Saturday, August 4, 2012

Bronx Community College Campus: My Pictures

I had to go to yet another meeting Thursday at Bronx Community College, and I remembered to take my trusty little digital camera, something I've meant to do for some time.
After the meeting was over, on a hot humid late afternoon, I took some pictures of our campus with its distinguished architecture.  Except for a few historical pictures, these are all my photos.

Our campus is the old main campus of New York University, built on land donated by one of robber baron Jay Gould's daughters, on the highest natural point in New York City.

Old hand tinted photograph from about 1910 of the old NYU University Heights campus, today the campus of Bronx Community College/CUNY

The University moved here in 1894 under the chancellorship of Henry Mitchell McCracken, who also dreamed up the idea of a "Hall of Fame of Great Americans" to be a major feature of the campus.  NYU's Washington Square campus became an adjunct school for night courses.  By the 1960s, most of NYU's schools had returned to the Washington Square campus, and the Bronx campus housed science and engineering schools.

In 1973, NYU sold the campus to the City University of New York which gave it as a permanent home to Bronx Community College, founded in 1957, and wandering from rented building to rented building since its beginning.

Perhaps unique among community colleges anywhere, our campus is a major architectural landmark with buildings designed by at least two major architects, Stanford White and Marcel Breuer.

The Hall of Fame

I've posted on the Hall of Fame of Great Americans before.  This is the original Hall of Fame, from which all other Halls of Fame are derived.  In 1776, British forces occupied the hill where the campus now stands, and used it as a vantage point to shell Fort Tryon across the Harlem River in northernmost Manhattan.   NYU Chancellor Henry Mitchell McCracken decided to create a monument to the "greatest Americans," to permanently occupy a site that once played a role in defeating American forces in the Revolutionary War.  The Hall of Fame and Gould Library were the centerpieces of the campus, all designed by Stanford White.  This was one of his last building projects before White's untimely death.  He finished the Hall, the Library, and one of the flanking buildings before he was murdered in 1906 in a sensational crime.

This was once one of the most famous and visited landmarks in New York City.  Induction ceremonies into the Hall of Fame attracted thousands of people, and featured speeches by national office holders, including the President of the United States.  Today, in a twist of irony, The Hall of Fame is almost entirely forgotten.  Few people visit it.  It remains unknown even to most of the students who travel to the campus daily.

The Hall and Gould Memorial Library are built on an enormous terrace on a steep slope down to the Harlem River.

On the terrace is this inscription which few people see anymore, commemorating NYU's move to this site, and the founding of the Hall of Fame.

There are two large archways in the terrace/ cryptoporticus which were probably meant to be main entrances to the campus.  Presumably, this would have been connected by steps to what is now the Major Deegan Expressway.

Booker T. Washington's bust and plaque in a bay of the Hall.  Every inductee into the Hall gets a bust and a large bronze plaque like this.  Booker T Washington is one of only two Black men in the Hall.  The other is George Washington Carver.

A lot of the busts in the Hall are by major establishment sculptors of the late 19th and early 20th century.  This bust of Ralph Waldo Emerson is by Daniel Chester French, the same sculptor responsible for Lincoln in his memorial in Washington DC.  Among the sculptors whose work is represented here are French, Augustus Saint Gaudens, Frederick McMonies, and Stirling Calder, father of the pioneering American modernist sculptor Alexander Calder.
Among these very establishment sculptors with work in the Hall are a surprisingly large number of women, now mostly forgotten.  Among the women artists whose work is in the Hall are Helen Farnsworth Mears, Elizabeth Gordon Chandler, Ema Brigham, Anna Hyatt Huntington, Eleanor Platt, Brenda Putnam, and Frances Grimes.

The Hall is divided into sections marked by floor plaques like this

A view across to uppermost Manhattan from the Hall.  Fort Tryon Park is on the horizon.  In the foreground is Frances Willard. You can see the Cloisters Museum from the Hall in the wintertime when the trees are bare.

Edwin Booth the once famous actor, sculpted by Edmond Quinn.

A bust of General Sherman by Augustus Saint Gaudens.  The selection of who is included in the Hall reflects the establishment consensus at the end of the 19th century.  That time now seems as remote and culturally alien to us as the reign of Charlemagne.  The roster of the Famous in the Hall contains figures who are now forgotten with a lot of men and women who are now controversial with dubious legacies.  The Civil War was still living memory for many when the Hall was built.  Here is Sherman, and also included in the Hall are busts of Grant, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson, a notably bitter irony since a lot of our students and faculty today would have been regarded as menials by these generals.

Abraham Lincoln by Saint Gaudens.

The bust of Jefferson by Robert Aitken with Gould Memorial Library in the background

"They Live Forevermore"

The Hall is a real masterpiece of American Renaissance classical revival.  Stanford White had an amazing sense of proportion and interval which is on spectacular display throughout the Hall.  This is a corner pavilion.  As grand as the Hall is, it is not very big.  The ceiling here is probably under 20 feet high.  I would say about 15 feet.

The Hall has never been restored.  It has been repaired and secured, but never fully cleaned and renovated.  Little signs of decades of neglect appear here and there in cracks, bird nests, the occasional broken molding, and a broken light here.  Behind it is a security camera installed recently when the college realized how valuable all these bronze busts were.  The busts appear to have all been cleaned at some point.  They don't appear weathered.  The rest of the building does look weathered in places, but has stood up remarkably well.

An old postcard of the Hall of Fame, from around the 1930s

The sad thing about the Hall of Fame is that it was built with an eye to the future, and it is now a kind of sepulchral monument to a long ago consensus that is no more.  Even the list of 19th and early 20th century notables in the Hall is, by our standards, incomplete.  Names that to us mean a lot from those times, Frederick Douglas, Amelia Bloomer, William Jennings Bryan, WEB DuBois, John Muir, Thomas Eakins, Herman Melville among others are conspicuously absent.  Others in the Hall we might question such as Grover Cleveland and Stonewall Jackson.  These issues play a central role in discussions over what to do with the Hall.  The college that owns it now reflects a cosmopolitan democracy that would have horrified many of those represented in the Hall (though it would have thrilled others like Mark Twain and Booker T. Washington).

There is talk of bringing the Hall back as a tourist attraction, of reviving the whole institution of the Hall -- it never really ended, it just petered out; the last inductees into the Hall, Justice Louis Brandeis and Martin Luther King Jr., have yet to be represented with busts and plaques decades after their induction.   The committees and funds for keeping the Hall going are long gone.  Some people talk of making the whole campus an extension of the Hall of Fame.  Students and faculty created alternative online Halls of Fame, some of them critical of the old Hall, all of them very creative.  There are other people, especially off campus in the Bronx, who love the Hall, and would like to see it come back as a landmark and as an institution, though perhaps with a new and different purpose.
The Hall remains a magnificent anachronism in the midst of a new world where fame has a completely different meaning.

Gould Memorial Library

Gould Memorial Library was the centerpiece of the old NYU campus.  It was one of Stanford White's last and once most acclaimed works.  For all of its splendor, it is not very big.  The total height of the building, dome and everything is 80 feet.  Today it is mostly vacant with a few odd offices here and there.  When it was built, it was considered a state of the art library.

A photograph of Gould Memorial Library and the Hall of Fame from 1904

This building may be small, but it is opulent with beautiful and lavish detailing all over the building inside and out.  Here is the detail work in copper and terra cotta on the exterior of the dome.

More fine detail work on the building's exterior

The main entrance with its splendid Corinthian columns.  The bronze doors were added after White's death as a memorial tribute to him.

"Painting" from the bronze doors

A knocker surrounded by beautiful low relief winged horses from the bronze doors.  I never noticed these until I photographed them.

Just inside the door, the main entrance staircase

The small dome at the top of the entrance stairs

The stained glass skylight in the small dome over the entrance staircase.  The glass here and used throughout the building is from the Tiffany firm.

The magnificent rotunda in the Library.  This once served as the main reading room with stacks on the surrounding terrace.  This is one of the most splendid rooms in New York, now rarely visited.  Grand as it is, it is small.  Its legal capacity is only 74 people standing.  It is now mostly used for formal receptions.

The Library dome.  In the center was once a stained glass skylight designed by Tiffany and Company.  It was destroyed by an anarchist bomb in 1970.  There is talk that the skylight will be restored.  If that happens, it will completely change the quality of the interior.  Today, it is very dark.   Originally, the interior was once full of light from the occulus and from windows in the surrounding stacks.

Columns in the rotunda.  These are made from polished green marble from Ireland with gilded capitals.

Some of the stained glass before the rooms that once held the stacks.  Each of the these rooms has a large window.  That light once helped brighten the rotunda.

A muse from the rotunda.  The inscriptions around the dome are now hard to read in the dark.

The floor of the now inaccessible rotunda terrace is glass as are most of the floors in the Library.  When the Library was built, electric lights were still relatively dim glass filament bulbs.  White wanted the Library to be as light filled as possible.  He would not like the rotunda's present dark state.

An open door, and a glimpse into one of the now deserted rooms that held the stacks.  You can see the glass ceiling of this room that once opened out into a now blocked skylight above.  These rooms are still very bright from large windows in the walls.  Once, the whole Library was this bright.

Stanford White the architect.  He was a star of the late 19th century establishment and much in demand.  He was also a scoundrel and a notorious womanizer whose predations finally caught up with him.  For most of the 20th century, White was vilified by modernist critics as a paragon of discredited historicism.   A lot of his buildings were destroyed by the end of the 20th century.  Today, there is a renewed appreciation for his work, and some of his buildings are now restored.

White's lurid end was probably more prophetic of what was to come in the 20th century than anything he built or said.  Harry Thaw, husband of White's mistress-of-the-moment, the very young, very beautiful, and ready for anything Evelyn Nesbit, shot Stanford White to death in his office next to the rooftop garden of the old Madison Square Garden, designed by White (the New York Life Building stands there now).  Thaw's trial was the first of many "Trials of the Century," and foretold much more truly the coming nature of fame and celebrity than the Hall of Fame ever imagined.


Inscriptions around the Gould Memorial Library rotunda:

But where shall wisdom be found? and where is the place of understanding?  Man knoweth not the price thereof; neither is it found in the land of the living.The depth saith, It is not in me: and the sea saith, It is not with me.Destruction and death say, We have heard the fame thereof with our ears.
--From Job 28 

Thou O Spirit that dost prefer before all temples the upright heart and pure, instruct me for Thou knowest what in me is dark, what is low raise and support.
--From Milton's Paradise Lost

Marcel Breuer On Campus

Stanford White was not the only major architect to build on our campus.  Marcel Breuer, the old Bauhaus veteran, designed three buildings on our campus in the early to mid 1960s.  He was the preferred architect for a number of academic institutions at the time.  He designed and built buildings for NYU and for CUNY, especially at Lehman College in the Bronx, and at City College.

Here is very characteristic Marcel Breuer work, a staircase pavilion connecting Begrisch Hall to Colston Hall to the right.  It is a very dramatic sculptural use of cast reinforced concrete for which Breuer was famous.

This is the main entrance to Carl Polowczyck Hall.  This dramatic entrance canopy of reinforced concrete inspired the nickname our students gave the building, the "Potato Chip" Building.  It really does look like a giant potato chip.

Mesiter Hall, one of the largest buildings on campus, and one of the least loved.  It is undergoing facade repairs now.  It is notoriously uncomfortable with windows that can't be opened, and troublesome central air and heat.  It houses most of science labs on campus.

 Hard as it is to love, Meister Hall is an admirable design with an intelligent arrangement of the large masses of staircase towers and classroom blocks.  It descends on the north side in a series of stages to the scale of the other buildings surrounding the campus quad.

The plaza on the south side of Meister Hall.  Marcel Breuer's buildings are admirably designed, but ruthlessly brutal.  These buildings were the first in NYU's ongoing attachment to brutal modernist architecture, most notoriously epitomized in Bobst Library next to Washington Square, and still the preferred look in more recent and future university buildings.  NYU's newer buildings have all of Breuer's brutality and none of his form sense.

The south side of Meister Hall.  This is one big blank blind wall facing the south.  I look at this and I think it is such a waste that this building should face one of the most splendid views in the city, a view all the way back into Manhattan, with a giant concrete waffle.

The concrete canopies on the terrace behind Meister.  I wouldn't want to be caught under these in an earthquake.  They are striking pieces of sculpture.

Breuer, like Stanford White, has his own sense of small detail that summarizes the design of the whole building, in this case, the elegant arrangement of concrete block benches on the terrace behind Meister Hall.  I cast a shadowy self portrait on the lower right.

Here is Marcel Breuer back in his Bauhaus days in the 1920s sitting in his most famous creation, the Wassily chair.  German furniture companies at the time wouldn't touch Breuer's design, the very first for tubular steel furniture.  A bicycle manufacturer eventually agreed to produce these chairs.

The Art Student Mural

There is a lot of construction on the campus right now.  The campus physical plant is being completely rebuilt with an entirely new heating system for the whole campus.  Big holes with huge pipes and conduits are dug all over.
Around these holes and construction sites are stretches of construction fencing.  Our students saw an opportunity here and took advantage of it.  They created a mural entirely on their own initiative with the college's blessing.

Here is the mural on a construction fence facing Meister Hall.  Subway trains fly above Bronx landmarks and converge on BCC.

Here is the center of the mural.

A detail from the center of the mural showing Gould Memorial Library as a symbolic destination, a place to come to start a new life.
None of this is painted.  This is all a computer graphic construction that is printed out on canvas panels and attached to the fence.
A group of students designed the mural, and a larger group of students did the execution.

The Bronx Armory with the #4 train flying above it on the way to BCC.

Yankee Stadium, the new one, with the flying Four Train.

One of the bridges over the Harlem River connecting the Bronx with upper Manhattan.

Our New Library

Another big construction project on campus is our new library, the first major new building on this campus in almost 50 years.

It is scheduled to open in September, and is the largest building on campus, designed by Robert A.M. Stern.  He modeled his design on Charle's McKim's Boston Public Library to harmonize with Stanford White's buildings on campus.  Local Bronx artist Daniel Hauben painted a series of murals for the new library's central reading room, the biggest public painting project in the Bronx since the WPA.  It will be a state of the art library, perhaps the best among CUNY's community colleges.

It is so interesting, and so telling, that the college consensus is to extend the design legacy of Stanford White and not Marcel Breuer.

What a comeback!  I can remember when our poor library was missing so many volumes permanently, and couldn't afford adequate security, or to replace the lost books.

Bronx Community College serves one of the poorest counties in the USA.  For a long time, the rest of CUNY overlooked it and it suffered from underfunding and neglect.  Today, it is going through a massive renewal, the culmination of more than a decade of reform and rebuilding.

And Finally, Where I Spend Most of My Time

Bliss Hall, built in 1936


June Butler said...

Bliss Hall. You happy, happy man in Bliss on the job every day. How many people can say that?

Doug, what a marvelous example of your tour-de-force posts. Just on the basis of it, the college should give you a raise.

Stanford White's designs are amazing. I'm so pleased they were not torn down, and I hope the old library will get a proper restoration. It's a beautiful building.

I learned about l'affaire Stanford White from a work of fiction which included real people as characters in the novel, but I cannot remember the title.

Counterlight said...

Would that novel be E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime?"

June Butler said...

Yes, that's it, Counterlight. I didn't begin to know how to Google to try to find the title.

JCF said...

Was there something about a red velvet swing? (just from memory, re Nesbit. OCICBW.)

Fascinating tour, Doug.

"destroyed by an anarchist bomb in 1970": uff da. What possible justification could there be for that? In a library?

"brutal modernism": that ugly state esplanade in Albany (NY) comes to mind?

Counterlight said...

From what I'm told, someone planted a bomb in the auditorium under the rotunda of Gould Memorial Library. When it exploded, it totally destroyed the auditorium. The blast shot up through a glass floor in the rotunda all the way up to the skylight in the dome and shattered the glass. I presume that this was done to protest either the invasion of Cambodia or Kent State or both in 1970.

Indeed, Capitol Plaza in Albany is about as brutal as you can get. As one critic said, the plaza is so out of scale that the marble looks like formica.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating. I had no idea that NYU had moved. Beautiful neo-classical architecture of that period and l love the poor damaged dome... how symbolic of the era. Yes, a dying (or dead) age. But sorry, the 1960s stuff looks industrial and ungracious....hasn't aged well at all. Perhaps that says more about me.


Counterlight said...

I agree with you about the 1960s stuff. It really hasn't aged well at all. It looks like yesterday's science fiction.

Unknown said...

Visited for the second time on Saturday. My husband and I would like a list of the quotes under the busts. Are they available? Not in our tour guide brouchure much to our disappointment!

Counterlight said...

There is a complete guidebook that has everything you want to know about each bust including quotes, but it is long out of print. It is titled "Great Americans: A Guide to the Hall of Fame For Great Americans." published by New York University. The most recent edition is 1977. There is no ISBN number. You can probably find a copy in the libraries at Bronx Community College or the NYU campus in New York.