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America's First Hall of Fame

by Robert Begley 

April 7, 2004

Atop one of the highest geological points in New York City, about a mile north of where I grew up in the Bronx, there is a small group of buildings and a dramatic colonnade where notable leaders and citizens once gathered to honor Americas great achievers. Few know of it today, yet the heroes are still there, awaiting us and deserving praise. It's as if it were a secret, but the Hall of Fame for Great Americans is open to the public and has been for over a century. It is the first Hall of Fame this country ever had. It was not until an art historian, Lee Sandstead, announced that he would be presenting a tour of this place, on the campus of Bronx Community College, that I learned of its existence.

 

On the day of the tour, Professor Sandstead began by describing how visitors from the early part of the century, when these structures were created, would have experienced it. From a vantage point behind the complex, we gazed down the hill toward the rails and the river, we could imagine disembarking from the train –the famous Twentieth Century, perhaps- and taking in this majestic sight. To walk up the long series of winding steps looking upward to the grand colonnade and the ornate domed hall rising above must have been stirring.

 

The colonnade and three buildings that comprise the site were designed by Stanford White, New York's most prominent architect of the time. The Gould Memorial Library, the centerpiece, was patterned after Rome's Pantheon. This Beaux-Arts architecture was far too backward-looking with its overly-decorous embellishments and rigid spaces, to be considered great architecture then, or now. Yet this building is notable for being one of the finest examples of American Beaux-Arts ever built and many of the details –in and of themselves- are quite beautiful.

 

Since the library is closed on weekends, our tour was restricted to viewing the exterior and the foyer. The investment in design and craftsmanship was apparent in the entrance, with it's decorative barrel-vaulted ceiling, intricate and brilliantly colored mosaic floors, and dazzling stained glass windows by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Our guide described the interior of the library as being even more impressive, the dome being among the most beautiful in New York City. Yet, he also noted that the building still suffers from an event in the late sixties, when a mob of students fire-bombed the building. On the way out, we inspected the large bronze doors with figurative reliefs by several eminent sculptors. These doors were designed and installed as a tribute to Stanford White, who was murdered in 1906, while attending a cabaret show on the rooftop of his own creation, the original Madison Square Garden.

 

One of the adjacent buildings, the Hall of Philosophy, was open and afforded a view   over the colonnade and out across the Harlem River, Fort Tryon Park and the Cloisters, and ending at the Hudson River and the New Jersey Palisades.

 

Having been introduced to the site, I was excited to move on to the Hall of Fame's colonnade of Heroes. The gate greeted us with words of inspiration and reverence “Enter with joy that those within have lived.”

 

Within the colonnade, we found ourselves flanked on each side by hero after hero. Among the first section of these bronze busts were industrialists, inventors, physicians and scientists. There were the familiar names of Alexander Graham Bell, John James Audubon, Eli Whitney, and Robert Fulton. There were also names and faces not so familiar, such as Elias Howe, inventor of an advanced sewing machine, Maria Mitchell, the first recognized woman astronomer, and Simon Newcomb, also an accomplished astronomer. The latter sculpture is by one of America's finest sculptors, Frederick MacMonnies, who is known for his monumental sculptures in Prospect Park Brooklyn, including the superb Horse Tamers and the exquisite Nathan Hale statue in City Hall Park in Manhattan. Like many of these busts, the artist not only captured the likeness of the hero, he selected the expression, features, and clothing to best illuminate the subject's character. For Newcomb's portrait, the astronomer is wearing a distinguished robe, his gaze is focused upward to the stars, and his stern expression shows not wonder, but a fierce determination to grasp some new understanding about the Universe.

 

Following the industrialists, inventors, physicians and scientists, we walked through the remainder of the 98 busts which covered the spectrum of vocations and times from Colonial America to the post WWII era. A few highlights are: statesmen George Washington and Thomas Jefferson; military heroes John Paul Jones and William T. Sherman; artists Gilbert Stuart and Augustus Saint-Gaudens (some of whose works are represented here); actors Charlotte Cushman and Edwin Booth; novelists Nathaniel Hawthorne and James Fennimore Cooper; and poets Walt Whitman and Edgar Allen Poe. Professor Sandstead identified the bust of Poe, by Daniel Chester French, as his personal favorite among all the works present. And, if you have a strong interest in the art itself, you'll find not only busts by French and MacMonnies, but works by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Anna Hyatt Huntington, Evelyn Longman, and many more American masters.

 

I was enjoying this opportunity to see and learn more about familiar and unfamiliar heroes who had such great ideas and magnificent achievements. But, about halfway through the colonnade, I started seeing some honorees who seemed a little less than great. Being a great believer in the Founding Fathers and the ideas of the Enlightenment which they built this country upon, I have objections to honoring someone like Jonathan Edwards, the Calvinist preacher and strongest proponent of New England's Great Awakening in the middle 18th Century. Edwards was one of America's most accomplished orators. But, his ideas were in absolute contrast to the philosophy that brought about the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. There are some other questionable entries, but the real heroes dominate this hall, making the experience a great one for me and others in the tour group.

 

Occasionally, Professor Sandstead turned our attention to the details of the colonnade itself. The excellent quality tiling in the vaulted ceiling was the work of Spanish emigre Raphael Gustavino, whose tiled arches also appear in Grand Central Station, the Queensboro Bridge, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and many other great buildings. Another notable feature was that most of the original 22 bronze placards underneath each bust were designed by Tiffany. These are easily distinguished from more recent placards, not only by the natural patina that comes with a hundred years of weather, but also by the figurative floral designs that the artist is so well known for in his stained-glass works.

 

After the first 22 heroes were inducted in 1900, elections continued until the Seventies when failure to adequately fund the project precluded further development. In the beginning, only Americans who were born in the United States were eligible for induction, but that was changed relatively quickly so that the county's many great immigrants could be included. The most unique entry of those not born in America, is prominently displayed on the Library building itself, just outside the colonnade. This is the memorial to the Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American Revolution and lifetime friend of George Washington, which was installed at Washington's 200th birthday celebration. Underneath Lafayette's portrait bust are his own words “I am an American citizen and an American officer.”

 

With so many American heroes honored here, and so many of the busts rendered by such excellent artists, it is unfortunate if not unbelievable that this Hall of Fame has almost been forgotten. Years ago, many would celebrate and newspapers would cover the events with enthusiasm and applause, for the greatness of America and her heroes. Now, one must either search it out or stumble upon it by chance to learn of its existence. One reason for the decline in popularity is surely its location. The area around Bronx Community College is not covered by most tourist maps. It's far out in the Bronx, the borough with a notorious reputation for unsightly and unsafe neighborhoods. It's enough to cancel the average tourist's interest. But, all areas of the Bronx aren't dangerous, some are even filled with beautiful homes and gardens and lovely trees. The area around the college is not one the Bronx's scary neighborhoods, but it's certainly not pretty. You'd be hard pressed to find anything, other than the Hall of Fame, worth touring here (the closest attraction is the New York Botanical Garden, just a couple stops away on the same Metro North line). The once pristine views out to the Cloisters and Palisades are now interrupted by distant federal housing projects, and clumps of other badly designed buildings. Thankfully, the buildings on the site, and especially the art, are maintained with care.

 

So, is the visit truly worthwhile? I say, absolutely, “yes!” For those who love art and love America, it's a must. In time, things may improve to make this an even more compelling attraction. Although no firm plans are in the works, the Hall of Fame's new Director, Dennis McEvoy, is hopeful for opportunities to refurbish the site. The New York Heroes Society is one organization with an interest in helping resume its restoration. And, our tour guide, Lee Sandstead, will be hosting tours here in the future. It will take significant investment, in dollars and time, to put this place back on the map. In the meantime, the history is there, the majesty –in fine artworks and tributes to great individuals- is there awaiting you. The only reason you should be scared to visit is if you're afraid of being challenged on your knowledge of American history. You might be asked, “who is William Gorgas?”





* Robert Begley is the Founder and President of the New York Heroes Society, Inc. He may be contacted at rbegley@equalatwork.org


* Lee Sandstead teaches art history at Montclair State University, Montclair, NJ and is author of the forthcoming book on American master-sculptor Evelyn Beatrice Longman (1874-1954). He may be contacted at art-history@sandstead.com. Visit his web site at www.sandstead.com



Copyright 2004: New York Heroes Society, Inc.