Tag Archives: monuments

Robert E. Lee in the Hall of Fame? There were concerns even back in 1900

On Wednesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the busts of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, located on the campus of Bronx Community College, would be permanently evicted, following the removal and dismantling of several sculptural depictions of the Confederate generals across the country in recent days.

The funny thing about these particular busts though. Most New Yorkers were probably saying to themselves, “Busts of Confederates? In the Bronx?”  Cuomo’s statement is probably the most that been written about them in more than five decades.

But many people have been displeased with Lee’s placement in the Hall of Fame from the moment it was decided to place his bust there back in 1900. Angry New Yorkers wanted to rip down his likeness before it was ever even erected.

“Robert E. Lee deserves the everlasting contempt of every soldier and every honest American.” – A.B.W., New York Times, 1900

Below: The Hall of Fame bust of Robert E. Lee

Archives of Bronx Community College, City University of New York

History remains static even as our recollections of it evolve, even as our monuments to it transform without a single chip of the chisel. Statues often reveal more about the nature of collective memory than the likenesses represented in these honors.

Nowhere in New York City is that more true than a strange little nook of marble busts in the Bronx.

The Hall of Fame of Great Americans, located on the beautiful campus of Bronx Community College (the former uptown campus of New York University), used to be considered a very, very important place.

MCNY — Raphael Tuck & Sons

Tucked on a scenic cliff overlooking the Harlem River (and with the Cloisters well in sight), the Hall of Fame  was an ambitious project constructed in 1900 with the idea of immortalizing Americans who had made significant contributions to the sciences, the arts, politics and the military.

Spearheaded by then-chancellor of NYU Henry Mitchell MacCracken, the project is the first real memorial ‘hall of fame’ concept to be executed in the United States. With America flush with Gilded Age wealth, the Hall of Fame was intended to be an American pantheon, a modern response to the god-filled marble hallways of Europe.

Walking along the spacious colonnade tucked behind the Stanford White-designed Hall of Philosophy, you are thrown back into a mix of turn-of-the century scholarly aesthetic and the belief of equating the American movement with ancient Roman and Greek forefathers.

MCNY 1945

There are 98 portrait busts representing a host of great minds — many recognizable, other completely forgotten today. The hall was regularly updated  up until the 1970s. Several people have been voted into the Hall of Fame but never received busts (sorry Andrew Carnegie).

Prominent American citizens voted on who would be the first entrants to the Hall of Fame in 1900.  When the ballots were at last tallied, a great number of (exclusively) men included some very obvious choices (Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln) some inspired ones (Nathaniel Hawthorne, Peter Cooper), and a couple bizarre ones, by today’s standards (the famed botanist Asa Gray).

Interestingly one man who had fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War made the original list — Robert E. Lee. Over a half century later, he would be joined by Stonewall Jackson, another Confederate general.

Below: Lee, photographed by Mathew Brady in 1865

The Jackson bust was installed in 1957 after a vigorous campaign by  Confederate history supporters. According to Richard Rubin of The Atlantic: “Newspaper publishers used their editorial pages to lobby for or against nominees, and groups like …. the United Daughters of the Confederacy waged extensive, expensive campaigns to get ‘their’ candidates elected.” [See picture at the bottom of this article]

But Lee’s appearance in this immortal pantheon was almost never in question — at least for those who voted on the original inductees.

However, almost immediately, the possibility of Lee’s inclusion became controversial. The idea of a Confederate general — responsible for the deaths of thousands of Union soldiers — seemed ridiculous, even offensive, particularly to Northerners and to the residents of the city which would hold the Hall of Fame.

Leading the charge against Lee was the New York Sun.

At this time there has come up a false and mushy sentimentality which would have the American people forget the outrage against the Republic committed by the rebellions forces under the command of Robert E. Lee. It is that meek and mawkish sentimentality which puts the name of Lee among the great commanders entitled to the veneration of posterity.  Hail to the Stars and Stripes and always death and confusion to its enemies!

The New Orleans newspaper The Times-Democrat promptly went after the Sun:

[T]he protagonist of the Lost Cause possessed personal beauty of the ideal kind and accomplishments which perfectly fitted him for the high station which was his, from the bright beginning to the sombre close of his career. [H]e sacrificed wealth and ambition, to battle for a cause which, to his keen professional eye, was predestined to failure.”

(Their response seems to revel in the ‘mawkish sentimentality’ upon which the New York Sun was remarking!)

In Alabama, the Montgomery Advertiser also trashed the Sun: “No doubt that paper is an admirer of John Brown and others of his character while vilifying one of the greatest captains of the century.” Brown led the raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, an event which became a cause célèbre for Northern abolitionists.

 

But such remarks were not left to editorial boards.  Said one reader E.O. in the New York Times (Oct 16, 1900):

His only claim to distinction is that he displayed great ability in his attempt to destroy the Government he had sworn to defend, much of his ability being due to the education given him by that Government. The only excuse to be made for Lee is that he thought he was right, that he thought he must be ‘loyal to his State’…..

But supposing Lee was honest in his belief, it is not customary or proper to honor a man for making the mistake of a lifetime. We may forgive his offense but neither justice nor charity requires that we should do more than maintain silence on the subject.

Let those who know Robert E. Lee honor his memory for such good qualities as they found in him, but the Hall of Fame should be reserved for those whose public services are worthy of honor.

A month later:  “I protest against his name being coupled with the patriots of his time. Robert E. Lee deserves the everlasting contempt of every soldier and every honest American for accepting the surrender of brave Union soldiers when he know they would be sent to be starved and tortured in Southern prison pens.” — NYT, Oct 16, 1900

Then there’s this one:

Read the rest of this letter here:

Many of the letter writers were certainly alive during the Civil War. The veterans organization Associated Survivors of the Sixth Army Corps of Washington passed a resolution against the Hall of Fame organizers, declaring “General Lee was an enemy to his country and failed to do his duty at a critical time.”

However it is interesting that of all the objections about Lee and Jackson, none directly had to do with slavery or the plight of enslaved people.

An illustration of the first inductees from the New York Tribune:

Others thought of the  Hall of Fame a place of representative honor and so Lee must be included, if only to bring the Southern states into the hall’s august glory.

A reader (signed ‘Constant Reader’) from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle [April 3, 1900]:

“Would it not be a graceful tribute to our worthy Southern brothers to include the names of some of their great heroes on the Hall of Fame record? Though Robert E. Lee and T. J. Jackson fought for what we think is a bad cause, yet we should not forget that such men acted as their consciences dictated, and their whole lives show them to be great, good and most worthy gentlemen.”

Others set aside grievances with Lee and took aim at another candidate — John C. Calhoun, the former Vice President who set the wheels of the South’s secession in motion.

From a Boston newspaper: “The judges are having trouble enough from their assignment of a pedestal to General Lee. But Lee did not formulate policies. To have put the Great Nullifier in the American Pantheon would have bred a riot.”

To which the Atlanta Constitution replied: “A truly cultured people ought not to be lured into a riot because of honor paid the memory of a great man.”

In the end, Lee would be among the original inductees to the Hall of Fame. (Calhoun would fail to make the final cut.) Indeed the balloting proved both general to be well regarded in their day, placing higher in the voting than all generals by Ulysses S. Grant.

The Hall of Fame is a true curiosity in the ‘roadside attraction’ sense. Once NYU sold the campus in the 1970s, the colonnade was virtually neglected, the hall of fame forgotten.

It is a modern ruin that current events has dusted off for new evaluation.

Below: The installation of Stonewall Jackson’s bust in 1957 

Courtesy Bronx Community College

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Portions of the research for this article were taken from a previous article I wrote about the Hall of Fame back in 2009.

Stonewall Inn: The story of New York’s newest National Monument (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.  For more blog posts in this series, click here.
The following also features 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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STONEWALL NATIONAL MONUMENT
CHRISTOPHER STREET, WEST VILLAGE, MANHATTAN

On June 24, 2016, President Obama — who had conjured the name of Stonewall Inn in his 2013 inaugural speech — designated the location of the 1969 Stonewall Riots as a National Monument, to be overseen by the National Park Service.

Twelve days earlier, a gunman walked into a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and killed 49 people. It was the deadliest terrorist attack since September 11, 2001, and certainly the greatest single attack upon the American LGBT community in history.

For days after, a makeshift memorial to the Orlando victims sat in front of Stonewall Inn. Even today, as you enter the building, a list of their names greets you upon the wall, next to an older sign that states ‘THIS IS A RAIDED PREMISES’, a vestige of a time when gay bars were diminished, not decorated.

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Thus is the power of Stonewall’s symbolism, the dignity and community represented in the air around this stumpy, architecturally unspectacular structure.

Recognizing the enigmatic atmosphere of this place, Stonewall National Monument is actually the building proper and the portion of Christopher Street which sits in front of it, as well as the entirety of triangular Christopher Park.  This includes one very relevant piece of art — the four human statues known as the Gay Liberation Monument (placed here in 1992) — and one somewhat random inclusion — a statue to Union general Philip Sheridan.

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But perhaps the most unusual aspect to the National Park Service’s newest acquisition is that Stonewall Inn is still very much an active bar, even more so now for its fame. Its Big Gay Happy Hours are but one of many things which sets this NPS site apart from, say, Grant’s Tomb.

There’s a constant police presence in front of Stonewall Inn. On a given night you may even see armed guards out in front, a curious dichotomy with the drag queens who perform on the second floor. I cannot wait to see how they incorporate a temporary ranger station and a visitor center.

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It’s unfortunate that Stonewall — a historic symbol of safe space — should feel like slightly less of one because of current events. But this situation does provide another, more hopeful optic: the image of an alert and engaged law enforcement, entrusted in keeping a gay bar safe and secure.

If you could somehow go back in time to tell the men and women who were arrested in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, about this, they would have laughed (and maybe spit) in your face.

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In the 1960s the mob had a veritable monopoly on the Greenwich Village gay scene, tucked invisibly down the neighborhood’s side streets. No bar catering to gays and lesbians could stay open without paying bribes (to both the mob and the police), and complaining bar owners had a funny way of finding themselves arrested—or worse. Indeed, police detectives sometimes posed as gay men to corner alleged “homophiles.”

One of these dank and unappealing bars on Christopher Street was the Stonewall Inn. Its history was long and colorful: A former stable, it became a notorious “teahouse” in 1930, then a somewhat respectable restaurant, then was gutted in a fire before becoming a darkened-window dive bar catering to homosexuals in 1967.

Stonewall_Inn_1969

There was nothing especially notable about the Stonewall, with its watered- down drinks and its hat-and-coat check. There was dancing and a jukebox and a good mix of white, African American, and Hispanic patrons just looking to have fun. Wouldn’t you be upset if they kept shutting you down for no good reason?

This is precisely what the police attempted just after 1 a.m. on June 28, 1969, when uniformed and undercover cops raided the packed bar and prepared to arrest the patrons.

Protesters gathered in the streets outside the Stonewall Inn in the days following the riots on June 28.

Courtesy CNN
Courtesy CNN

But people were not having it. A crowd outside the bar began heckling the officers as they started their arrests, pulling patrons from the bar and loading them into wagons. One woman in handcuffs fought fiercely, inspiring an extraordinary coalition of street youths and drag queens to push back against restraint. The crowds swelled as patrons from other bars joined the fracas, filling Christopher Street and pushing back against police harassment until well after four in the morning.

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What began as proper “rioting”—or aimless anger in the streets—grew more focused over the next several days, as hundreds of marginalized New Yorkers returned to the street in front of the Stonewall with a newfound sense of solidarity. Their example inspired people throughout the city—and around the country.

One year after the raid, activists would gather in front of the Stonewall and march up to Central Park, an event that would become the city’s annual LGBT Pride March.

Today gay pride celebrations and parades in many European countries are referred to as “Christopher Street Day” celebrations. Although Stonewall Inn has gained national importance today, it is Christopher Street itself that retains the symbolism for many.

And that is why a very small portion of that street — forever associated with struggle —  is America’s newest National Monument.

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

LISTEN TO OUR PODCAST! We have an entire show on the Stonewall Riots. It’s Episode #49. You can find it on iTunes at the Bowery Boys Archive, featuring our older shows.  Or download it from here.

You can also hear it here via SoundCloud:

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?