Norse in New York

Summer fun for the young and young at heart

swedish cottage
Photo courtesy of Central Park Conservancy
The Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre in New York City’s Central Park is a must for children on your Nordic adventure in New York. The cottage was built in Sweden and came for the U.S. World’s Fair in 1876.

VICTORIA HOFMO
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Whether you are traveling solo, on a romantic getaway, or en route as a family to New York this summer, as a native, I suggest you check out some of the “Norse offerings” the Big Apple has to bestow.

When traveling alone, the city may seem daunting or isolating at first. Why not begin in a place where the Nordics congregate, the Norwegian Seamen’s Church?

Located centrally at 317 E 52nd Street, in Manhattan, you can drop in for a cup of coffee or their popular rooftop barbecues. The friendly faces there will always put you at ease.

Next, head to the place where the heart of the Norwegian community lived for centuries, Brooklyn, nestled along the southwest waterfront. Today, the Bay Ridge area remains the heart of the once flourishing Norwegian-American community.

There is no better way to arrive than by taking New York’s extensive ferry service to the Brooklyn Army Terminal (BAT). Sail through the maritime history of New York, which was dominated by and intricately intertwined with the Norwegians who contributed to its success since the time it was New Amsterdam.

Here they steered the tugs, transported cargo, both human and goods, and they held lifeboat races against other countries’ crews. You can follow in the wake of Norwegian-Americans George Harbo and Frank Samuelson, whose row boat traveled out of the Narrows and across the Atlantic without the aid of sail or steam in 1896. Their record has not been surpassed to this day.

BAT was the port of embarkation for World War I and World War II, as well as the place from which Elvis Presley deployed. This stunning behemoth is worth a gander. With its soaring glass and truss ceiling, it was built by Cass Gilbert, of Woolworth Building fame. You can see the faded paint, marking names of shores afar, such as Azores and Portugal on its walls, indicating where hoisted cargo was headed.

Follow in the footsteps of your ancestors and head to Sporting Club Gjøa at 850 62nd Street next to the colloquially named Lapskaus Boulevard. It is a very long walk, so I suggest you grab a cab or car service. Don’t let the daunting train cut dissuade you (these tracks were designed to transport the cargo from the harbor). You will be warmly welcomed.

soccer tavern
Photo courtesy of Soccer Tavern
Soccer Tavern is around the corner from the Sporting Club Gjøa. While today’s owner is of Irish descent, you can still get a serving of Norwegian lapskaus there.

Established by Norwegian seamen in 1911, it remains the oldest independent soccer club in the United States. Check out the back room to see the scores of awards and trophies from this club’s illustrious history.  My favorite trophies include one hanging on the wall abutting the bar, marking a win for the Tug-of-War competition in the old Madison Square Garden shortly after their incorporation. Another is in the showcase, featuring a metal harpoon, a win for mock whale boat drills using a float for the creature.

Soccer Tavern sits around the corner at 6004 Eighth Avenue. Opened in 1932, it had once been a speakeasy. Its name is derived from three Scandinavian soccer clubs: Gjøa, Swedish (both still open), and Danish. The clubs played in the field two blocks away. Today’s Irish-born owner, Brendan Farley makes a mean lapskaus and the jukebox includes Norwegian, Irish, Chinese, and English songs.

Leif Ericson Park runs between 66th and 67th Streets from Fort Hamilton Parkway to Fourth Avenue. Walk to the strip on Eighth Avenue, and you’ll see a Viking ship playground requested by the Scandinavian East Coast Museum (SECM) and obtained by Vincent Joseph “Vinnie” Gentile of the New York City Council. Brooklyn Parks Borough Commissioner Julius Spiegel set a new direction, stating that parks with ethnic names should incorporate ethnic designs, as funding became available. You will see many clever elements from the eastern end of the park that benefited from this initiative. You can contact the SECM at scandinavianmuseumbrooklyn@gmail.com for more information. They also provide walking tours.

Photo: David Grossman / Alamy
The playground at Leif Ericson Park in Brooklyn, N.Y., has its own Viking play ship. The project was initiated by the Scandinavian East Coast Museum to pay homage to the borough’s Nordic population, past and present.

Couples will love dining in the upscale cool and sophisticated Aquavit at 65 East 55th Street in Manhattan. A Scandinavian culinary stalwart, it opened in 1987 under Håkan Swahn and survived all the tremors that befell New York City: 9/11, the banking crisis of 2008, and, most recently, the pandemic. In 1995, Marcus Samuelsson became its head chef, expanding the notoriety of this famous and beloved restaurant.

At Aquavit, you have a choice of a five-course tasting menu or an eight-course chef’s tasting menu. Both have optional wine pairings. An interesting four-course cocktail tasting paired with carefully curated tidbits in the bar and lounge area is another possibility. Check out the cocktails with evocative names, such as Lost in the Woods, an alchemy of applejack brandy, cedar, and lemon, or the cheeky Crooked Diplomat, a concoction of Amaro, sweet vermouth, dry vermouth. Each libation is accompanied with a specific Nordic delight, such as gravlax, shrimp Skagen roll, or scallop with trout roe.

There is also a less pricey lunch menu, with a choice of two or three courses. You can try Icelandic cod, Arctic char, and Swedish Princess Cake, a mouthful of joy, melding cream, raspberry and marzipan, hard to find on this side of the Atlantic.

aquavit
Photo courtesy of Aquavit
The celebrated restaurant Aquavit offers a variety of tasting menus and Nordic-flavored cocktails for a special Scandinavian experience in NYC.

For children, the charming Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre in Central Park is a place of enchantment. The cottage was built by Swedish artisans in schoolhouse fashion and was transported to the United States for the first U.S. World’s Fair held in Philadelphia in 1876. So important is this structure, that it is part of the Historic House Trust.

Classic fairy tales are often performed in the Swedish Cottage by the wooden stringed actors, but this year you can see an original production, Wake Up, Daisy! It is about an NYC girl who is given special gifts by her Squad-Parents, followed by a curse from an uninvited guest. In other words, it is an updated urbanized version of Sleeping Beauty.

While there, why not pass by the beloved Hans Christian Andersen statue, a gift from the Danish American Women’s Association? They raised funds for this statue of prolific storyteller from the children of Denmark and the United States. It is situated by the pond officially known as the Conservatory Lake, where children and some adults still sail boats. Storytelling on Saturdays at the Hans Christian Andersen statue is to be brought back this summer.

You can rent a radio-powered sailboat from the charming Kerb Memorial Boathouse with its sloping green roof and steeple. Here you can also purchase simple snacks or more substantial dishes, including a New York favorite: knishes. There is also an Alice in Wonderland and company sculpture a stone’s throw away.

New York is an exciting city with a plethora of offerings, with even more to discover. This summer, why not check out some of the Norse fibers woven into this chaotic, kinetic, remarkable city?

This article originally appeared in the July 8, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Victoria Hofmo

Victoria Hofmo was born, raised, and still lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the historical heart of Norwegian New York. She is 3/4 Scandinavian: 1/2 Norwegian and 1/4 Danish/Swedish. Self-employed, she runs an out-of-school-time program that articulates learning through the arts. Hofmo is an advocate for arts and culture, education, and the preservation of the built and natural environment of her hometown, with a love for most things Scandinavian.

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