Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Hall of Fame for Great Americans

My friend John came for a brief visit last weekend. As I tend to do whenever I've got a captive audience, I set out to expose him to some of the wonders of the Bronx. In John's case, this was a little harder than usual, as he lived in New York for several years, and even stayed in the Bronx for a while, so he's seen a lot of what the green borough has to offer.

(I'm field-testing nicknames for the Bronx. Given that it has far more parkland and undeveloped lots than any of the other boroughs, I think "The Green Borough" might be the best bet. At any rate, it sounds a lot better than "The Economically-Depressed Borough," "The Drinking Booze from a Paper Bag Borough," or "The Borough Where You're Most Likely to Get Stabbed.")

At any rate, John's been to Woodlawn and many of the parks and, since it was a blustery day, we didn't want to venture too far from shelter. We started off with a visit to Poe's Cottage, where Edgar Allen Poe lived from 1846 to 1849, and which deserves its own huge post. Since we still had a lot of time when we were done, I decided to take him to The Hall of Fame for Great Americans.

The Hall of Fame sounds very impressive, and John must have thought that I had gotten lost as I led him to it. It is on the campus of Bronx Community College, and the neighborhood around it is pretty rough. He had to have been even more surprised when I told him that we had to walk a little further, as one of the entrances offered "the best view of the campus."

To his credit, John was game, and he went the extra mile. When the campus security guard let us in, John was on the phone with a buddy, but I watched him scanning the campus as we walked past beautiful buildings and well-kept lawns. When he was finished with his phone call, he said "THIS is a community college?"

His confusion was understandable. Bronx Community College began life as the estate of a wealthy landowner. In 1894, New York University, looking to expand from its cramped space in lower Manhattan, purchased the land. Attempting to create a first-rate campus, the University hired Stanford White, the pre-eminent architect of his time, to design the school. White built a collection of beautiful halls, which were inspired by classical structures. I think the coolest one is the library, which looks like the Pantheon, and has incredible cast-bronze doors.

Around the library, White built a curving colonnade, which became the home of the Hall of Fame. It's easy to imagine the enthusiasm that went into the walkway. To begin with, there's the name, which is beautifully excessive, but borders on the redundant. After all, it's not like anybody's going to build a Hall of Fame for mediocre Americans.

That's what Presidential libraries are for.

Then there was the selection process. Although NYU administered the Hall of Fame, the selections were made by an independent review board, and private citizens and regional groups waged huge, expensive campaigns to get their favorite candidates elected. This, combined with the dedication and popularity of the Daughters of the Confederacy, helps explain why Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee managed to get into the Hall of Fame, but Henry Ford and Sacagawea didn't.

In an article about the Hall of Fame, R. Rubin noted that, in its heyday, the hall of fame was more prestigious than the Nobel Prize, which is borne out in its description as "A Secular Shrine" for the United States. However, the declining neighborhood and looming bankruptcy conspired to make NYU sell the University Heights campus to New York City. In 1973, the campus became Bronx Community College.

The Hall of Fame got lost in the mix. The state of New York occasionally earmarks funds for its upkeep, but the private donations that used to keep it going have long since dried up. Added to this, people have simply forgotten about the Hall of Fame. I've visited it three times and have never seen more than one or two other visitors there. I imagine that it was once a busy spot, but now it tends toward the quiet and contemplative.

My wife and I have established a couple of traditions for our visits. One of these is making fun of some of the inductees, and expressing disbelief at the heroes of prior ages. We also like to laugh at some of the more outrageous busts. The most ridiculous one is Alexander Hamilton, which looks like a cross between Julius Caesar and Rocky from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. On this last trip, John and I pulled out a ten-dollar bill for comparison purposes and agreed that the Romanesque, nude Hamilton bore no relation whatsoever to the guy on the money. John surmised that some of Aaron Burr's descendants might have been responsible for the horrifying likeness.

Our other Hall of Fame tradition is making our guest choose his or her favorite Hall of Famer. Afterwards, of course, we photograph the two of them together. My hero was Edgar Allen Poe. When I first visited the Hall of Fame, his bust sported a perfect spider web over one eye. Poe, a spider web, a secluded old monument, a windy hillside in the Bronx...what's not to love?

After a great deal of deliberation, John chose Mark Twain, and I decided that it's interesting to find out who your friends' heroes are.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,


  • I loved this post, and although I grew up on Long Island and have lived in Manhattan and also upstate, I have never been there.

    I would love to see it, and Mark Twain might very well be my favorite hero. Sorry about Sacajaweya, though. Did Pocahontas make it out to the Bronx?

    The White House has become a Hall of Fame for mediocre Americans at the lower end of the mediocrity spectrum.

    I used to know people who owned a castle in Piermont with a beautiful Stanford White barn. I would happily have traded homes with those horses.

    By Blogger heartinsanfrancisco, At November 6, 2007 at 10:24 PM  

  • That should have been Hall of INfame.

    By Blogger heartinsanfrancisco, At November 6, 2007 at 10:25 PM  

  • I also have a nick name for my home. Its called Hobbitone and if you have ever come as far as the first few chapters of "the Lord of the Rings" youl know why.

    anyway I love the idea of community collage here we pay a small fortune for tertiary education

    By Blogger Nosjunkie, At November 7, 2007 at 12:59 AM  

  • More good stuff to be found at Cranster!

    I was a huge HUGE fan of Poe in my teen years. I'd like to think Poe would find the spider web and empty hall funny in a good way. Glad to know he's there.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At November 7, 2007 at 8:30 AM  

  • Does Spiderman count as Hall of Fame in Amrican History?

    By Blogger Szarek(Will), At November 7, 2007 at 9:32 AM  

  • What? You didn't show John the pig-ear tacos?

    By Anonymous Franki, At November 7, 2007 at 10:52 AM  

  • Hearts-
    No, there isn't a Pocahontas either. There are a few women, but they're all white. I guess that, in the early 1900's, "diversity" roughly translated into "including the Irish."

    And how cool is a Stanford White Barn?!?

    There's something about a cozy little Hobbit hole. Community colleges are cool. However, until the 1970's, New York public universities were free. Amazing, no?

    Reflecting Pool-
    I still have a thing for Poe, although I admit that he takes himself a little too seriously. I think you're right, though--he'd love his monument in the Hall of Fame.

    I know! Incredibly unjust. And what about Superman, Indiana Jones, etc. Wolverine, of course, is from Canada, and Luke Skywalker is an alien, but where are the kudos for America's home-grown superheroes?

    John blanched a little when I mentioned that the "Hue-Style Spicy Soup" at the local Vietnamese place contained pigs' feet. I chose to spare him other pork parts.

    By Blogger Crankster, At November 7, 2007 at 12:48 PM  

  • Very cool...I've never been there myself...then again, I've not been to all the places in nyc that I want to get to some day.

    By Blogger Odat, At November 7, 2007 at 2:40 PM  

  • I need to visit.

    By Blogger The CEO, At November 7, 2007 at 10:45 PM  

  • You never fail to amaze/impress me.


    By Blogger Glamourpuss, At November 8, 2007 at 11:53 AM  

  • Odat-
    Drop me a line and we'll visit together!

    My offer to ODAT extends to you, too!

    I'm just trying to keep up. Thanks for challenging me.

    By Blogger Crankster, At November 8, 2007 at 2:14 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home