Monday, June 12, 2017

Bronx Community College 2017

It turns out that it's been about five years since I last posted on the place where I work, Bronx Community College of the City University of New York on the old campus of New York University in the Bronx.  So here is an updated and expanded account of a remarkable place in so many ways.  I feel fortunate to work here.

All of these photographs are mine except where noted.  My photos are freely available, especially to educators.

Our campus quad newly landscaped and looking better than ever after years of being torn up and dug up for updating utilities.

The Hall of Fame

Which hall of fame? I'm always asked.  THE Hall of Fame, the first of all later halls of fame, The Hall of Fame of Great Americans.  The Hall was first thought up by Henry Mitchell McCracken, Chancellor of New York University.  In 1776, British artillery occupied this site and from here shelled Fort Tryon.  McCracken decided to secure a kind of permanent occupation of the same site by the greatest of Americans.  He took inspiration from the Ruhmeshalle in Munich completed in 1853 for King Ludwig I of Bavaria.  New York University originally commissioned architect Stanford White to design a terrace over the exposed basement floors of the university's proposed buildings on a hill top over the Harlem River.  At McCracken's suggestion, the terrace plan was expanded into a proposed Hall of Fame.  The University completed construction of the Hall in 1901.

Chancellor McCracken founded the Hall in part because of what he perceived as shortcomings of the other pantheon of the renowned at the time, Statuary Hall in the former House chamber of the US Capitol.  He complained about an over-emphasis on politicians and a dearth of other persons from other fields of endeavor.  He also faulted the selection process for Statuary Hall as involving too many legislators and too much parochial interests.  McCracken envisioned a national institution honoring Americans from all sorts of endeavors chosen by a national body of electors made up of other distinguished persons in each field.  He wanted to keep the participation of politicians and political interests at a minimum if not quite prohibiting them.
The process for inducting people into the Hall of Fame began with popular petitions, newspaper editorials, and nominations from committees of distinguished persons from 5 categories; Arts, Sciences, Humanities, Government, and Business and Labor. Electors from all the categories and from all the states would elect inductees from the nominations every 5 years.  Candidates for nomination must have been American citizens by birth or naturalization, dead for at least 25 years, and proposed in writing to the executive director in a 12 month period before the next election.

The first election to the Hall was held in 1900 with an expectation that there would be 50 people chosen to be inducted.  Only 29 were elected.  The outcome was very controversial, not because the number fell short, but because of the absence of women among the finalists.  Even at this date 19 years before the passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, women were eligible for induction into the Hall.  Three women were chosen in the 1905 election, but they remain scarce in Hall.  Of the 99 people honored in the Hall, only 10 are women; and some of those honorees many women today would probably not recognize or identify with.  Minorities are also scarce.  Out of all the honorees in the Hall, only 2 are not white (Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver).
Another hotly debated issue was over a requirement that inductees into the Hall be native born.  A lot of electors strenuously objected to this rule.  A separate colonnade for naturalized citizens was proposed but ultimately abandoned.  The distinction between native and naturalized citizens was finally dropped.

The Hall of Fame is an architectural masterpiece of the late 19th century American Renaissance.  That movement of artists and architects sought to bring clarity, order, and sophistication to public buildings and monuments in the USA.  The building is not large.  The ceiling vaults are barely 15 feet high.  But the splendor of the conception and the amazing sense of interval and proportion throughout the building more than make up for its relatively small size.

Some of the very fine and elaborate detailing on the Hall; the lions' mouths are all rain spouts.

The Hall has been maintained over the past 60 years, but it has not been restored.  It is structurally sound, but is frayed and decaying at the edges with broken lights and birds' nests everywhere.

The terrace that supports the Hall on the slope of a hill going down to the Harlem river.

One of two arched entrances to the cryptoporticus under the three original university buildings.  These were originally planned to be the main entrance to the campus from a proposed rail station along the Harlem river on the slope below.

Benjamin Franklin by Robert Aitken and Henry Clay, also by Aitken

Edwin Booth by Edmond T. Quinn with Lafayette in the background

John Lothrop Motely the historian by Frederic MacMonnies on the right seems to look anxiously toward James Fenimore Cooper by Victore Salvatore.

Mark Twain (i.e. Samuel Clemens) by Albert Humphries

Stonewall Jackson by Bryant Baker, a bust added  in 1957 as a gift of the 
Daughters of the Confederacy

The whole issue of who gets to write history and for what purposes is very fraught these days, and the Hall is definitely part of it.  The late 19th century's idea of Great meant mostly male and overwhelmingly white (there are only two non-white persons represented in the Hall).  The mindset that shaped the Hall was also very imperial; the term "Manifest Destiny" was used in earnest and not ironically right up to the Second World War.  A lot of the panegyrics to the Great in the Hall are in terms of conquest and national identity (e.g. Francis Parkman and Daniel Boone).  What constitutes great and for what reasons has changed a lot over past century.  The statues in the Hall represent the conventional consensus of the end of the 19th century, a consensus that we do not share.  There are some people in the Hall whose star has faded and the value of their contributions did not hold up over time.  There are so many others from that same time period who we would think should be in the Hall such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Herman Melville, Jack London, George Gershwin, and Thomas Eakins among many others, but who are not.  They are not there because the importance and magnitude of their achievements were not recognized at the time, and even considered a scandal or too controversial.  There are others such as Stonewall Jackson above whose presence we mostly find offensive, especially to the population represented by our students and faculty.

This Southern white male is happy to see monuments to the Confederacy removed across the South and elsewhere.  Seeing monuments to people who fought for the right to own other people as property never made me very happy or proud.  White supremacy these days is a conviction that can't survive prolonged contact with evidence or morality, and requires a lot of cognitive dissonance to sustain it.  I would be happy to see Lee and Jackson removed from the Hall.
And yet such an action would open up other issues.  Perhaps around half of the denizens of the Hall would not meet our requirements for lasting achievement; or their achievement didn't last.  A lot of those achievements we might find questionable at best.  We forget that racism was a very conventional point of view throughout the 19th century and didn't really start to lose its respectability until World War II (which was among other things a colossal race war).  And then the argument arises as to how to consider the Hall, as a historical site or as a still living institution.  The whole nature of fame has changed so radically over the last century, and the jurors who chose the honorees to put in the Hall were people of their time.   I'm inclined to treat the Hall as a historic site, as something that is over and done.  And yet, there is still a lot of potent radioactive fallout from the unresolved past as represented by the busts of Lee and Jackson.  Should they be left in the Hall as a part of its original nature as historic preservation and documentation?  Or, is their continued presence in the Hall so contrary and offensive to the mission of the college that occupies the site that they must be removed?

Photo from here.

The unveiling of the bust of Robert E. Lee in 1923.  The busts of 2 Confederate generals in the Hall are very controversial now, and the Confederacy was controversial in the 1920s.  Southern groups such as the Daughters of the Confederacy tried and failed repeatedly to induct Jefferson Davis into the Hall (they succeeded in inducting Stonewall Jackson in the 1950s when the civil rights struggles were just starting to get hot).  In the decade following World War I, a wave of racist violence killing thousands of people swept through the USA.  Some saw the induction of Lee into the Hall as caving to racist violence.  Others defended the presence of the general as a gesture of reconciliation with the South at a time when the Civil War was still living memory for a lot of people.  And yet, jurors of the Hall drew the line at Jefferson Davis.  Military leaders of a rebellion against the United States were acceptable, but the president of a union of break-away states was not.

Someone else whose presence in the Hall might be questionable is Grover Cleveland, one of our more mediocre Presidents, and one whose reputation among historians has declined steadily over the years.

One of the now more obscure denizens of the Hall is James B. Eads, an engineer and the builder of the  Eads Bridge in St. Louis, the world's first steel construction and one of the earliest and most ambitious multi-use bridges across the Mississippi.

Many of the busts are major works of art by some of the most famous and important sculptors of the day.

Jo Davidson's magnificent portrait of FDR was one of the last busts installed in the Hall.

Lincoln by Augustus Saint-Gaudens

Among the finest sculptures in the Hall is Augustus Saint-Gaudens' bust of General Sherman.

Daniel Chester French's portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson

One of the best sculptures in the Hall in my opinion is Daniel Chester French's bust of Phillips Brooks.

Phillips Brooks is another once famous figure whose star has faded over time.  He was an Episcopal priest, and the rector of Trinity Church in Boston, a very large and influential congregation in the late 19th century.  He ended his days as the Episcopal bishop of Boston.  He was a famously eloquent preacher in the causes of the abolition of slavery and of the Union during the Civil War.

Susan B. Anthony, bust by Brenda Putnam, installed in 1950

There is a surprisingly large number of women artists with work in the Hall such as Emma F. Brigham, Elizabeth Gordon Chandler, Laura Gardin Fraser who sculpted 2 busts for the Hall, Frances Grimes who also made 2 busts, Malvina Hoffman, Anna Hyatt Huntington, Belle Kinney, Evelyn Longman, Helen Farnsworth Mears, Eleanor Platt, and Brenda Putnam.

Gilbert Stuart in a very striking bust by Laura Gardin Fraser unveiled in 1922

The north entrance to the Hall of Fame

Photo from here.

An installation ceremony in 1923 led by white clad women blowing trumpets known as 
the "Gloria Trumpeters."  Photo from here.

A 1929 installation ceremony.  Photo from here.

Installation ceremony for Woodrow Wilson in 1956.  Photo from here.

Installation ceremony for Thomas Edison in Gould Memorial Library, 1960
Photo from here.

Installation of Thomas Edison, 1960.  Photo from here.

Albert Einstein visits the Hall with NYU Chancellor Elmer Ellsworth Brown in the 1930s.
Photo from here.

I've remarked before what an irony it is that the Hall of Fame is now largely forgotten.  It is hard to believe now that for decades this was one of the most famous landmarks in the New York City, up there with the Statue of Liberty.  Today, most of the students at Bronx Community College are barely aware that it exists.  It sits in a part of the campus that students rarely pass through on their way to classes or the library.  I suppose that this was inevitable since fame is not what it used to be.  The founders of the Hall were quite clear about what they meant by fame; everlasting renown as the reward for a life of great accomplishments in the service of the United States.
Fame means something much more nebulous for us now. We routinely conflate celebrity and fame.  The year 1900 when the Hall was founded certainly had its celebrities who dominated the popular tabloids and generated ticket sales then as now.  Sarah Bernhardt may have wowed the public with her larger-than-life stage presence and her eccentricities, but there was never any chance that she would be considered for anyone's hall of fame.  Celebrity was not what Chancellor McCracken meant by fame.
Today, people routinely are famous for being famous.  Celebrity feeds on itself.  We know them because their names and faces are marketed as people we simply find to be desirable for whatever reason. Now, even the distinction between fame and infamy disappears with sometimes fatal results as the murder of the celebrated and famous -- or even of the ordinary -- becomes the cheapest ticket into public memory.  Many experts now conclude that the motive for the killers in the Columbine High School Massacre in 1999 was a dark and psychotic grandiosity, a desire on the part of both killers to go down in history as among the worst mass murderers.  Renown and reward meant nothing to them, or to the many imitators that they spawned over the past decade.
In the light of this reality, can anything like a Hall of Fame continue to have any serious meaning?

Gould Memorial Library

Gould Memorial Library in 1904, photo from Wikipedia.

Gould Memorial Library was the centerpiece of the new campus for New York University.  Completed in 1899, it was architect Stanford White's last masterpiece and among his greatest.  It is certainly the most opulent of all his surviving buildings.  Modeled on the Roman Pantheon, and on Jefferson's design for the library of the University of Virginia, it was a state of the art library in its day with abundant natural lighting though skylights at a time when electrical lighting was still tenuous.  It is not a large building.  The dome is only 80 feet high.  The whole building could fit comfortably inside Rome's ancient Pantheon with its 143 feet by 143 feet dimensions.  The library, and the land that it stands on, were the gifts of Helen Miller Gould, the daughter of one of the most ruthless and notorious Robber Barons of the Gilded Age, Jay Gould.  She was an alumnus of New York University.

Though small, this building is very grand with lavish and superbly designed detailing such as the column capital above.

The goddess Athena in copper.

Splendid detailing in copper and terra-cotta on straw colored brick.

These bronze doors were added after Stanford White's death in 1906 as a memorial to the murdered architect.

The personification of Painting on the memorial doors.

Music on the memorial doors.

Part of the dedication inscription on the memorial bronze doors.

Stanford White was a genius and a scoundrel.  For a long time, he was more famous for his lurid death than for his architecture.  He was a notorious womanizer with a taste for teenage girls.  He went fatally too far with one of his conquests, the actress Evelyn Nesbitt who was 16 at the time of their first encounter.  He was 47.

Evelyn Nesbitt

Harry K. Thaw, a famously unhinged millionaire and Evelyn Nesbitt's husband, confronted White in the architect's office in the Giralda Tower of the old Madison Square Garden (a White designed building) and shot him point blank in the face killing him instantly.
The publicity that began the day after the murder probably foretold much more truly the modern conception of fame better than any well-meaning stone and bronze monument.  Sensing a huge opportunity, William Randolph Hearst's papers immediately began exploiting the lurid combination of sex, money, and violence in the crime.  In truest tabloid fashion, the coverage was long on lascivious speculation and short on facts.  Newspapers and critics that once praised and promoted Stanford White while he was alive, turned on him in death as not only a sexual predator but the monstrous creation of Gilded Age decadence.  His architecture was dismissed as vain monuments of a predatory rich adorning themselves with the spoils of plunder.  Artists and architects who worked with White tried to defend and salvage his reputation (these bronze doors were part of that effort), but to no avail.

Generations of of modernist critics cast White as a villain of design; the evil arch plunderer of historicist aesthetics.  He needed the past because of a failure of imagination to take into account the implications for design of new building technologies.  That White used these technologies quite skillfully in his buildings only added to critics' disgust with him and his work.  A lot of Stanford White's buildings fell to the wrecking ball in the 20th century, including some of his most famous works such as Madison Square Garden where he was murdered.

It is only very recently that architects and critics have begun to appreciate Stanford White's brilliance as an architect, in his surviving buildings, in his collaborations with the great sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and especially in Gould Memorial Library.  Now, there is a campaign to raise money to repair and restore the long unused building led by another architect, Samuel G. White (Stanford's great-grandson).

Gould Memorial Library remains largely abandoned and unused since a nearly bankrupt New York University sold its Bronx campus to the City University of New York in 1973.  It is sometimes used for concerts and college ceremonies, but not much else, and stands mostly vacant and open.  It is a magnificent building, but visiting it can be a melancholy experience.  Amid all the dusty and decaying splendor is the pervasive silence of a once busy and vital place whose time has long passed.

The vaulted hallway over the staircase down to the auditorium.

The same hallway in a better photo I took in 2012

The beautiful stained glass window from the side staircase

The central staircase to the rotunda

The small dome at the top of the central staircase over the entrance to the rotunda;
a photo I took in 2012

The still magnificent rotunda with its metal dome resting on columns of green Connemara marble from Ireland.  This remains one of the most beautiful rooms in New York City.

A photo of the rotunda that I took in 2012; the electric lighting in this room has been enhanced and is much brighter now.

The rotunda reading room in 1903;  photo from here.

A very busy rotunda in 1919.  photo from here.

The rotunda reading room in 1967; photo from here.

What strikes me about these earlier pictures is how much the quality of the light changed after the skylight in the dome was destroyed in 1969.  The rotunda is now a very dark room without the artificial lighting.  Originally, it was a very bright room.

The two inscriptions around the inside of the dome.

The uppermost inscription is from Job 28:
"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:' the sea saith, 'It is not with me.'  Death and destruction say,'We have heard the fame thereof with our ears."

The lower inscription is from Milton's "Paradise Lost":
"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 up and support."

The glass floored balcony around the rotunda.  There are a lot of glass floors and skylights to let the sun shine through the building interior.

Beautiful detailing in the design of the bannister around the rotunda balcony.

A photo of mine from 2012 showing a glimpse of the old library stacks; the doors were all closed this year.

The auditorium below the rotunda sometime in the 1940s.  This was originally a chapel.  You can glimpse a now destroyed Tiffany window behind the columns on the left.  Photo from here.
In 1969, an anarchist bomb destroyed much of this room and the skylight in the oculus of the dome.

The auditorium in 2015 and as it looks today after extensive repair and restoration.
Photo from here.

Stanford White's plans for the Library.  Photo from here.

Photo from here.

A muse in the dome.

The central staircase looking back toward the main entrance.

The New Library

Gould Memorial Library and the Hall of Fame represent a splendid if problematic past.  Bronx Community College's new library building is about a vital and expanding present.  It is the first building ever built specifically for the College.  All of its previous buildings were hand-me-downs including its present campus.  CUNY hired the notable architect Robert A.M. Stern to design a new building that pays homage to the past while looking forward to the future.  Stern drew his inspiration from Stanford White's work on the campus, and from Charles McKim's Boston Public Library.

A painting on the staircase landing by Bronx native Daniel Hauben.

Another painting by Daniel Hauben in the Library staircase.

The main reading room of the new library

Paintings of Bronx scenes by Daniel Hauben in the main reading room.

Architect Robert A.M. Stern; photo from here.

Marcel Breuer on Campus

Meister Hall; an early example of New York University's continuing taste for brutalist architecture.  No architect did brutal more artfully than Bauhaus veteran Marcel Breuer.  In the post World War II years, Marcel Breuer designed and built numerous buildings for New York City universities, especially for NYU and for CUNY.

Carl Polowczyck Hall, better known to our students as "The Potato Chip Building" because of the dramatic sculpted concrete entrance that does look a lot like a Pringles chip.

The westside staircase and entrance of Polowczyck Hall.

Colston Hall, another Breuer building, on the left, and the west entrance staircase to Polowczyck Hall on the right.

One of the two bridges to Colston Hall.  I think it's remarkable to compare Breuer's buildings with White's and how they've aged over time.  On the one hand, White's buildings are firmly rooted in the bygone past of the 19th century, but still have an enduring imaginative appeal, perhaps because they make so intelligent a use of traditional Western architecture.  After 50 years, Breuer's buildings are still admirably inventive designs, but they look like yesterday's science fiction.  They are also notoriously uncomfortable; difficult to heat and to cool.

I think it's significant that Robert A.M. Stern's new library building looked to Stanford White for inspiration and not to Breuer.  My! how things have changed since I was in art school!

Marcel Breuer in the 1920s at the Bauhaus sitting in his most famous creation, the Wassili Chair, the first work of steel tube furniture.

Where I Spend Most of My Time

Bliss Hall built in 1936

The new painting and drawing studio in Bliss Hall.

Students painting a spotlit still life.

Yours Truly making a demonstration portrait of Archer Torres.
These photographs are by Tatiana Concepcion

Not too bad for an hour's work.

Student Work From My Painting Classes

Over time I've had some great students who have been a pleasure to work with.  Here is a small sample of their work from my classes over the last 2 years.

Josue Peralta

Gregory Reynoso

Eddy Castro

Albany Andaluz

Jesus Rivas

Jomur Islam

German Rodriguez

Sasha Gilchrist

Ray Rios

Isaiah Fynn

Commencement 2017

Tents for Commencement on the athletic field

Yours Truly with Lisa Amowitz in our academic gowns looking very magisterial.  Behind us is a plaster bust of Einstein by Luigi Badia painted to look like bronze.  I'm guessing it was a proposal for a still unrealized bust of Einstein for the Hall of Fame.

I am looking particularly happy because I am tenured faculty as of this year.

Graduating students waiting for the ceremony to start.

Some of the Art and Music faculty

Faculty lined up waiting to process into the ceremony.

Our most senior faculty member (with Bronx Community College since 1967) carrying the mace and leading students into commencement.

This year's graduating class was very large, 2200 students.  Sixty percent of them are going on to four year degree programs at other colleges and universities.  In the 15 years that I've been with the college, this is the biggest graduating class that I've ever seen; testimony to the success of drastic improvements and expansion in a college that was usually on the very edge of CUNY's attention span.

I am very happy and proud to be part of this institution that provides opportunity for a population that usually doesn't see much of that.  I've had my own experiences with having to always swim upstream and I'm happy to help out with people who face some very formidable obstacles.  My years at the college continue to be a learning experience.  I've learned a lot about life, and about just how complex is the relation between art and society, and about what individual people want and expect from art.  I expect that I will learn a lot more over the years.  It's all turned out to be much more complex and rich than I ever imagined.  Maybe I'll figure out how to do this right some day.

Proud families of the new graduates.  Many of our students are the first in their families to graduate from college of any kind.  Most of our students are from the Bronx, the poorest county in New York State and one of the poorest -- and most diverse -- in the United States.

A newly minted graduate on his way home carrying his infant daughter.

Morris Meister, the founder and first president of Bronx Community College, the first community college in the CUNY system.  BCC turns 60 years old this year, and it turns out that I am only 8 months younger than the college.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Fantastic site. Thank you for doing such a great job in recording the amazing history of BCC and NYU at this location.