|Should you go?|
|Time spent||46 minutes|
|Best thing I saw or learned||Honestly, the whole thing, as a total work of art, history, sociology, Americana, and miraculous survival. The whole Hall of Fame is the best part of the Hall of Fame.|
Halls of fame today are two-a-penny. Everyone and everything from minor league lacrosse to rock n roll has a hall of fame. But it wasn’t always that way. There had to be, at some point, a first one.
The Hall of Fame for Great Americans was the first hall of fame in history. Designed by the ubiquitous Stanford White as part of his broader super-classical design for NYU’s campus in the then-bucolic Bronx at the turn of the 20th century, the Hall of Fame was a shining beacon on a hill, inspiring Americans everywhere by demonstrating greatness across all fields of endeavor. And American greatness at that.
A colonnade running behind the three most prominent classical buildings on the NYU campus, the Hall of Fame boasted a commanding view of the East River and Upper Manhattan. There, portrait busts would be installed, along with descriptive plaques, of the best of the best, the creme de la creme, the very greatest of us all.
According to Wikipedia, there was an open nominating process. Anyone could suggest a Great American for inclusion, and a panel of experts would make final selections. Only people who have been dead for 25 years or more are eligible. And you have to be an American. Some people have been rejected. Some lobbying efforts worked against better judgment (Stonewall Jackson and Robert E Lee are both there, thanks to the concerted efforts of the Daughters of the Confederacy–though Jefferson Davis is not).
I was fascinated walking down this lonely corridor. Fascinated that somehow it survived the vicissitudes of history. The last 2 Great Americans enshrined are FDR (died 1945) and Orville Wright (died 1948). That was pretty much the end of the heyday of the Hall of Fame, and for a long long time it was more or less slowly forgotten.
NYU abandoned the Bronx, and the Hall of Fame in the early 1970s. And of course much bad happened in the Bronx the next 20 years. And yet, the Hall of Fame endured, and at least a few people cared enough to restore it. It’s a beautiful spot today–the campus is now home to Bronx Community College–every bust shiny with not a speck of vandalism to be seen. The vicissitudes of history are present in other ways as well. There were quite a few Great Americans that I’ve never heard of. Matthew Fontaine Maury? Edward Alexander MacDowell? (The “father of modern oceanography” and a composer, respectively.)
I didn’t count how many people are installed in the Hall of Fame. The website tells me 98. Of which 9 are women (I did count them). That’s not great, but it’s better than I
thought it would be. And two are black (George Washington Carver and Booker T Washington) Although at least some folks seem to think John James Audubon was black, too. I’m skeptical of that, but if he was, then three are black.
More interesting to me is the fact that there are exactly 4 niches empty. If they were going to start up again, and you could only pick 4 more Americans, who would go in those spaces? I thought about that, looking out at Manhattan on a gray March day. Martin Luther King Jr. is obvious. And I’d pick Ella Fitzgerald, Dwight Eisenhower, and J Robert Oppenheimer. Maybe.
I know that this place is at best a relic of history. It would never work today. There would be quotas and slights and sensitivities. But maybe the idea that some people are great is so unfashionable these days that it’s ready to be in fashion again. Make Greatness Great Again. I left this silly, stilted corridor of people who are (or at least once were) reckoned to be the best of the best uplifted and inspired, and I didn’t expect to be. Everyone should go.
|Address||University Ave & W 181st St, Bronx|
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