Pryor Dodge's Two-Wheeled Obsession Is Now a Museum of Bike History
Collecting is a basic human drive, an incredibly various one and one which does much to enrich the lives of all. Collectors support the art world, and many others as well. And they are innumerable. They span those at the high end – the one’s who accumulate blue chip art, svelte motorcars, vintage wines – to those interesting folk who cram their lives floor-to-ceiling with, uh, stuff. In our new series, The Collectors Project, we will profile these fascinating individuals of varying passions. For our first installment, meet Pryor Dodge, the musician who fell in love with a high-wheeled bicycle in 1971 and hasn't stopped buying bikes since.
There are photographs of ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky on the walls of the SoHo loft that musician Pryor Dodge—he plays the flute—shares with his wife, also a musician. “My father saw him dance in New York 1916,” Dodge says. “Because of that, he went to Paris and studied with one of Nijinsky’s teachers. He came back and danced with the Metropolitan Opera Corps de Ballet. Nijinsky stopped dancing in 1919. There are no films of him. The only way to appreciate his art was through photography. My father assembled the most important private collection of Nijinsky photographs. He donated them to the Dance Collection of the New York Public Library.”
Elements of Dodge’s own collection are present, too, and more immediately eye-catching in the form of four venerable bicycles, one fabricated from wood. “The bicycles here—two tricycles and one bicycle—are all [from] about 1888,” Dodge says, observing that one was made in Scotland, one England, one in Chicago. “So it’s what was going on during that year or two. They all have solid tires. This actual model was ordered by John Boyd Dunlop with wider rims so that he could install the pneumatic tires that he became famous for.”
Dodge grew up in New York’s West Village and began his two-wheeled collection while at college in Wisconsin. “I used to hang out at a bicycle store where the Dutch owner had all kinds of old bicycles,” he says. “There was a high-wheeled bicycle in the window my last summer there, what they called a penny farthing, and it drew me. It was almost like I was seeing an old friend.”
Dodge was on his way to study the flute in Paris, but he decided to buy the bike, anyway.
“I paid $600. In 1971 that was a lot of money. [The owner] helped me take it apart. I air-crated it to Paris. And I had a little outfit made for myself. Knickers I had designed—gray tweed, gray leather gloves, gray socks. A turtleneck gray sweater—it was herringbone tweed—and a cap. I made postcards to send out as Christmas cards that year.” Six months after he arrived in Paris, he found another high-wheeled bicycle in a flea market and bought that too. A collector was born.
“Then someone gave me a book that had just come out called A Hundred Years of Bicycle Posters,” Dodge says. “I was looking through the book and I was thinking, ‘I want all of these posters! They are all wonderful! I’d like to have them all!’ There was a poster gallery near me that had bicycle posters in the window. And I do have quite a few that are in that book. Toulouse-Lautec did one very famous one, a poster for a bicycle chain, La Chaine Simpson. It was an English chain. I think it’s an ugly poster. I think Toulouse-Lautrec did 33 posters and this is not one of his more attractive. I have that one in the Collectors Version, not in the original poster version.”
“I was collecting them because I enjoyed the imagery. And they don’t take up any room,” Dodge says.
The same cannot be said of his main collection. “I had a dozen to 14 bicycles. At one point I rented a maid’s room on the top floor to use for storage. And I really didn’t have room for any more,” Dodge says. “But posters, you roll them one inside the other. I framed the first two. The frames cost almost as much as the posters at the time, and I only had so much wall space. So I continued purchasing but kept them in tubes. And I kept adding to them, and they really weren’t taking up any room.”
Dodge knows why he became a collector. “It was a natural direction of something that always existed in my family,” he says. “My father had the Nijinsky photographs. But he also had a collection of jazz records. I’m told by people who have looked it over that it was a very precise slice of jazz’s recorded history. So it was just like I speak the same language that my parents speak.”
So why did Dodge decide to focus his attention on bicycles?
“Friends were coming over to my apartment in Paris, saying ‘Pryor, what is this? What’s going on here?’” he says. Dodge remembered seeing the movie Around the World in 80 Days as a child. “It was set in the late 1880s. Cantinflas is David Niven’s manservant and has to go on some errands in London. He rides a high-wheel bicycle. And I was totally taken by this. I had never seen one. My thought for the rest of the film was, ‘Will I see that bicycle again?’ Which, of course, doesn’t happen! Maybe I was 7. To a child bicycles are important. It’s the first important feat that they accomplish. Riding a bicycle! And having that independence.”
Not long after Dodge made this connection Around the World in 80 Days began playing at a nearby cinema in Paris. He watched Cantinflas atop the penny farthing. “And when I saw that my thought was, ‘Will I see it again?’ And that was exactly how I felt when I was a kid! It really was an important experience for me.”
Dodge soon realized that his collection was moving in another direction.
“You know, whenever one starts a collection the number of pieces is very important. It’s more important than the quality of what you are getting. People still ask me how many bicycles do you have? The numbers tend to be very important. But after one has become a seasoned collector, one realizes it’s not necessarily the numbers, it’s the quality of what you have. You want to feel like you have the best of a certain category.”
Dodge returned to New York when he was 31, and he continued to grow his collection.
“I never really was the type of collector who had to go out every weekend looking,” Dodge says. “I don’t feel like I need to go to all these different shows. I didn’t have a voracious appetite.”
He was, though, keen on securing the bicycles a parking slot in the sun. “I think it was [in] ’74 or ’75 [that] I wrote to Mayor Koch about two buildings in New York that were vacant,” he says. “One of which was on 2nd Avenue and 2nd Street. It was a courthouse at one point. It was empty for years, it was a big space, and I thought this would be fabulous to have a bicycle museum there. And there was also on Center Street below Canal a firehouse. I was looking for spaces to have a bicycle museum. I thought this is fabulous material! People should see it! They should enjoy it! I want to share it!”
Neither locations came through. The court house is now the Anthology Archive and the firehouse is a Chinese community center. But Dodge did succeed in getting a gallery show at the OK Harris Gallery in 1983 and another in 1987 at a museum in an upscale shopping mall in Tucson, Arizona. “An exhibition is an amazing experience,” he says. “It’s the only time I get to experience my collection. And you’ve got all the iconography of a certain period. And the machine of that period. I create a world of the bicycle within a certain period of time. And you enter!”
Dodge’s collection continued to grow. In 1993, he was talking to a major bicycle collector with whom he had a relationship, a fellow who was getting on in years. “And during one phone conversation he said he wasn’t sure what was going to happen to his collection,” Dodge says. “I wasn’t the type of go-getter who would call collectors and say, ‘What can you sell me?’ But he opened up the discussion: What would happen to his collection?
“We started a conversation. I showed some interest. He says, ‘Well, I’ll have to make a list of what I have and figure this out.’ And he took a while. Eventually he sent me the list.”
Dodge did acquire the collection, and now his own runs to 125 bicycles, dating from 1820 to 1920. Dodge has also had something like 20 museum shows and is intent on establishing a museum that would also show his 225 posters. “Also I have postcards, stamps, and racing medals, all on the subject of bicycles. And my collection includes about 35 different countries, including song sheets from Uruguay from 1900...I’m telling a story here about the creation of the bicycle and the development of the bicycle.”
This story includes the Flapper period, during the Golden Age of Bicycles, and a particular bike that is one of the most important in his collection.
“Put it this way, I have a bicycle that belonged to Henry Ford from the 1920s. And I have an image of him riding it…Car companies evolved out of bicycle companies. The third tricycle here, the one made in Chicago, was made by Gormully & Jeffery, the company that became American Motors, and then Chrysler. Because the automobile essentially was a motorized quadricycle. Then they got heavier and heavier. And bigger and bigger. And faster and faster. But this is how it all began.”
It seems today that we might be pedaling back to an Age of the Bicycle, one Dodge is all too ready for.
“We thought this in 1974 when there was the first big oil crisis,” Dodge says. “There was a big rush towards bicycles. That kind of faded. But this time, there’s much more serious attention to bicycles. The world’s major cities have got bike share programs and bike paths.” Hello, Cantinflas.