It was ever thus . . .


I spent much of the evening working on the second of my two encyclopedia articles. They are not due until mid-February but I am determined to hammer them out and move on to other things. Besides, when it’s this cold out what else is there to do? This one is about the early years of the Y.M.C.A. I am really killing three birds with one stone. First, there is the article itself. Then, it ties in with the Roosevelt Sr. project; Roosevelt was not a major factor in the history of the Y, but good friends like William E. Dodge Jr. were. Finally, the YMCA ties into something I am hoping to do at Governors Island this summer. The Y faded a little during the Civil War when its membership fell. It was probably just as well. Many of its leaders were preoccupied with important work for the U.S. Christian Commission at the time.

Things were different a half century later. By 1917 the YMCA was fully entrenched and better able to help in a larger, more systematic was than it was in 1861 when it was only a decade old. The Y contributed here in the United States, and in France as well. It was hugely influential. The Governors Island YMCA, for one, helped so much in the war effort during the First World War.

I have been having too much fun reading old reports in Google books and the like. I have also been reading old New York Times articles to cross-check facts and get a sense of the spirits of the period. Brooklyn was an independent city until 1898. So, in the early 1850s its YMCAs had their own bureaucracies and infrastructure.  About 120,000 lived here. It was a large city, but its residents prided themselves on its small time feel. One letter to the editor from April 1854 caught my eye and made me laugh out loud. Alas it is not signed but the writer opines of the city across the river: “Brooklyn, so near to New-York, the focus of all good and bad influences.”


The Roosevelts’ Union Square

Lincoln's funeral procession passing Cornelius Roosevelt's house, 25 April 1865
Lincoln’s funeral procession passing Cornelius Roosevelt’s house, 25 April 1865

A few of us got talking yesterday afternoon at the TRB about the famous image of Theodore and Elliott watching Lincoln’s funeral from their grandparents’ window. This is a well-known photograph and very much part of both the Lincoln and Roosevelt iconography. Still, I had always had trouble visualizing the exact spot, in part because Broadway does not run a straight line but cuts diagonally through Union Square. It’s hard to visualize but the southwest corner of Broadway stands adjacent to the northeast corner of the southern tip of Union Square. See what I mean?

Anyways I printed out a NYT article about a building that stands today on this same property. Oddly enough, one of the rangers just wrote a Facebook post about 841 Broadway that will appear in the next week or so. With printed article in hand and a few scribbled notes I headed out after the 1:00 tour to get to the bottom of things.

My water-logged article
My water-logged article, complete with faulty map of Broadway
Looking south from Union Square, 14th Street and Broadway. Cornelius and Margaret Roosevelt's house stood where the white building is today.
Looking south from Union Square, 14th Street and Broadway. Cornelius and Margaret Roosevelt’s house stood where the glass, white building is today.
Here is the view looking north from 13th Street and Broadway.
Here is the view looking north from 13th Street and Broadway.

The building here in the foreground was built on the Roosevelt property in the 1890s. For more, here is a link to the article I pictured above. When I got back one of the rangers and I began investigating on Google maps and figured the funeral image was taken south of where I took this photo. I intend to do more digging but the Lincoln/Roosevelt photograph was taken at approximately 838 Broadway. If you know this area, that would be just north of the Strand Bookstore.

A detail on 841 Broadway:. Look closely above the arch. On the left is an R and on the right a B, which stand for Roosevelt Building.
A detail on 841 Broadway:. Look closely above the arch. On the left is an R and on the right a B, which stand for Roosevelt Building. Yes, that is falling snow that you see.

(funeral image/Dickinson State University and NPS)





Sunday morning coffee

3g11229rI hope everyone had a good week. I was so caught up in a few things that there was not much time to post here on the blog. Here is an interesting story that I knew nothing about until one of the TRB rangers posted it the other day. It is about a venture in which various Roosevelts opened a coffeeshop in Manhattan after the Great War. One thing that reading Geoffrey Ward’s Before the Trumpet reinforced for me is that to understand the Roosevelts you must know the relationships between the various cousins. There is a lot more to the story than the Big Three.

Coffee is a big part of the Theodore Roosevelt story. On tours I always tell of his drinking the dark brew as a toddler to alleviate his asthma. Many visitors also know that he coined the “good to the last drop” phrase that Maxwell House has been using ever since. I find the story of the coffeeshop intriguing in a few ways. First of all, they must have been inspired in part by their experience in Europe during the Great War. As the article states coffeeshops were not knew in the United States, but they were more for the new immigrants fresh from Ellis Island. In Europe they were/are ubiquitous. There is no way they could have missed that, especially Ethel being in Paris for much of the war as she was. Also, doughboys received coffee in their kits. How the Great War influenced material culture is something worth getting into during the centennial.

(image/Library of Congress)

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)

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, cont’d

I wrote the post below last summer. This morning, as I often do on Sunday mornings on my way to Governors Island, I stopped in to this church for a few minutes. It is a quiet respite from the city and a place to gather one’s thoughts before the day gets underway. I noticed there were a larger number of flowers spread about. It turns out that today is the anniversary of 1975 canonization of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. IMG_1464 One of the most intriguing things about Lower Manhattan, at least to me, is its juxtaposition of the old, often very old, and the new. Judging by the photograph in the previous post, one could be forgiven for not grasping this. In the midst of all those skyscrapers, however, right there on tip in fact, is the St. Elizabeth Seton Shrine. From afar one cannot see it amidst the much taller buildings, but it is there. Here it is close up, as I took it last week. The skyscrapers are clearly visible behind it. All of this is right across the street from the Staten Island ferry.

Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Anne Seton, 7 State Street
Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Anne Seton, State Street, New York City

Saint Elizabeth was beatified by Pope John XXIII in 1963 and canonized in 1975. In fact, she was the first native born American so designated. Seton was born Elizabeth Ann Bailey in New York CIty in 1774 just prior to the American Revolution. Her family bounced around a great deal during and after the war, living in Pelham, Staten Island, and in different spots in Lower Manhattan. At one time they lived next to Alexander Hamilton at 27 Wall Street. (Hamilton is buried in nearby Trinity Church, in an unmarked grave. ) She and her husband even fêted George Washington, on his sixty-fifth birthday no less. Legend has it that the structure above may have been a stop on the Underground Railroad, though evidence proving so has not surfaced. It was used for the Union War effort during the Civil War. Here is the plaque  on the exterior wall. Watson House plaque Many of these buildings were torn down in the mid-twentieth century to make way for office space. That is New York City for you. Here are a few more details. Seton hanging plaque

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton
Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton

The story is more detailed than I am writing here, but Elizabeth ended up converting to Catholicism, moving to Maryland, and founding the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s in Emmistburg in 1809 . She died there in 1824. Those who know their Gettysburg Campaign may know where I am going with this. The First and Eleventh Corps both passed through Emmitsburg hurrying on their way to the battle. The Sisters of Charity, with other locals, gave assistance to the Army of the Potomac in the form of food, rest, and information about the surrounding area. Here is the view of the terrain.

View from St. Joseph's College and Mother Seton Shrine, Emmitsburg, MD
View from St. Joseph’s College and Mother Seton Shrine, Emmitsburg

One of the most touching vignettes about the Battle of Gettysburg is the death of General John Reynolds. Reynolds of course died on July 1st, killed instantly by a bullet to the head. Unbeknownst to his family until just after his death, Reynolds was secretly engaged to a woman named Kate Hewitt. He was even wearing something like an engagement ring, engraved “Dear Kate”, when he died. After his death, Kate Hewitt joined the Sisters of Charity in Emmitsburg but disappeared mysteriously three years after the war. The Hayfoot and I had wanted to stop here for several years and finally did this past June during the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Campaign. Gettysburg itself is about 6-8 miles up the road. It is an incredible story on so many levels.

Saint Elizabeth Anne Seton's final resting place, St. Joseph’s Cemetery
Saint Elizabeth Anne Seton’s final resting place, St. Joseph’s Cemetery

(St. Joseph’s College image/Mike Rakoski, NPS)

Cal breaks his silence

The Mount Rushmore groundbreaking was this week in 1927. Construction was completed in October 1941.
The Mount Rushmore groundbreaking was this week in 1927. Construction was completed in October 1941.

In 1927 Al Jolson appeared in The Jazz Singer, Louis Armstrong recorded “Potato Head Blues,” and Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig combined for 107 home runs. The Great War was over for almost a decade and life was seemingly returning to normal. That August President Calvin Coolidge traveled to South Dakota to speak at the groundbreaking of Mount Rushmore. As if channeling his inner Roosevelt, the staid Coolidge rode up the mountain on horseback. Curiously–perhaps in a nod to recent Franco-American relations?–a choir sang “The Marseillaise” in addition to “The Star Spangled Banner” and other patriotic tunes.

Rushmore literally put Theodore Roosevelt on the same level with Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson, and the monument was a big win for Roosevelt supporters. The RMA had lost a protracted battle for a Roosevelt memorial on the National Mall just a year earlier. The spot Hermann Hagedorn and others coveted eventually went to the Jefferson Memorial.

Ironically, Mount Rushmore has skewed our perceptions of the 26th president. When many people think “Theodore Roosevelt” they think of the West. Being depicted on a granite slab in the Black Hills will do that. Still it is important to keep in mind that, while Roosevelt spent chunks of time hunting and ranching out West, he was a city slicker first and foremost. Indeed he was the only president born in Manhattan, and it was to New York City and Long Island that he returned over and over across the course of his life.

(image/National Park Service)


Framing New York

Framing New York
Framing New York

This past Friday I was leaving Castle Williams after doing a tour when I noticed an art installation to the immediate left. It turned out to be “Framing New York.” After a few minutes enjoying the view of the Harbor and Lower Manhattan, I struck up a conversation with the artist, D. Chase Angier. She graciously agreed to answer a few questions.

The Strawfoot: Where did you get the inspiration for “Framing New York?”

D. Chase Angier: From New York itself – the rapid rate in which it changes, its history, beauty, art, and stories. I have a deep love for this city as many of us do who have either grown up here, transplanted here, or even just visit.

Inspiration for this project came from my complicated love for New York City coupled with my deepening concern for our future. What is New York City today and how does that reflect who we are and where we are headed?

One of the elements that makes New York City unique is the unusually rapid rate at which it is changing. The rate of change coupled with the extreme density of buildings and people living in New York, creates an intense energy that is distinctive. “Framing New York” asks the audience to pay attention together to one select place in New York City at a particular time.

How would you describe your approach to your art?

I have many different approaches to art but if I need to reduce it down to one thing, I am a site specific choreographer.

Artist D. Chase Angier in front of her creation. The orange boat is the Staten Island Ferry sailing by.
D. Chase Angier in front of her creation. The orange boat is the Staten Island Ferry.

Tell us a little bit about your background?

I received my BA in Dance from UCLA and my MFA in Choreography from The Ohio State University. Basically, I am an interdisciplinary artist who specializes is site specific choreography. I am a dance professor and director of the dance program at Alfred University. I also create and perform site-specific performances, performance installations, dance-theater, and walking performances. My works have been performed internationally in Japan, the Czech Republic, Germany, Mexico, the United Kingdom and throughout the different regions of the United States.

What other “Framing” projects, if any, have you done in the past?

I framed Edgewood Farms, owned by Harold and Beverly Snyder in Alfred, New York. That was different in that it was a one time 2.5 hour event. The audience watched him hay his field. I placed ten matching white Adirondack chairs in front of the white frame for the small invited audience. The audience had to remain small and invited, in fact, because they were put on call to view this work. Certain weather conditions had to work together (wind, temp, humidity) to make it possible to hay on a particular day.

The frame captured the shapes of the tall grass contrasting the cut hay, the tubular windrows, and the spiral “floor” patterns on the field. The lighting for the work was the sometimes indirect sunlight that filtered through the clouds creating interesting moving shadows, and the sometimes direct sunlight that not only brought out the gold color and the smell of the hay but also created the heat which added to the sensory experience. All of this activity happened against the beauty of the subtly changing landscape – the clouds, birds, cows, and hills.

Framing Edgewood Farms was the first in a series:

Had you spent time on Governors Island previously?

Yes. I have been going almost every summer since it reopened. My favorite experience was the three day New Island Festival in 2009 with the Dutch. I enjoyed the art work, lectures, parties. It was three days of incredible madness.

Two visitors take in the view
Two visitors take in the view from the installation

You mentioned in our conversation that the New York skyline changes depending on the weather, time of day, and other circumstances. Explain.

Every day is dramatically different. The clouds, light, temperature, water traffic, people walking/biking by. The shadows crawling up the buildings – or no shadows at all on a cloudy day. How the light and sky reflect on the mirrored buildings, making some of them look as it they are disappearing. The dramatic dark thunder clouds versus a hazy hot light day. The color of many of the buildings change. The events change – Obama coming to NYC and landing close to Pier 11 as his military helicopters through the frame; the fireboat shooting out water the next day; the lack of people in the frame during the week on a rainy day, versus the crazy amount of people on the weekends.

In addition to the light, color and sky –  I have been fascinated by the choreography of the harbor. The different shapes, tempos, directions, rhythms, colors, size, levels, of all of the various boats. Tall ships, clipper ships, kayaks, repetitive orange staten island ferry, circle line, garbage boats, tug boats, oil tankers, jet skies, shark motor boats, cruise ships, etc.

It is a participatory artwork in which people can sit in the chairs and watch the harbor and skyline.

What has the public’s reaction been?

So far extremely positive. My favorite part about New Yorkers is that they like to talk to strangers (me) and they like to tell stories. I had heard a lot of stories about 9/11 as they look and no longer see the twin towers. Firemen, construction workers, lawyers, financial analysts etc. Tourists have been moved as they are seeing the city live from a great perspective (across the water) that they have only seen in movies and photos. Skeptics, teenagers, and people not exposed to a lot of art have used the word “actually” a lot, as in “I actually like this”, “This is actually cool”, etc.

For how long can visitors see “Framing New York?”

Through July 27th

Congressman Cox’s Governors Island

Here is a small interesting something. I was searching another matter in the Historical New York Times earlier today when I came across the article excerpted here.

GI copy

A quick search revealed that “Congressman Cox” was Samuel Sullivan Cox, a Tammany Democrat who represented the 6th U.S. District. Sullivan was originally from Ohio and as a Buckeye Congressman railed against Lincoln in a June 1862 speech entitled “Emancipation and Its Results–Is Ohio to be Africanized?” It is no wonder he eventually moved to Gotham and settled into machine politics.

Samuel S. Cox
Samuel S. Cox

The president mentioned is Grover Cleveland for whom Cox had served as Minister to Turkey in 1885-86. I am not sure how far Sullivan’s proposition turning Governors Island over to the New York State went, but it did not happen. (Quick history lesson: The Empire State turned Governors Island over to the Feds in 1800 when the Napoleonic Wars made European invasion of New York increasingly likely. In that decade Fort Jay was remodeled and Castle WIlliams built.)

Still, his vision for the island turned out to be prescient. It took 125 years but the Federal government returned Governors Island  in 2003. Now it is jointly managed by the NPS and NYC. I saw in his obituary that Cox is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery and that there is a statue of him in Tompkins Square. Over the summer I am going to have to search these out.

Congressman Cox didn't live to see it, but Governors Island eventually reverted to local control.
Congressman Cox didn’t live to see it, but Governors Island eventually reverted back to local control.

 (portrait image/NYPL)

75 years of LACUNY

Kenneth T. Jackson
Kenneth T. Jackson

It was a special night tonight when the Library Association of CUNY (LACUNY) held its 75th anniversary party in Manhattan. I love being a librarian within CUNY and feeding off the energy of our  students. Many library faculty are dynamic individuals working on some fascinating projects. The keynote speaker was Kenneth Jackson, the Columbia University historian who also once ran and turned around the New-York Historical Society. He was at the Roosevelt Birthplace a few weeks ago, although I missed him and his students by about a half hour. The rangers spoke about what a good guy he was.

One my favorite projects of his was the museum retrospective a few years ago that helped rehabilitate he reputation of Robert Moses. He spoke tonight about the sociology of cities with an emphasis on what makes New York a unique place. I was so glad they got him for the keynote talk.

Imperiled Promise

FDR_Museum_and_LibraryThis morning I received the final details of the upcoming WW1 Centennial Commission trade show. About sixty individuals and organizations rsvp’ed. I am looking forward to the presentations and hearing what people have planned for the next 4-5 years. I know I myself intend to do a fair amount with the Great War Centennial between now and the 100th anniversary of the Versailles Conference.

It is hard to believe the New York History conference in Cooperstown was a full year ago. Alas I could not attend the 2014  NYSHA conference at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, as either a speaker or attendee. Tomorrow, however, I will be tuning in to a webinar coming from the nearby Henry A.Wallace Visitor Center at the FDR Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park. The panelists will be discussing Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service, the 2011 report from the Organization of American Historians analyzing the state of public history within the NPS. I have read the report and its while it lauds some NPS successes it also highlights where there might be improvement.

Tomorrow’s panel begins at 9:00 am and will focus on history at NPS sites within New York State. This is going to be an informative and lively event.

(image/Alex Israel)