The Great Fair turns 75

I recently began researching a small piece for the World War I Centennial Commission social media page when I came across these remarkable photographs taken during the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair. If you do the math you will note that we are currently in the middle of the fair’s 75th anniversary. It was a fascinating historical moment because the Depression was finally starting to lift, while at the same time the clouds of war were gathering in Europe. The fair began on April 30 and the German invasion of Poland was on September 1. Needless to say, these and other events wreaked havoc on the fair and its hope for a batter world of tomorrow. The Second World War also had immediate concerns for event planners from the dozens of participating nations. For instance, which constituency  would represent this or that recently conquered nation in the fair’s pavilions? Would it be the resistance leaders or the representatives of the new regime? Or neither? Perhaps a country’s organizers would be better off shutting down their nation’s pavilion and washing one’s hands of the entire matter. How does one celebrate knowing the news of such death and destruction back home? These are the issues they dealt with.

The photos here are of American Civil War veterans at the fair. I wish I could date the images more precisely but as of yet cannot. I hope to do more with this in the future. In some cursory digging I discovered that Civil War veterans went to the 1939-1940 World’s Fair on several occasions. Helen D. Longstreet, Pete Longstreet’s widow, was at the fair at least twice. In June 1939 she was there to dedicate an exhibit of Confederate artifacts at the Florida Pavilion. A month later–on 2 July 1939, the 76th anniversary of the second day’s fighting at Gettysburg–she appeared again. Her appearance came one year after Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke at the unveiling of the Peace Light Memorial.

The very week the Germans and Soviets were dividing Poland Civil War vets inspected the tanks of the Seventh Cavalry Brigade at the fairgrounds in Queens. Again, it is not clear when these photographs were taken. The one of the soldiers standing in front of the Lincoln statue says it was taken on Lincoln’s Birthday. The heavy coats would seem to corroborate that. I would guess the photograph was taken in 1940 but it could have been 1939 when the final touches were being made in preparation for the opening that spring. Note the photo of Robert E. Lee. This was quite consciously a reconciliationist effort on the part of the organizers.



A young girl admires the medals of a Civil War veteran. One can imagine that Americans found comfort in the presence of these aging soldiers as war was getting underway yet again. The Second World War’s role in the reconciliation process is often overlooked.


Here are our friends in blue and grey yet again. I am not sure of the building in front of which they are standing.


This past August I took this photo of the rear of the New York City Building. This is today the Queens Museum of Art.


Here is a mosaic commemorating the fair. This area today is Flushing Meadows–Corona Park. I took these two photos on my way to a Mets game.

(images of Civil War veterans, NYPL)

Textiles and the Civil War

Yesterday a friend and I visited the New-York Historical Society to see the exhibit about textiles and the Civil War. Textiles, in this case cotton, obviously were a major cause of the secession crisis and the war. The exhibit though went beyond cotton’s role in the conflict. Included were quilts, flags, housewives (hand stitched sewing kits), clothes, and other items. Among the most touching artifacts were swatches from the Jordan Marsh catalog in various textures and shades of black from which to make mourning clothes. Jordan Marsh is yet one more thing from my past that no longer exists but that is another story.

I do not know if this is true or not, but the exhibit states that there were no hidden messages within quilts for fugitives on the Underground Railroad. It’s funny how these types of stories get propagated and then never entirely go away. More than once I myself have readjusted what I say in tours and public talks after discovering a long-held assumption is false. One that comes to mind off the top of my head was that there was once a tax on having closets in one’s home.

It is an extraordinarily thoughtful show and runs through August 24.

One thing that caught my eye was this little Zouave uniform made for a little boy. The reason it stuck out, besides the fact that it is beautiful is because little Theodore Roosevelt had one that was similar. (See it here.)

similar Zouave uniform on display at the New-York Historical Society
a girl’s dress and little boy’s Zouave uniform on display at the New-York Historical Society

Speaking of the New-York Historical Society keep in mind that the museum has an exhibit about New York City and the Civil War running through September 28 in Building 18 on Governors Island. I still have yet to check this out. There is still two months to go in the Governors Island season.



WW1 Centennial Trade Show report

Yesterday I attended the WW1 Centennial Commission Trade Show. I met a lot of people who are doing some interesting things for the commemoration of the Great War. Here are a few pics from the show.



The trade show brought together museum officials, authors, and others to discuss their projects for the Centennial. Jones Day, theWashington white shoe law firm, hosted the event.


The acting chairman of the Commission spoke first and discussed the group’s strategic plan. They have obviously put a great deal of thought and energy into the enterprise. He and the other commissioners are all volunteers.


Before the trade show presentations there was a fifteen minute musical interlude by Benjamin Sears and Bradford Conner. They set a nice tone for the afternoon.


Sergeant York’s son (black shirt and glasses on right) was there with his own son and granddaughter (seated to his left).



Here are a few of the exhibits. As with the Civil War Sesquicentennial, the Great War Centennial will incorporate the  changes that have taken place in historiographically in recent decades.


This is a sampling of some of the literature I gathered. I do not want to give away too much right now but I spoke to various folks about working on some projects over the next 4-5 years. I think the next few years will be fun and productive in a number of ways.

Rainy Sunday Morning Coffee

It was a big week for John Coltrane. His son Ravi donated one of his father’s saxophones to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History on Wednesday. At the same ceremony photographer Chuck Stewart donated twenty-five previously unseen Coltrane photographs to the Institution. The ceremony kicked off Jazz Appreciation Month. Stewart’s photographs are from the A Love Supreme sessions. Supreme was recorded fifty years ago this December.  The saxophone and original score will soon be on display in the “American Stories” exhibition.

A preservation group has been working for a few years now to save the musician’s Huntington, Long Island home. When we think of jazz musicians living in New York City we think Harlem, but really many of them lived in Queens or farther out on the island. Coltrane died in 1967 and is buried in Pinelawn Memorial Park. Pinelawn is one of several cemeteries along a stretch of Long Island. When a friend of mine visits this summer we may go out there to see her grandparents interred there. If/when we do, I am going to try to visit the Coltrane site as well.

The origins of the monuments men

I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Watson Library doing some research today when I passed this display case.


I did a double-take when I noticed this image of none other than Dwight Eisenhower himself. This is he and Mamie walking down the Met Museum steps familiar to New Yorkers for generations.


The date was 2 April 1946. That day the Met made Eisenhower an Honorary Fellow for Life for his role in saving European artworks during the Second World War. This is the first page of the address he gave that April day:


Here is the order he gave in May 1944, just a few weeks before D-Day. It is revealing that he would issue such an order even before the Normandy Invasion. He always said there was no contingency for failure. Thus, there were preparations for saving artworks even before a beachhead had been secured. Think about it.


Here are Eisenhower, Patton, and Bradley. The photo was taken by a U.S. Army lieutenant in a German salt mine on 12 April 1945, a month before the war ended and a year before Ike spoke at the Met.


In a nice touch, the museum has a gallery itinerary in which one cane find artworks now in the Met that were saved by the Monuments Men. I had seen a few of these a number of times over the years without knowing their provenance.

Here is one of those works.

Guardroom with the Deliverance of Saint Peter David Teniers the Younger, ca. 1645–47
Guardroom with the Deliverance of Saint Peter
David Teniers the Younger, ca. 1645–47

The painting was donated to the Met in 1964, half a century ago and only nineteen years after the war’s end.

(images/Ike et al, National Archives; Guardroom, Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The frozen tundra of the National Mall

I was on the Mall today and am here to say it was COLD, and with a bone chilling wind to add insult to injury. I must say it kept the tourists away, even on MLK Jr. weekend. Hours later my ears are still ringing.

Last March I took a pic of what was then the hole that will eventually become the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Well, ten months later we still have a hole but it is starting to fill up.

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, January 2014
National Museum of African American History and Culture construction site, January 2014

I have no doubt that they will do a great job. A few months ago the Smithsonian folks were at the Brooklyn Museum appraising people’s artifacts. Earlier this month they were doing the same thing in Fort Lauderdale while I was down there. It is going to be a varied and disparate collection. The only thing that concerns me is that the Mall, especially this part of the Mall, is on low ground and is susceptible to flooding.

The U.S. Army Museum

An Army chaplain performs the last rites, Bliliou (Peleliu) Island,, 1944
An Army chaplain performs the last rites, Bliliou (Peleliu) Island, 1944

Last summer in a post I mentioned a film called They Drew Fire. That PBS documentary was about the artists who painted and sketched the Second World War  as they witnessed it in both Europe and the Pacific. When we think “art” and “war” we think of Winslow Homer, Conrad Wise Chapman, and various others who sketched for Harper’s, Leslie’s Illustrated, or what have you. I suppose that the newsreels and photojournalism one saw in Life magazine, not the paintings and sketches that came from an artist’s hand, are the dominant iconography of the WW2. That the branches of the American Armed Services commissioned dozens of individuals to go forth and record what they saw is a story that has yet to be told fully. What is most incredible is the free rein they had.

Many of the thousands of works these artists produced from 1941-1945 are sitting in a modern storage facility in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, just outside Washington. The photos remind me of the Luce Center storage one sees at the Met Museum, New-York Historical Society,  the Brooklyn Museum of Art among other places. The goal is to move them into the National Museum of the United States Army that is currently being built within four years. I am interested to see how this project plays out.

(painting by WW2 artist Tom Lea, courtesy NPS)

The original Lombardi comes home

Several years ago your humble writer was walking though midtown Manhattan when, turning onto 5th Avenue, he saw something that made him pause. In the window display case of Tiffany & Co. was the World Series trophy. I had long known that Tiffany’s made the trophy for both MLB and the NFL. It is just not something one sees everyday. Even better for me, although I obviously had no way of knowing it that early fall evening, it was the World Series trophy the Red Sox themselves would win a few weeks later. As you can imagine, it is one of those random events that has stayed with me.

The first three of the Green Bay Back Super Bowl trophies. The team would add a fourth the year after this photo was taken.
The first three of the Green Bay Packers’ Super Bowl trophies. The team would add a fourth the year after this photo was taken.

In a story I have been loosely following for the past few months, I read today that another Tiffany creation–the original Lombardi trophy–has returned to Newark, New Jersey after a forty-seven year hiatus. Ulysses Grant Dietz, the gr, gr. grandson of Ulysses S. Grant, is the museum curator responsible for bringing it back. The Newark Museum is one of the great places in the New York Metropolitan area. Waking there from the PATH train, the observant walker sees vestiges of the city’s heyday in the architecture and public artwork. Among the many other things the city was know for was its silversmiths and jewelry makers. The Lombardi Trophy from Super Bowl I is part of a current exhibit on Newark’s history of precious metalsmithing.

The exhibit is not entirely coincidental. This year’s Super Bowl is going to be held in New Jersey at the stadium where the Giants and Jets play. Hence, the museum’s administrators figured they would have some kind of tie-in. Shooting high, they went for–and got–the Lombardi.

On the plane from Florida the other day I had a conversation about this with the man next to me. We could not understand why they are playing in an outdoor stadium in the Northeast in February. But they are.

No, I will not be attending the Super Bowl whatever the weather. I will be making the trek across the river to see the original Lombardi trophy along with the other treasures the museum has to offer.


Sanford Robinson Gifford on sale, cont’d

Sunday Morning in the Camp of the Seventh Regiment near Washington, D.C., in May 1861
Sunday Morning in the Camp of the Seventh Regiment near Washington, D.C., in May 1861

Update: Surprisingly Gifford’s Sunday Morning did not sell at last week’s auction. I am even more surprised because another work by the Hudson River School artist did so. I am wondering if the Civil War-themed piece was considered too subject specific by collectors. It will be interesting to see what eventually happens with this work.

Christie’s is auctioning Sanford Robinson Gifford’s Sunday Morning in the Camp of the Seventh Regiment near Washington, D.C., in May 1861. The “Silk Stocking Regiment” was one of the first to arrive in the nation’s capitol after the firing on Fort Sumter. The painting has been in the collection of the New York Union League Club since 1871, when it was acquired from the artist. The work is fascinating on many levels: as a historical artifact; a visual representation of the early months of the Rebellion, when it still seemed possible that it would be over quickly (First Bull Run was still two months in the future; note the relaxed poses of the individuals in the scene.); and oh yes, as a work of art. We focus so much on the photographers of the Civil War–Brady, Gardner, et al–that we sometimes forget that it was the painters and sketch artists who gave us much of the war’s visual representation. One can see the unfinished U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument off in the distance.

This work by the Hudson River School artist has been exhibited generously many times over the decades. Sunday Morning was also on loan to the White House from the Ford through Reagan Administrations as well. The auction of this and other American art will be on December 5th. The previous auction for a Gifford is $2.1 million. This work is expected to sell somewhere in the range of $3-$5 million. Someone is going to have a nice Christmas.


Sanford Robinson Gifford’s Sunday Morning in the Camp of the Seventh Regiment near Washington, D.C., in May 1861More Information:[/url]
Copyright ©
Sanford Robinson Gifford’s Sunday Morning in the Camp of the Seventh Regiment near Washington, D.C., in May 1861More Information:[/url]
Copyright ©

Remembering the Armory Show

This past Friday I went to the New-York Historical Society to see “The Armory Show at 100.” This N-YHS exhibit is in observance of the groundbreaking 1913 event at the 69th Regiment Armory. The 69th Armory is on East 25th Street, not five blocks from the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace.  Many of the original pieces are on display. I had seen some of them before because many are now famous and situated in major museums. Still, seeing so many in one place is something different entirely.

Roosevelt wasn't much for Wilhelm Lehmbruck's Femme a genoux
Roosevelt wasn’t much for Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s Femme á genoux

The 1913 Armory show was a huge event, attended by many thousands and written about extensively. For many Americans, it was the first time they had seen a Matisse or Picasso. One self-described layman who attended was Theodore himself. In fact, the Colonel even penned a review for Outlook magazine describing his thoughts on the show. “A Layman’s View of an Art Exhibition” hit newsstands on 29 March 1913.

One may not associate art with Theodore Roosevelt but there is a stronger connection than one might realize. When Theodore was a child, the Roosevelts spent considerable time in Europe, Egypt, and the Middle East soaking up art and culture. His father was one of the founders of both the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As president, Roosevelt had given a guiding hand in the creation of the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C. He was also a good friend of sculptors Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Frederic Remington. What’s more, he had sat for many painters over the years, including John Singer Sargent.

So, Roosevelt was a layman but one who knew a little more about the art world than he let on.

Reading Roosevelt’s article one cannot help but think of Marshall McLuhan’s adage that art is whatever you can get with. At one point he compares the Cubists to P.T. Barnum. More than once he calls them extremists. Still, he is not entirely skeptical; at times he is even generous. Modernism per se did not seem to bother him, just certain elements within it. For a man seemingly ambivalent he has a lot to say. In the last line he explains that “All I am trying to do is point out why a layman is grateful to those who arranged this exhibition.”

The show at the New-York Historical Society runs through 23 February 2014.

(image/Armory Show postcard)