Friday, November 6, 2009

Beautiful Buildings: The Lost Taj Mahal of The Bronx and The Hall of Fame

I have taught art at Bronx Community College now for 7 years. It is a struggling perpetually underfunded community college in the City University of New York system serving students from one of the poorest counties in the United States. My students are predominantly African American, Hispanic, and immigrants from everywhere, mostly from the Caribbean, West Africa, Latin America, and South Asia, with a substantial number from East Asia and Eastern Europe.

In the middle of the campus is the lost Taj Mahal of the Bronx, Gould Memorial Library, with what was once one of New York's most famous landmarks, and is now almost completely forgotten; the Hall of Fame. No, not just any hall of fame, THE Hall of Fame. All of the others are but copies and spinoffs of this one. It is officially known as the Hall of Fame of Great Americans inaugurated in 1900 on land donated to New York University by Helen Gould, a graduate of the university's law school, and a daughter of the notorious robber baron Jay Gould.
The project was initiated by a chancellor of NYU, Henry Mitchell McCracken, and built on top of a ridge overlooking the Harlem river toward Fort Tryon Park in Manhattan. The ridge was occupied by British forces in the invasion of New York in 1776. From there they shelled Fort Tryon and drove out the American defenders. McCracken said he wanted to occupy the ridge once again, only with a contingent of the best Americans ever, lead by Washington himself, and to hold it forever.

The once famous architect Stanford White was commissioned to build the new university campus and the Hall of Fame. The Gould Memorial Library was to be the centerpiece of the whole campus, and the central building around which the Hall of Fame was built.

Here is a photograph of Gould Memorial Library taken shortly after it was finished in 1899. The photo is probably from sometime around 1900. You can see on either side the newly finished Hall of Fame.

Here is Gould Memorial Library today. It was modeled on the Roman Pantheon, and more closely on Jefferson's Library for the University of Virginia campus (which White restored after a fire destroyed its dome and interior). It is not a large building. The dome is only about 80 feet high. But it is an extravagant little building.

The building is built of straw colored brick and limestone with amazingly elaborate copper and terra-cotta trim on the roof and around the outside of the dome.

At the time, this building was considered one of White's finest works. It is not only extravagant, but beautifully proportioned, tackling very elegantly the old problem of reconciling the Pantheon's square facade with its round dome and rotunda. The awkwardness of the original challenged all kinds of architects beginning with Palladio to come up with better solutions. White sticks closely to the original, adding a lengthy hall containing a grand staircase behind the columned portico. The triangular pediments seem to rise one behind the other easily and inevitably into the round copper dome.

Stanford White is now more famous for his lurid death than for his architecture. He was murdered in 1906 in his suite in the old Madison Square Garden by Henry Thaw, husband of White's former mistress, the famously beautiful Evelyn Nesbitt. The murder and subsequent trial was a tabloid sensation, the first of many trials "... of the century!" (the last "trial of the century" I suppose was OJ Simpson's).
White's own role as the lover of the beautiful under age Nesbitt cast him as a villain in all kinds of literature and in movies, most famously in EL Doctorow's Ragtime.

Stanford White may have been a scoundrel, but he really was a great architect. He was a leader in the American Renaissance movement to bring classical clarity and unity to American public architecture, which was formerly an extravagant mishmash of vaguely understood historical styles. The historicism of that movement, and his role in it, made him a villain again in the eyes of modernist criticism for decades. Many of his buildings were either torn down or modified to suit modernist taste. His most famous remaining buildings are the Boston Public Library and the Washington Square Arch in New York. It was White and the American Renaissance that first brought to the United States that William Morris Arts and Crafts Movement idea of the total integration of all the arts of architecture, sculpture, painting, and craft into single total works of art; an idea that would profoundly influence Frank Lloyd Wright and in turn, influence European International Modernists.

Here is a detail of an allegorical panel "Music" from a set of bronze doors added to the library after White's death as a memorial to him. They prepare us for the extravagance of the interior within.

Here is the interior of the rotunda of the Gould Library. The columns are of imported Irish green marble. The column capitals are all gilded. The surviving stained glass and other decoration is the creation of Tiffany's. This was once the main reading room. The stacks were originally in small rooms behind the columns on two levels. The circle in the floor was once a glass floor letting sunlight into the auditorium on the lower floor. The stack rooms and study rooms still have glass floors and ceilings for the sunlight. It is a splendid and opulent room, one of the most beautiful in New York, and that's saying a lot.

Here is the interior of the dome with statues of the Muses ringing the rim. In the top was once a magnificent skylight designed and built by the Tiffany firm. It was destroyed in 1969 when an antiwar anarchist detonated a firebomb in the auditorium below. The auditorium was almost totally destroyed. The blast broke through the glass floor and destroyed the skylight above. It has been covered over ever since making the room unnaturally dark. I hear there are plans to restore the skylight, though the fire department forbids the college from restoring the glass floor.

Here is the Hall of Fame added by White to the slope behind Gould Library in 1900. He may have intended this to be the main entrance to the college with big arched doorways to the right and left of the round podium. You can see one of those original entrances behind the tree to the right.

Here is the interior of the Hall, as restrained as the Library is extravagant. The view across the river into Fort Tryon Park and toward the New Jersey Pallisades is splendid. It is lined with bronze busts chosen by jury. Each occupies a single bay with a bronze plaque identifying them and their achievements.

I look at this beautifully simple hall with its almost perfect sense of interval and proportion, and I can only conclude that no one knows how to design anything quite like this anymore.

Here is the bust of Jefferson with Gould Library in the background. The Hall and the Library have fallen on hard times over the last 40 years. This began as NYU's main campus, but the decline of the surrounding Bronx neighborhood after World War II, and the expansion of the downtown campus (originally intended for night classes) caused the campus and buildings to suffer neglect. Also, critical fashion of the time frowned on White and his classicism. The last buildings built on that campus were a series of aggressively and brutally modernist buildings designed by Marcel Breuer of Bauhaus fame. They were built in the mid 1960s.
NYU sold the campus to CUNY in 1973 which made it the new campus of Bronx Community College. Bronx Community College never really neglected the buildings, but they've never had the funds to properly restore and care for them. There are cracked panes and broken light fixtures here and there.

The Hall of Fame itself has become somewhat controversial. It is very much a hall of dead white males reflecting the tastes and prejudices of a century ago. There are few women, and until recently, the only Black folk were Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver (a bust of Dr. ML King was added in the 1980s). There are few people among the bronze busts that look like the students at the college today. The college has decided to embrace the Hall anyway and create a Hall of Fame scholarship and a series of virtual halls of fame for women, African Americans, etc. The Hall of Fame foundation still exists, and the bays are not yet filled up, so it is still possible that more busts will be added.

I wonder if anyone will notice if that happens. Inductions into the Hall of Fame were once huge ceremonies attended by thousands and addressed by Presidents of the United States. I can't see anything like that happening again. I wonder if "Fame" really means anything in an age that produces so many people who are famous only for being famous (Paris Hilton anyone?). I wonder if "Fame" means anything in an age where people rarely distinguish between fame, celebrity, and notoriety (the pathetnoids responsible for the Columbine Massacre were apparently motivated by a psychotic craving for fame, no matter what kind it was).

Regardless with what our fickle and nihilistic little age does with concepts like "fame," the glories of these sadly neglected monuments will outlast it, and lend luster to others who will continue the roll call of the great in this country. Perhaps someday one of our own students will win a place in the Hall.

I love these buildings, and I doubt that I will ever get tired of them.


What an irony it is that the Hall of Fame is itself forgotten. Only the occasional very enterprising tourist ventures up to the Bronx and talks their way past security at the gate to see these buildings. Inscribed over one of the entrances is "They Live Forever." Indeed, this monument was designed and built to last forever. It has survived almost 50 years of neglect very gracefully; more so than Marcel Breuer's buildings which today look like yesterday's science fiction, and are a nightmare to maintain. It is remarkable that the founders of this project never imagined that the monument itself would be forgotten. They imagined that it would be the monument, and the honored company within, that would hallow names added to it for all time. They meant it to be a kind of Olympus of merit and achievement, something to inspire the ambitions of later generations. It was inspired by earlier very nationalistic monuments built in Germany in the early 19th century in the wake of Napoleon's occupation; monument's like Leo Von Klenze's Valhalla near Regensburg, a kind of temple to Germany's greats built by the King of Bavaria in his bid to try to unite Germany under Bavaria. We certainly can't deny the nationalist content of the Hall of Fame.
There are times when I've thought about the revival of the Hall of Fame, primarily as a historical tourist attraction to generate revenue for the college, but also the idea that the Hall represents something on-going, and maybe the occasional generational revisions and additions should be part of its continuing life. But, I wonder if fame and glory mean much anymore.
Ours is a celebrity culture, and celebrities, like everything else in a consumer economy, are product before they are people. They are celebrities, not because of some great accomplishment or contribution, but because we desire them for whatever reason. As George WS Trow once asked 25 years ago, is there any celebrity as successful as Coca Cola? Another problem is that so much success these days carries a taint of corruption; even when there's not, we are conditioned to assume that there is. That is true now even for historical figures. I suppose this is the equal and opposite reaction to so much dubious hero worship in the preceding century. It may also be another symptom of the nihilism of our age that worships power and money, not because they're so wonderful, but because we can't agree on anything else.


Rick+ said...

     How gorgeous!

David G. said...

Their architecture is so peaceful, ... aesthetic wise,..and very classical. which I approve.

Counterlight said...

I wonder if anyone else notices the irony of the Hall of Fame being forgotten.

Joan Slepian said...

Thank you so very much for sharing these photos and also for your great essay. This is one of the very best blog posts that I've ever seen.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your well written essay about this beautiful monument. You may be surprised to hear that neighborhood kids hung out in the hall of fame 58 years ago. We were in wonderment as to why it wasn't more famous and why not guarded? Back then that was the campus of NYU. I'm glad to hear it's still a college campus...I attended Bronx Community 41 years ago. My classes were held in the old Fordham skating rink!

Terri said...

I grew up across the river in the Dyckman Projects in the 50's & 60's..I lived on the 11th floor (213 Nagle Ave Bldg. 5) & had a bird's eye view of The Hall of Fame...It was always a "special" place...I could see the portico where the busts of the famous were...Wonderful memories..I will repost this article on Facebook "Dyckman Projects" so that others can read about it...Thanks

Geeji said...

Why not join us as the preservation effort to << Save Gould Library >> takes off ?