Tag Archives: Battery Park

Castle Clinton: New York’s Most Underappreciated Landmark (NPS 100)

This month America celebrates the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, the organization which protects the great natural and historical treasures of the United States. There are a number of NPS locations in the five borough areas. Throughout the next few weeks, we will focus on a few of our favorites.   For more information, you can visit National Parks Centennial for a complete list of parks and monuments throughout the country. 
The following is also an excerpt from the Bowery Boys Adventures In Old New York, now available for sale wherever books are sold and online at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

 

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CASTLE CLINTON
MANHATTAN. BATTERY PARK

Tourists looking to purchase tickets to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island (also two landmarks that are maintained by the NPS) enter an old circular stone structure in Battery Park called Castle Clinton. Ticket selling is by far the least exciting job in the fort’s history, a rather banal function for a building that traces its origins to the founding of the United States.

Back in 1783, fresh from the victories of the Revolutionary War, New Yorkers gathered around the docks on November 25 to forever wave off the British from New York Harbor. When it was soon discovered that one last British flag remained hanging from a greased flagpole—a final goodbye prank, as it were—jaunty patriots shimmied up to remove it. This event would soon become the driving force of New York’s annual Evacuation Day celebrations, a symbolic marker of the end of British rule. (If we could come up with a method to safely secure drunk revelers as they climbed greased flagpoles today, then we’d say let’s bring it back!)

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But the threat of an unwelcome British return lingered on. In 1790, the city dismantled Fort George (the dilapidated fort built by the Dutch), and the cannons that gave the Battery its name were removed and replaced with a strolling promenade. But less than two decades later, new saber rattling by British forces so unnerved New Yorkers that they built new, stronger forts at locations scattered throughout the harbor. Some of them—like Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island and Castle Williams on Governors Island (another NPS property) —still stand today.

A modest museum inside Castle Clinton features three interesting models of how the structure used to look and how it related to the land around it.

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But none has had the inconceivable adventures of West Battery, completed in 1811 as an island fort, located 300 feet from shore and connected to the mainland by a long bridge. Its thick stone walls could withstand a vicious attack, and its 28 guns aimed into the harbor would surely beat back any aggressors. It was later renamed Castle Clinton, after New York’s governor (and former mayor) DeWitt Clinton, a hopeful name, given Clinton’s own political tenacity and endurance.

But while the War of 1812 would come to American shores, it never arrived in New York Harbor. After serving some minor military purposes, Castle Clinton was eventually sold by the federal government to the city in 1823. And it was then that things got decidedly more festive for the old fort.

During an excavation in 2006, portions of the old Battery Wall were discovered.  They are displayed within Castle Clinton today.

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First it was transformed into an entertainment palace, rechristened Castle Garden, and greatly expanded, with a spacious second floor and an ornate fountain at its center. Still accessed by a narrow bridge, the experience was magical and otherworldly for visitors, its gaslight illuminations dancing above the waves.

Image from 'A Home Geography of New York City (1905).
Image from ‘A Home Geography of New York City (1905).

 

Castle Garden was a ballroom, concert venue, lecture space, and even beer hall. In 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette, the most exotic still-living embodiment of the Revolutionary era, was feted here by grateful New Yorkers. In 1842 Samuel Morse demonstrated a new gadget that would change the world—the telegraph. (A line was strung between here and Castle Williams; its first message was, rather dramatically, “What hath God wrought?” And they hadn’t even seen their phone bill yet!) For a short time, you could even enjoy luxurious saltwater baths out on the Battery promenade.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

But the most famous evenings at Castle Garden (pictured above in 1850) belonged to the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind. Extensively hyped by impresario P. T. Barnum, the so-called Swedish nightingale brought New York music lovers to tears here on September 11 and 13, 1850, perhaps the most legendary concert nights in American history (pre–stadium seating, that is). “Jenny Lind has already won a hold on the sympathies of the American public, such as no other vocalist ever obtained,” cooed the New York Daily Tribune. “The audience for which she sang was the greatest ever assembled at a concert in this city.”

Just five years later, in 1855, Castle Garden would see thousands more foreign imports, albeit less enthusiastically proclaimed. For it was then that the old fort-turned-amusement venue became New York’s first immigration depot, a desperately needed transformation, coming as a tidal wave of European immigrants vexed the ports.

Newly arrived Irish and German immigrants during the 1840s and early ’50s had been taken advantage of by greedy “runners,” unscrupulous characters who led them into scams or false promises of housing and employment, often leaving them with neither (and empty pockets).

The interior of Castle Garden during its period as an immigration station.

New York Public Library
New York Public Library

Castle Garden, as an immigration depot, registered the new arrivals and provided vital connections with immigrant aid societies. It would be a proto–Ellis Island, processing more than 8 million people upon their arrival to America. Most likely some of you reading this have ancestors who passed through the halls of Castle Garden.

Castle Garden as an immigration station, 1861, the former battery swarming with activity. Millions of immigrants arriving in New York passed through this depot.

Another model within Castle Clinton features the landscape as it looks during the period the structure housed the New  York Aquarium.

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By 1890 the federal government finally got involved with immigration processing and built a new processing center upon a little island in New York Harbor, long ago owned by Samuel Ellis. This switch freed Castle Garden to occupy itself with some other residents—this time of the underwater variety.

After a redesign by the renowned architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White, the New York Aquarium would open here in 1896, its former concert hall and processing desks replaced with the latest aquatic technology of the day. By this time, of course, landfill had joined the structure to the mainland. Families could now gallivant through Battery Park and into the front gates to explore a maze of open pools and glass exhibition tanks, filled with a variety of creatures that (more often than not) did not survive the changing of seasons.

Today there are no aquatic creatures of any variety. However there are plenty of tourists from all over the world, lined up to get their boat tickets to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

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They were a surprising yet appropriate pairing, the old fort and a bunch of tropical fish, replete with harbor waves crashing nearby. Unfortunately, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses was not a fan and decreed that the retrofitted old fort had finally performed her last number. In 1941, Moses used the construction of the Brooklyn–Battery Tunnel as an excuse to move the popular aquarium to Coney Island, snarling that “the Aquarium is an ugly wart on the main axis leading straight to the Statue of Liberty.” The fort should be destroyed entirely, he explained, for “its guns never fired a shot against an enemy.”

Inside the New York Aquarium at Castle Garden:

Courtesy Castle Clinton
Courtesy Castle Clinton

His destructive urges were only partially rebuffed by the community. Most of the frill and finery—almost everything that had been added since 1823—was removed, leaving only the barren stone form of the original fort intact. And that’s exactly how it has remained ever since. Castle Clinton received National Monument status in 1975.

Today the old fort quietly allows New York’s showier landmarks their day in the sun. But we challenge you, Mr. Moses. There may never have been a shot fired from Castle Clinton, but these walls have seen more drama and have been more important to the American experience than almost any other American fort standing today.

WANT MORE INFORMATION? Visit the NPS Castle Clinton National Monument site for more information.

LISTEN TO OUR PODCAST! We have an entire show on Battery Park and Castle Clinton. It’s Episode #31. You can find it on iTunes at the Bowery Boys Archive, featuring our older shows.  Or download it from here.

Ten Images of Bowling Green and Ten Facts about its Marvelous History

Bowling Green, at the very tip of Manhattan island, is a small oval park so calm in comparison to its surroundings that it’s hard to believe this is one of the oldest sections of the city of New York.   Here are ten facts about Bowling Green, accompanied by ten images and photographs from various periods in this tiny park’s extraordinary history:

"The Plaine" -- where the trees are to the left -- is where Bowling Green would eventually be constructed. This depicts the early Dutch years. (Courtesy the Internet Book Archive)
“The Plaine” — where the trees are to the left — is where Bowling Green would eventually be constructed. This depicts the early Dutch years. (Courtesy the Internet Book Archive)

1) The land comprising Bowling Green was situated next to Fort Amsterdam.  During the days of New Amsterdam, this was the site of the first public well, dug in 1658 and would remain the only well within the city until 1677, long after the Dutch were replaced by the British.

Ship On A Parade Float Drawn By Horses Past Bowling Green, New York, 18th Century. (Courtesy New York Public Library)
Ship On A Parade Float Drawn By Horses Past Bowling Green, New York, 18th Century. (Courtesy New York Public Library)

2) Since it was next to the fort, it’s not surprising to discover that the area was a parade ground during the early 18th century.  In 1733, it was leased to three local landlords — Peter Jay, John Chambers, and Peter Bayard — to develop an English-style park. It quickly became the destination of lavish homes of the wealthy.

Charcoal drawing of Bowling Green, New York, 1845. (New York Public Library)
Charcoal drawing of Bowling Green, New York, 1845. (New York Public Library)

3) Yes there was actually bowling here. Or rather, the traditional form of lawn bowling, enjoyed by the residents that lived around the park.  This required perpetual maintenance of the lawn. Before the invention of the lawnmower, this was usually accomplished by sheep. I’m not sure whether sheep were employed into service here at Bowling Green. But there were pigs in the street so you never know.

Pulling down the King George statue 1776
Pulling down the King George statue 1776

4) In 1770, loyalists to the crown erected an equestrian statue of King George III in the center of the park.  Six years later, it was ingraciously torn down by New Yorkers after hearing George Washington read the newly crafted Declaration of Independence.  Parts of that statue still exist in the city.

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5) George Washington lived here. No really. He had two residences here during the time when New York was briefly the nation’s capital.  The first, over on Cherry Street, provided him and his wife Martha with breathtaking views of the East River, but they soon found it quite unsuitable.  So in 1790 they moved to a home at 39-41 Broadway, at the northern tip of Bowling Green, residing here until the capital was finally moved to Philadelphia.

Bowling Green, how the vacinity looked in 1850 whnen Jenny Lind sang in New York.  (Courtesy Museum of the City of New  York)
Bowling Green, how the vacinity looked in 1850 whnen Jenny Lind sang in New York. (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

6) Bowling Green was still the destination for the New York’s oldest, snootiest families at the start of the 19th century.  In fact, it was given a rather inappropriate nickname — Nobs Row. As the town moved northward, the wealthy left their houses around Bowling Green.

Bowling Green 1900 (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)
Bowling Green 1900 (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

7) In the 1820s, the first velodrome was situated near Bowling Green featuring a precursor to the bicycle called the draisine.  New Yorkers loved this curious device. “Near Bowling Green these vehicles were first exhibited.  Around City Hall Park and the Bowery, at all times of the days, riders might be seen.

Bowling Green 1915 (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)
Bowling Green 1915 (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

8) Bowling Green soon became known as a transportation terminus for coaches and omnibuses which strode up and down Broadway. In the 1820s, when the entertainment venue Castle Garden opened, the streets around Bowling Green became clogged with busy street life.  By the 1850s, Castle Garden became the principal immigration station, filling the once elite neighborhood with a bustling cross-section of classes. In the 1890s, New York’s short-lived cable-car line terminated here.

Bowling Green, 1939, Wurts Brothers photography (courtesy Museum of the City of New York)
Bowling Green, 1939, Wurts Brothers photography (courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

9) The park was much abused and generally unimpressive during the 1950s and ’60s but was rebuilt during the 1970s to approximately resemble  how it once looked.  The fence which surrounds the park is the original which was first placed around the park in 1773.  This makes it one of the oldest free-standing artifacts in all of Manhattan.

Bowling Green 1975, photo by Edmund V Gillon (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)
Bowling Green 1975, photo by Edmund V Gillon (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

10) During the late 1980s the park met its weirdest neighbor yet — the Charging Bull sculpture by Arturo Di Modica.  Arguably better known and more beloved by tourists, the bull was originally planted illegally in front of the New York Stock Exchange.  By the time the city removed the statue, New Yorkers had come to love it.  They eventually placed it next to Bowling Green in 1989.

 

A short history of New York City’s various Titanic memorials


From a 1912 handbill, drumming up support for a proper memorial. (Courtesy Seaman’s Institute)

In our podcast on the South Street Seaport, we forgot to mention a very interesting little landmark to the area — the Titanic Memorial, a 60-foot white lighthouse that sits in the little plaza at Fulton and Water Streets.

This was no mere decorative lighthouse as it seems today.  For much of its history, it was an operational light source, a beacon over the East River.  Below: The memorial’s first home, atop the Seamen’s Church Institute (Courtesy NYPL)

The Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, killing more than 1,500 people from all social classes.  The loss shook society to its core.  Among the victims were prominent New York businessmen and benefactors such as John Jacob Astor IV and Benjamin Guggenheim.  As New Yorkers mourned the loss of loved ones, they immediately funneled their grief into the building of memorials, the physical remembrance of a disaster that left virtually no trace behind.

Mayor William Jay Gaynor gathered community leaders to City Hall in May 1912 to solicit ambitious ideas of the new memorial.   The Evening World attributes one idea for a lighthouse to engineer Carroll Livingston Riker, who suggested “the lighthouse should be located at some perilous point on the coast, illuminated by a most powerful light and with a great fog horn that may be heard many miles as part of its equipment.”

Meanwhile, a less dramatic lighthouse memorial (pictured at right) was funded by J.P. Morgan and planned for the top of the new Seamen’s Church Institute at 25 South Street.  The lighthouse was equipped with a time ball which was lowered at noon to help distant sailors adjust their equipment.  (This same sort of ball is affixed to the top of One Times Square in 1908, dropped every year at ring in the new year.)

The lighthouse memorial was dedicated on the first anniversary of the disaster with many family and friends of victims in attendance.

The New York Times claims the lighthouse and ball drop features atop the Institute “were simply features of the existing plan, relabeled as a memorial.” [source]  However it became New York’s most prominent remembrance of the Titanic disaster after all when, over at City Hall, nobody could make up their mind on a truly grand memorial.  (All you need to know about the city’s failed efforts is illustrated in this 1912 headline on one meeting — “One Man Made 18 Speeches.”)

Meanwhile, there were other Titanic memorials being planned in other parts of the city.  In Greenwich Village, in the Washington Square studios of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the artist began work on a sculpture for a national memorial in Washington D.C.

She displayed a model for the memorial in February 1916 that drew gasps from society women.  “[T]he present figure with its pedestal extends from floor to ceiling and catches interesting lights that add to the highly dramatic conceptions.”  [source] At left: A study of the Titanic memorial which was displayed at Whitney’s Village studio. (Courtesy AAA/Whitney Museum)

Whitney’s triumphant statue –of a figure with arms outstretched (not unlike Kate Winslet’s pose in the film Titanic) — was completed in 1918 but not installed in Washington until 1930 due to waterfront construction delays.  A

Yet another Titanic memorial was planned in June 1912 to honor philanthropists Isador and Ida Straus near their home on the Upper West Side. A competition was held in 1913 for aspiring sculptors, with Augustus Lukeman’s pondering nymph the eventual winner. The statue and the newly named Straus Park were formally dedicated on April 15, 1915.

Featured at the dedication ceremony were 800 children who had been helped by Straus’ Educational Alliance in the Lower East Side.

Below: Dedication of Straus Square and its curious monument. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

As for the Titanic Lighthouse Memorial?  It sat dutifully atop the Seamen’s Institute for decades, its green light a welcome beacon to those entering the harbor.  By the 1950s, shipping no longer came through the area of New York’s waterfront, and the Institute eventually sold its building.

The lighthouse was donated to the South Street Seaport Museum in 1968, then a budding institution formed just a couple years prior to protect the historic structures of the area.  For a time, the lighthouse actually sat on the waterfront before relocating back to its present home in 1976, in a park partially funded by Exxon Oil.

There was one other memorial to the Titanic disaster — the Wireless Operators Memorial at Battery Park.  This bronze cenotaph and fountain was dedicated in 1915 to nine intrepid employees — “wireless heroes” — who died on the Titanic and in other ocean disasters.

Wrote J. Andrew White in 1915: “It is an eloquent reminder of a tradition that has grown out of the brand of courage which seeks no precedent, which, founded on the heroic action of a mere boy, has been written in the indelible annals of the men who go down to the sea in ships.”

But don’t go looking for the memorial today.  It’s been in storage since 2005. Will we ever see it again?

George Bellows at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: A must-see rumination on New York City’s abrasive beauty

George Bellows: Retrospective
Metropolitan Museum of Art
November 15, 2012-February 18, 2012

George Bellows was a member of the Ashcan School, the New York-centered realist art movement of the early 20th century. The so-called ‘Apostles of Ugliness’ — at least, according to critics — included John Sloan, Robert Henri and eventually Edward Hopper. Even the photography of Jacob Riis is considered indicative of the bold Ashcan style.  Bellow’s painting, in particular, are representative of the movement, using dramatic, almost geometric styling to depict everyday settings that were raw, lurid and sometimes unsettling..

But after a century of photography and film and decades of modern art, Bellows work now seems rather far from real, almost hallucinogenic. A romantic abstraction, the manipulation of light to evoke the senses of the flesh. The imperfections of his subjects, while sometimes ghastly, are flawless ones.

That was my personal impression of the Metropolitan Museum of Art‘s amazing new retrospective of the work of George Bellows, a stunning collection of oil paintings and drawings, most steeped in the rough and tumble of early 20th century New York City.

His subjects include lean boxers in the basement of Sharkey’s Saloon on the Upper East Side, naked East River swimmers, fiery preacher Billy Sunday (Bellows paints Sunday’s upper Manhattan revivals), strolls along Riverside Park, and the excavations of Penn Station. Collected together, you’ll notice many of the images derive their motion from confident broad strokes, slightly distorted and blurred body frames, and a framework that’s almost photographic.

My favorites surprised me with their use of radical light, like his blinding-white winter scene in Battery Park (below) and his stark-green, twisted views of a Newport, R.I., afternoon. The show makes a point of keeping his weirdest work — inspired by not-quite-true stories of World War I atrocities — confined to one room.

Bellows did seek to expose the ruddiness and chaos of urban life, but it wasn’t just for its inherent ugliness that he found it so irresistible. It’s no surprise to find that his home and studio at 146 East 19th Street happens to be on the so-called “Block Beautiful,” Gramercy Park‘s most diversely gorgeous street. There’s even a painting of his elegant home, with his printing press clearly seen on the top floor.

Bellows died prematurely in 1925 at age 42 at the height of his talents, abundantly clear in the exhibition’s final room. It literally feels like an unfinished show, not by fault of the museum, but at the clear superiority of the final paintings.

I still personally think John Sloan is New York City’s greatest painter, but, thank you Met, you’ve almost changed my mind.

By the way, there’s another new show with a connection to New York City history you should check out while here — African Art, New York, and the Avant Garde.

Clowns at Lincoln Center! the Big Apple Circus returns

The Big Apple Circus is probably the only show featuring acrobatic dogs and European clowns ever to play Lincoln Center. Well, play next to Lincoln Center.

P.T. Barnum made his name in New York with his American Museum and a host of publicity stunts, but his world-famous circus actually originated elsewhere. However, the Big Apple Circus, which opens Thursday at Domrosch Park, is born and bred in New York City.

If you get a vague 70s disco feeling every time you hear the name Big Apple Circus, that’s because its first year was in 1977, a not-so-hallmark time in the history of the city. But amidst the blackout, financial despair and a certain serial killer came this little ray of sunshine, who set up their first ring in patch of landfill that would later become Battery Park City.

Michael Christensen and Paul Binder were jugglers making money on the streets of Paris in the 1970s. They soon found work with the one-ring Nouveau Cirque de Paris, part of a new movement of circus experience with greater cultural influence. Think a precursor to Cirque de Soleil: more ribbons and acrobatics, fewer lions and tigers.

Meanwhile, back in New York, a Russian duo working out of a downtown loft created the non-profit New York School for Circus Arts to train aspiring performers. When Binder and Christensen returned to the U.S, they teamed with the school to form their very own one-ring in the shadow of the recently completed World Trade Center. The first Big Apple Circus featured various trapeze artists, a soon-to-be renown group of Harlem acrobats known as the Backstreet Flyers, and a lively dog act.

The next year they moved to 8th Avenue and 50th Street and finally in 1980 to their annual home at Damrosch Park near Lincoln Center. With each year they attract larger crowds, but Binder and Christensen would keep the show small. As quoted in a 1982 issue of Time, Binder says, “This is the maximum size I ever want to have. If we were larger, we would lose our intimacy and immediacy.”

During this period, one notable performer at the Big Apple Circus would be Phillipe Petit, the “Man on Wire” best known to New Yorkers for slinging a high wire between the Twin Towers and walking it. In 1982, the circus would be featured in the film version of “Annie.”

The circus has crossed over into some unusual arenas, even operating an entire floor of clown doctors (CCU, or Clown Care Unit) in the children’s branches of hospitals throughout the city.

On tour throughout most of the year, the Big Apple Circus is always back in New York in time for the holidays. Binder, who has been with the show from the beginning, will finally step down as master of ceremonies for good tomorrow.

Spawn of the Statue of Liberty

You know an area of New York has achieved tourist saturation when the first ten people you see are all identically dressed as the Statue of Liberty.

Performance artists regularly delight audiences near the city’s marquee tourist attractions — South Street Seaport, Central Park, Times Square. Most are truly worthy of the attention: the charismatic juggler, the dance troupe, even (though I hate to admit it) that person who acts like a robot making hydraulic noises.

But the army of Liberty impersonators are different. First of all, there’s usually a group of them, the largest number collecting themselves outside Castle Clinton, greeting visitors who are awaiting to see the real Liberty. Seeing four or five Lady Libertys is startling, surreal, even nauseating. It’s even exhausting looking at so many people draped in green wearing masks or face paint on a hot spring day.

Bonnie, a New York blogger, pinpoints exactly what it is that’s so ominous about them:

“The effect is actually rather eerily reminiscent of the killer from the “Scream” movies (actually I think somebody needs to make a horror movie set in NY and featuring one of these guys) …. on a dreary day like today you get the even weirder scenes of a busker who’ve gone on break leaving a small heap of folded green robe, and a Statue of Liberty heads (wearing shades) stuck on a pole”

Of course, Statue of Liberty replication is not a new phenomenon. In fact, you could say the replicates came before the real thing.


France’s gift to the United States — probably the best gift ever — was wholly funded by French citizens. Creator Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi devised a host of creative fund-raising ideas, including a concert series and a Liberty themed lottery. But he also created Lady Liberty souvenirs, miniatures of his design, as a way to boost enthusiasm and raise money. By 1889, Liberty was in New York harbor, but she had already started to spawn.

The French have their own Liberty which stands a little under 38 feet tall (or about the combined length of all the Statue of Liberty impersonators you can find in Battery Park at one time) within sight of the Eiffel Tower, planted near the Granille Bridge on the same date as New York’s. Later, her original formative model, a bronze Bartholdi had used to impress investors and demonstrate the statue’s scale, was donated to the Jardin du Luxembourg in 1900. Since then various other versions have been spotted through France, including Bartholdi’s hometown.

The Statue’s first and perhaps only legitimate American sister sat for decades atop the former Liberty Warehouse at 43 West 64th Street. Mini Liberty, close in design to one of Bartholdi’s actual fund-raising miniatures, sat overlooking the Upper West Side from 1891 to 2002, when she removed and given an honorific spot at the Brooklyn Museum.

You can thank the American proliferation of Libertys on the Boy Scouts. During the 1950s, the Scouts donated over 200 ‘little sisters of Liberty’ to towns across 39 states and several territories. Kansas alone allegedly received 26 Liberty statues, possibly because the whole initiative was started by a Scout volunteer in Kansas City, Mo.

These replicas were usually not sculpted with the same care that Bartholdi brought to his replicas, with haphazard faces, odd scale and imprecise detailing on the 8’4″ copper statues. Of the dozens dispersed across the nation, at least a 100 have been identified today. After Sept. 11, many communities have taken great pride in restoring their li’l Libertys.

Here’s Liberty in Columbus, Nebraska:

In New Castle, Pennsylvania:

And Richmond, Virginia:

Liberty is a victim of her own symbolic nature. As small town America now had their copies, Liberty was spawning herself on Liberty Island in the form of souvenirs that allowed you to become the Statue of Liberty, using foam crowns and torches. Once, immigrants sailing into New York harbor could hope to take advantage of the values that Liberty embodied; now, people could simply embody Liberty herself as a way of taking advantage of some of those values.

It may be impossible to truly identify the first Statue of Liberty impersonator, but I think there’s little argument about who is the best: Jennifer Stewart.

Stewart began donning Liberty drag in 1989. One clue that she might be one of the very first is her feelings to donning the green in public for the first time: ”I felt stupid. I thought, ‘The only consolation is that no one will recognize me.’

Stewart seems to be the ‘official’ Liberty impersonator, meeting with Rudy Guiliani, Michael Bloomberg and Hillary Clinton and appearing on national magazine covers. But it was that success that brought on the wave of imitators.

Photo credit: Kristen Artz / Office of the Mayor, 2005

Ms. Stewart may disagree, but one enticement to impersonating a statue is the ability to do so without any real displays of traditional talent. You don’t have to do backflips or breathe fire or pretend you’re Robbie the Robot. She’s stoic in her static. Although I would chime in here and ask, have you ever stood in one place for a really long time with your arm in the air?

And thus came the horde of Statue of Liberty impersonators, at first in performance make-up and stylized robes, later just in masks and sprayed-green sheets. Often she is given sunglasses or any number of patriotic embellishments.

Does repetition dilute meaning, or reinforce it? Interestingly, knowing who is behind the robes might give this borderline annoying trend a bit of resonance. According to an article in the Tribeca Tribune last year, the group of Libertys on a given day at Castle Clinton were all immigrants –“four Colombians, an Ecuadorian, a Honduran and a woman from China.” They were also mostly male performers. Who can’t appreciate a man who stands in a park dressed in drag all day to make a few bucks?

The Statue of Liberty has been duplicated in other, less disturbing ways. Check out our previous history of Lady Liberty on album covers. Or dive back into our older podcast on the Statue of Liberty from last September, with accompanying photo gallery.

And finally, this is just right on so many levels:

PODCAST: Life in British New York: 1776-1783


Join us as we stroll through the streets of revolutionary New York, examining what it would have been like to be a New Yorker under British rule.

Listen to it for free on iTunes or other podcasting services. Or you can download or listen to it HERE

New York as it looked during British occupation (i.e. before various lower Manhattan landfills!)

The HMS Jersey, docked right off the show of Brooklyn, and home to the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers and prisoners

The horrible conditions of the prison ships, as hinted at in this illustration

The Prison Ships Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene, honoring the thousands who died nearby off the shore of Brooklyn

The mystery of George Washington’s Culper Ring spy gang has inspired more than a few romantic tales:

George Washington jubilantly returns to the city

Fraunces Tavern, site of George Washington’s farewell speech to the Continental Army

Fraunces Tavern today:

Want to peek inside the tomb buried underneath Fort Greene’s Prison Ships Martyrs Monument? How about a map of the communication lines between the various spy factions of the Culper Ring?

Jenny Lind sings again


It’s been over 150 years since ‘Swedish Nightingale’ Jenny Lind’s now-legendary concert performance at Castle Garden in September 11, 1850. (Listen to last week’s podcast for the full scoop.) But visitors to Battery Park on their way to the Statue of Liberty and elsewhere can catch a glimpse of a curious tribute to the songstress.

On the east side of the park grows an American Linden tree (Tilia Americana), planted in 1995 by the New York park commissioner at the time and a member of the Swedish Consul. Three years ago, the tenth anniversary of the fast-growing tree was attended by Swedish ambassador Kjell Anneling.

Various tributes and re-enactments of the Lind concert have taken place here at Castle Clinton over the years, featuring conductors like Morton Gould and Francis Heilbut and a host of singers doing their best impressions of Lind and other singers.

I would highly recommend a roadtrip to Bridgeport, Connecticut, to visit the PT Barnum museum at any time of the year. (The third story miniature replica of a five-ring circus is alone with the trip.) But for a Jenny Lind fix, the museum hosts a Barnum Festival topped with an ‘American Jenny Lind’ competition, where one lucky soprano is crowned in honor of the singer Barnum made famous.

The picture by the way is of a ship figurehead, from the Newport News Mariner’s Museum, carved in the image of Jenny Lind. Lind was so popular with sailors, because of her charity work with sailors hospitals (not to mention her sex appeal), that almost 35 American shipping vessels were named in her honor. The name of this particular ship? The Nightingale.

PODCAST: Battery Park and Castle Clinton

Take a stroll through southern Manhattan’s Battery Park and Castle Clinton.

Listen to it for free on iTunes or other podcasting services. Or you can download or listen to it HERE

A famous depiction in its own right, this is of Jenny Lind inside the Castle Garden auditorium:

Castle Clinton as Emigrant Depot

Castle Clinton as the New York City Aquarium in 1906

In our podcast, we mention many of the great monuments and statues of Battery Park. What we failed to mention is one of Battery Park’s most treasured features … Zelda the turkey!

Yes, that’s right, a turkey named Zelda lives in Battery Park and freely roams the lawn. She’s still there as far as I know (I last saw Zelda about four months ago). Hopefully she’s keeping warm for the winter.


(Above photo courtesy of Curbed)

A fixture of future Battery Park — if the Battery Conservancy gets its way — will be a swanky new aquatic themed carousel, paying tribute to the former aquarium there.

More Robert Moses shenanigans!

We really shouldn’t demonize Robert Moses as we do — he did give the city so many marvelous things — but you hear about one of his schemes that almost came to fruition and you just want to cry.

This time around, I’m referring to the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge, a potential catastrophic project Moses cooked up in the late 30s. As seen in the photograph above, of Moses standing over a model of the future bridge like that creature from Cloverfield, the bridge would have cut right along the heart of the financial district, obliterating Battery Park and much of Governor’s Island, and hoisting a crossing that would have stretched across New York Harbor to Red Hook.

How close were we to having this monstrosity? Moses wielded quite a bit of influence at this time. Having constructed the Triborough Bridge with money to spare ($30 million, in fact), Moses had the political power and wherewithal to get what he wanted even over the objections of both the mayor Fiorello Laguardia and the governor Herbert Lehman.

Laguardia has only envisioned a tunnel that would pass to Red Hook, under the harbor. But because the city was in desperate financial straits, plans for the tunnel were turned over to Moses, and voila, the underground, out-of-sight tunnel was turned into a dynamic, downtown-demolishing bridge.

Moses liked gigantic monuments, American statements as he would have referred to them. A six-lane bridge would have made money for the city via tolls and would have courted more traffic potential than a mere tunnel.

The Brooklyn-Battery would be designed by bridge master Othmar Ammann, designer of nearly half the bridges of New York City, with an anchorage plopped in the middle of Governor’s Island. The picture below, from the NY Roads website, displays a miniature of Ammann’s visionary bridge.

However, a thorn in his side Moses would grow quite accustomed to — community activism — prevented the bridge from happening.

By repositioning the purpose of an entire neighborhood — Wall Street would be feet from an off-ramp — the project was met with ire by downtown property owners. And by endangering Battery Park and its most treasured landmark, Castle Clinton, community leaders, in particular New Yorkers like Eleanor Roosevelt, got into the act.

Her participation is crucial, because it was her husband who essentially killed the project. On July 17, 1939, Roosevelt’s secretary of war Harry Woodring claimed the bridge would be susceptible to attack in event of a coming war (and war was definitely coming) and its expanse would hinder to and fro access to the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

So Moses had to settle for a ‘mere’ tunnel, and construction was started on October 1940, and then almost immediately halted do to war shortages. Ninety million dollars later, on May 25, 1950, the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, still the longest underwater vehicular tunnel in the world, was opened.