The Hispanic Society of America Complex is located in the Audubon Terrace Historic District. The Audubon Terrace Historic District, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, contains early 20th century culturally significant buildings all established by Huntington. Rows of cultural institution buildings, built as part of Huntington’s vision, surround Audubon Terrace, whose entrance is through a gate along Broadway.

The Hispanic Society itself has attained international recognition as a research, cultural, and arts center. Its library holds over 400,000 historic books, letters, maps and documents related to Hispanic culture. In addition, the institution houses world-class art from the Spanish masters such as Francisco Goya, Diego Velázquez and El Greco. The Hispanic Society buildings and its holdings and exhibits are open and accessible to the public.

Archer M. Huntington, the founder of The Hispanic Society, c. 1910

Archer M. Huntington, the founder of The Hispanic Society, c. 1910
Public Domain

Famed philanthropist and devotee of Hispanic heritage, Archer M. Huntington was the stepson of Collis Huntington, one of the original founders of the Central Pacific Railroad. As heir to the substantial Huntington fortune, he quickly developed a taste for the formal arts, and even as a young man began founding and endowing various cultural institutions. His true passion, however, lay in Hispanic heritage, a largely unstudied and somewhat shunned discipline.

During the late 1800s when Huntington began extensively researching Spanish culture, Anglo-American sentiments on the country’s ties to Spain were generally negative. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Spain had been a major world power, dominating much of North and South America. Entering the 18th century, the still-east-coast-based United States typically viewed the Spanish as an enemy that needed uprooting so the United States could expand and prosper.

The 19th century brought about many changes in Spanish/Mexican and American landholdings in North America. Spanish Florida and Louisiana became part of the United States. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War, ceded Mexico’s vast western territory that went all the way to the Pacific Ocean to the U.S. In 1898, the end of the Spanish-America war brought Cuba, Puerto Rico and other formerly Spanish territories under American control. With these additions to the territory of the United States, thousands of Spanish and Mexican citizens suddenly became American citizens, bringing their traditions, beliefs and architectural styles into the expanding nation.

Anglo-Americans’ deeply rooted and centuries-old distaste for Spanish culture caused many citizens to be concerned about the mixing of Anglo and Hispanic cultures. Misunderstanding and an overall lack of formal scholarly work contributed to the antipathy that surrounding Hispanic heritage as a whole, although this was not uniform. Some Americans romanticized Spain and Spanish culture while still considering it backward.

Attitudes begin to shift late in the 19th century and in the very early years of the 20th century. This shift unfolded slowly and in stages, eventually resulting in the birth of both Hispanic and Latin American Studies as recognized scholarly fields. At the same time, additional cultural institutions, led by The Hispanic Society, began to emerge. These institutions fostered greater understanding of Hispanic and Latin American cultures, as well as their importance to the entire history of the Americas. The term “Hispanism” came into being with its definition as “the study of language, literature, and history of Spain by foreigners.”

Archer Huntington first established The Hispanic Society of America on July 8, 1904. By this time, Huntington had already amassed a vast personal collection of Hispanic heritage items, literature and art including sculpture, paintings, maps, archeological artifacts and some 40,000 books that provided a wealth of resources for Hispanic scholars. He created the Hispanic Society to serve multiple purposes: as a museum to hold and exhibit his collection, a library, research hub, and a cultural center in order to encourage his contemporaries to examine, consider, and better respect Hispanic contributions to the nation and world.

Outside the main society building a group of sculptures by Anna Hyatt Huntington features El Cid on horseback

Outside the main society building a group of sculptures by Anna Hyatt Huntington features El Cid on horseback
Courtesy of thefuturistics, Flickr's Creative Commons

The Main Building constructed to house the Hispanic Society (1904-1908) is based on designs by Huntington’s cousin Charles P. Huntington. Huntington originally envisioned Audubon Terrace as a complex of cultural institutions – an only partially realized grand plan. The Neoclassical Main Building of the Hispanic Society would, however, soon be joined by other buildings on the terrace in the same style, including the Museum of the American Indians, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Numismatic Society and the American Geographical Society.

Huntington took a deep and personal interest in the details of the Hispanic Society’s initial design and construction, including creating his own specialized cases for the museum’s collections. The Hispanic Society opened to the public in 1908 and received immediate acclaim as the largest collection of its kind in the country, and one of the most important in the world.

Following the Hispanic Society’s founding, the study of Hispanic cultures in the United States began to thrive, becoming increasingly professionalized and respected. Previously established libraries and archives began to acquire and maintain collections dedicated to Hispanic arts, traditions, and literature. Huntington was often a consultant on these projects and truly shaped the development of continued Hispanic scholarship in the United States. For his outstanding contributions, he received honorary degrees from Harvard (1904) and Columbia (1907), and election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1919). All the major Spanish Royal Academies inducted him as a member, and he received many awards, honors, and medals of distinction for his work promoting Hispanic culture and history. Huntington went on to set up the Huntington Endowment Fund for the Library of Congress in 1927 so that the Library could collect Hispanic books, manuscripts, and other materials, and in 1928, provided funding for a Library Consultantship in Hispanic Letters.

For over a century, The Hispanic Society of America Complex has remained open to the public in pursuit of its mission to educate the nation and world about the cultures of Spain, Portugal, and Latin America and their impact on the United States. Set within its original buildings, the Society remains one of the most prominent Hispanic cultural heritage institutions in the world. Its holdings currently include nearly 1,000 oil-on-canvas paintings, 15,000 art prints, 175,000 photographs, 250,000 books and 200,000 other written documents, all housed within a free museum and reference library.

The original Neoclassical style Hispanic Society building of steel and brick faced with Indiana limestone has a low hipped copper roof. The impressive central pavilion of the north façade features a Spanish caravel (sailing vessel) in the tympanum. Archer Huntington’s wife, Anna Hyatt Huntington, sculpted the limestone lions that flank the two bronze entrance doors. Ionic columns flank the entrance and support an entablature with the names of famous Spanish and Portuguese carved into the frieze.

One of the Society’s most impressive holdings is Joaquín Sorolla’s “Vision of Spain,” a 14-panel, panoramic work commissioned by Huntington in 1910

One of the Society’s most impressive holdings is Joaquín Sorolla’s “Vision of Spain,” a 14-panel, panoramic work commissioned by Huntington in 1910
Courtesy of freshwater2006, Flickr's Creative Commons

The south facade of the building also has Ionic pilasters. Sculptor Berthold Nebel is responsible for the carved figures on the panels added in 1939 to illustrate people of the civilizations that occupied the Iberian Peninsula. Outside, on the terrace in front of the south façade are Anna Hyatt Huntington’s bronze sculptures on limestone pedestals. The central monumental figure of El Cid sits on a horse. Statues of four seated warriors surround him. Reflecting pools on either side link the sculptures to two flagpoles flying American and Spanish flags.

The Main Building has two Neoclassical flanking wing additions, the west wing dating from 1915 that Charles P. Huntington designed and the east wing from 1920-1921 by Erik Strindberg. H. Brooks Price designed the 1930 North Building that sealed off the original monumental approach from 156th Street reorienting the complex toward Broadway.

Most of the Main Building’s original architectural features remain, both on the exterior and within. The design of the two-story Main Court with its decorative skylight is in a style inspired by Spanish Renaissance architecture (specifically the Palace of Vélez-Blanco in the province of Murcia). The interior has further Spanish flourishes throughout including keystones emblazoned with the various arms of cities or provinces in Spain.

The newly restored Bancaja Gallery houses soaring panoramas of Spanish folklife by Joaquín Sorolla that Huntington first commissioned in 1910. The 230 linear-foot painting, “Vision of Spain” is one of the museum’s major attractions. It recently returned to the Society after a seven-city tour of Spain that attracted two million visitors. Sorolla’s work is just one of many reasons to visit The Hispanic Society of America Complex.

Plan your visit
The Hispanic Society of America Complex is a National Historic Landmark and part of the Audubon Terrace Historic District. The Society is located on Broadway between 155th and 156th Streets in New York City, NY. It is accessible via the 1 Train to 157th St. or the C to 155th St. The Hispanic Society of America contains a museum, library and various galleries, all of which are open daily Tuesday through Sunday (closed on Mondays.) Admission is free at all times and free 45-minute tours are offered each Sunday at 2pm. For more information, visit The Hispanic Society of America Museum and Library website or call 212-926-2234.
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