Sunday morning coffee

IMG_1035Yesterday someone received his National Park Service Volunteer Pass for going over 250 hours of service. I could have gotten the pass a long time ago had I been paying attention to the benefits that accrue with these milestones. When I began volunteering at the Roosevelt Birthplace last October I told myself I would vigilantly track these types of things. It is not about the money saved per se, but enjoying the fruits of one’s labor. I intend to put it to good use over the summer when I visit a few places.


One of the most enjoyable endeavors at the TRB this year was the opportunity to work on writing content for the installation in the lower gallery. The rangers did a great job putting the whole thing together, and it was a privilege to play a role. The two cases you see here were mine. Here are a few close ups.



Governors Island on the 4th of July was a wind and rain swept landscape. The weather kept people away but those who were there were in good spirits and enjoying the holiday atmosphere. The weather could have been better, but the island does have a fun feel in such circumstances.

For the second time this summer I met people at the Roosevelt Birthplace who were on Governors Island the day before. Usually such folks are out-of-towners who have an interest in historic sites. One of the most interesting things about Park Service sites in New York City is meeting such folks. This was especially true at Ellis Island where such a large percentage of the visitors are not New Yorkers.

The summer is on here in New York.

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The Governors Island YMCA

The onetime Governors Island YMCA

The onetime Governors Island YMCA

The Governors Island YMCA opened its doors in July 1900 and was an immediate success. The first floor contained a reading room open to all. Above members enjoyed a library, auditorium, and other amenities. In typical New York fashion the dedication was not held for another three months; then as now, those who could left the Big City when the temperatures began to rise. Instead, the Manhattan dignitaries showed up for a formal dedication in early October.

Detail above the doorway

Detail above the doorway

What you are looking at is not that building. So popular was the “The Y” that the old original building soon became obsolete. Thus in the mid-1920s the YMCA funded and built another structure, the one you see here in the photographs.

Colonel John Thomas Axton was the Army's first Chief of Chaplains. He is interred today at Arlington National Cemetery.

Colonel John Thomas Axton was the Army’s first Chief of Chaplains. He is interred today at Arlington National Cemetery.

The new building opened in April 1927 and when it did Colonel John T. Axton, the Army’s first Chief of Chaplains, delivered the dedication. Two days after Pearl Harbor Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, working with others, began planning a “Stars in Khaki” fundraiser for the Governors Island Y at the Pierre Hotel. Throughout the Second World War philanthropic groups used the auditorium and other facilities in the war effort. When peace came there would be reunions and tributes to such groups as the Veterans of the Seventh Regiment and the Association of Former Members of Squadron A. This was all in addition to the daily use of the building.

Sergeant Irving Berlin's paean to the YMCAs of the Great War

Sergeant Irving Berlin’s 1918 paean to the military YMCAs of the Great War

Uniformed service personnel stationed on Governors Island loved using their YMCA. Y officials even provided spiritual, leisure, and educational services to the prisoners in Castle Williams, of which there were usually several hundred at any given time. Despite its great work, the Governors Island Y had become redundant by the early 1960s. There were now more and better athletic facilities, and a full service library, operating on the base. The Governors Island YMCA closed in 1962.

(images/Axton, US Army; Berlin, Johns Hopkins University)

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Last Sunday in June

I was surprised today at the number of visitors who mentioned the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War. A lady came through whose grandfather graduated from West Point in August 1917. I did not know until she told me that the Military Academy accelerated its classes to rush young officers off to France. It shouldn’t be a total surprise though because they of course did the same thing during other wars. It is lost on us how small our standing army was prior to most of our conflicts. The man whose granddaughter was on the island today fought at Saint Mihiel.

Here are two photos of Ranger Val dressed as a doughboy which I snapped earlier today.

Fort Jay glacis

Fort Jay glacis

Val leading a tour within Fort Jay

Val leading a tour within Fort Jay

Remember, Governors Island is open seven days a week this summer. I am so looking forward to being on the island for the Fourth of July this coming Friday.

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Sarajevo, 1914

Soldiers Capturing Assassin of Archduke Ferdinand

The Great War Centennial begins today with the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. As I have stated several times over the past few weeks I intend to do a fair amount of WW1 Interp and other work on this over the next several years. I am even boning up on my French to better help myself. I know from having attended the Centennial Commission trade who in DC two weeks ago that many museums and other institutions are gearing up for this. The publishers are too. Today I began Thomas Otte’s July Crisis: The World’s Descent into War, Summer 1914. Like the Civil War, the Great War is so fascinating because it is both so close and so far away at the time. In ways we are still fighting both of them.

I am fortunate in that the two Park Service sites at which I volunteer, Governors Island National Monument and the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace, offer numerous opportunities for such endeavors. The sites even offer opportunities for the Joseph Hawley and Theodore Roosevelt Senior books, which are proceeding apace. Over the summer I am going to share more here on the blog and Facebook page about my progress, something I have not done so much yet.

(image/the arrest of Gavrilo Prinzip after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, 28 June 1914)

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Filed under Governors Island, Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace (NPS), WW1

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)

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St. Cornelius: a very brief history

Chapel of St. Cornelius the Centurion

Chapel of St. Cornelius the Centurion

Early on Sunday morning I was taking some photos of Great War plaques on Governors Island when I came upon the Chapel of St. Cornelius the Centurion. It was one of those early summer mornings where the sky is bright blue and there is a hint in the air of the warm–but not too warm–day ahead. What made it all the better is that, because it was so early, the area was so quiet. The whole thing had the aura the military service personnel must have felt when they lived on the island. A few years ago a now retired veteran who returned to the island for a visit told me he was married here.

St. Cornelius is one of the island’s special spots and has a provenance few visitors to the island realize. Its architect was Charles Coolidge Haight, a veteran of the Union Army who later attended Columbia University and became one of the leading architect’s in the United States. The gothic influence was a trademark of Haight’s, which he mixed here to great effect with a military motif evident in the turrets seen on the upper right. The symbolism is fitting given that St. Cornelius was on a U.S. Army military base.

I could not take photos from inside because the doors were locked but St. Cornelius contains a beautiful stained glass window built in memorium to Winfield Scott Hancock. Hancock commanded the Department of the East from Governors Island beginning in 1878. He ran for the White House against Garfield in 1880 from here as well. In summer 1885 Hancock organized Ulysses Grant’s funeral from the island. Hancock himself died on the island just seven months later. This was all years before the chapel seen above was built.

This is actually the second St. Cornelius; the first was a wooden structure that served its purpose for decades but eventually fell into disrepair. So, a second more permanent structure was commissioned. Enter Haight. An interesting part of the story is that not only was he a captain in the Union Army, he had served in Hancock’s Second Corps. I intend to write a piece about Haight’s chapel over the summer for the Governors Island website. One thing I am curious to know is if he won this commission for his service in Hancock’s corps, or if that was just a coincidence. If and when I find the answer I will share it.

Frederick Dent Grant, who himself commanded the Eastern Department, lay in state here when he died in 1912. President Taft was one of the thousands who came to pay his respects.


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Marking the Great War


I just got home from the Apple store in SOHO where I took an iPhoto workshop to brush up on my picture taking skills. I did this because at the World War I Centennial Commission trade show last weekend I agreed to participate in The World War I Memorial Inventory Project. The goal of project director Mark Levitch is to photograph and document 10,000 monuments to the Great War spread across the United States. Many are hiding in plain site.

As after the Civil War, the process of memorialization began almost immediately. Nations, states, and small towns around the globe built monuments in the 1920 and 1930s. What these all had in common is that every protagonist believed it had justice and righteousness on its side. This should not be surprising given the incredible human, financial, and material sacrifices they made. Who wants to think they sacrificed for nothing?

I intend to start off with the many World War I monuments on Governors Island. As I noted a few weeks ago there are many sprinkled across the island’s 172 acres. My goal is to do fifty, mostly in New York, over the next five years. I am not going to do the ones on New York City parks because the Parks Department has already done extensive documentation on these already. There are many in post offices, botanical gardens, and places like that. Often they are hiding in plain site.

I will not post the same images here on the Strawfoot that I submit to the inventory project, but occasionally I will take photos of the same subjects and share them here. I cannot tell you how excited I am about this.

(image/tablet for Lieutenant James Andes on Governors Island)

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Filed under Governors Island, Monuments and Statuary, WW1