A thank you to the rangers of the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace


Yesterday was my final day at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site. It closes for renovation later this week. I was there a full eighteen months and can say that I have a deeper and more appreciative knowledge of American and international history than I did a year and a half ago. Much of this was due to the openness and generosity of the TRB rangers, especially Michael Amato and Daniel Prebutt.

Mike and Danny were always so welcoming to me. They allowed me be involved in many aspects of the site’s operations, not just giving tours but writing articles for the Facebook and website pages and helping in my own small way on other projects. An example was writing signage for the update of the Lower Museum Gallery. One of my favorite memories was commiserating behind the information desk after a tour and discussing the ins-and outs of the interpreter’s craft. Tailoring a talk to meet the expectations and interest level of the audience is so crucial. It was always exhilarating to see the swinging doors open and say hello to whoever was walking in. And they came across the country and around the world. Theodore Roosevelt is just that strong.

Just because I am no longer at the TRB doesn’t mean I am not continuing with the Roosevelts. The extended family is too much of a historian’s dream to do that. The Roosevelt Sr. book is moving along; I am also working on some things about Ted. The latter fits in well with the Great War Centennial. There is a lot of Roosevelt history at Governors Island that I will be focusing on this summer. These are just a few things.

I will miss the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace. Still, I leave with the good feeling of having learned and accomplished a great deal. I also have the memories of working with such talented and dedicated professionals as Mike and Dan. And for this I will always be grateful.



The Roosevelts’ Union Square, 150 years ago today

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

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

Some readers will remember this post from early January. I am posting it again this morning to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession passing through New York. Young Theodore Roosevelt and his brother Elliott were in the second story window watching the ceremony. Needless to say this is going to be a big part of my interp today. Today also happens to be my final day at the Roosevelt Birthplace. It is closing for an extensive renovation on May 1.

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)





Twelve days of the Carter Family

A.P., Maybelle (seated), and Sara Carter in a 1927 publicity still

A.P., Maybelle (seated), and Sara Carter in a 1927 publicity still

Several years ago when I was still single and people still listened to music on things called compact discs, I occassionaly bought myself a boxed set around my birthday. There were not too many, but sets I did purchase included Charles Mingus’s Complete Atlantic Recordings and Miles Davis’s Complete Live at The Plugged Nickel. Usually I stayed away from such extravagances, because I found boxed sets to be gratuitous and usually stuffed with a fair amount of filler. It tied in neatly with the reissue boom that brought the world full versions of often-truncated original releases. This was especially true when it came to live sets. For instance if a Waylon Jennings concert was originally ninety minutes, the original album might have been whittled down to forty-five for space or commercial reasons. A compact disc allowed for the release of the full, original listening experience. At least that was the ideal. Usually however, cd re-releases were a shameless money grab for labels to get people to buy what they already had. How many reissues of Kind of Blue did the world really need?

WildwoodFlowerAlmost a decade ago I bought The Carter Family’s In the Shadow of Clinch Mountain, a twelve cd behemoth from Bear Family that was worth every penny. The Carter Family were A.P., wife Sara, and his sister-in-law Maybelle. Their 1927 records for Ralph Peer in Bristol, Tennessee are the foundation of modern country music. What made their sound so immediate was its stress on the vocals and deemphasis of the instrumentation. The American recording industry was coming into its own at this time and companies like Victor, for whom Peer worked at the time, were eager to capitalize. That same week in the same place Peer recorded Jimmie Rodgers as well.

I have always tended to listen to the earlier years of the collection, which contains over 275 songs and an extended interview with Mother Maybelle. Over the past twelve days I mixed it up and listened to the twelve discs in chronological order. I don’t know how a band can go on and on for decades without recording a bad song, but the three managed to do it. What is even more incredible is that they did it amidst such personal strife and marital chaos.

I have always enjoyed the Carter family full oeuvre but I don’t think I fully appreciated it until taking it in in its totality. There is also the fact that as I get closer to fifty I understand the message much better than I did when younger. How much does one know about loss or regret when in one’s twenties? The Carters’ music is so powerful because it looks at the ambiguity and complexity of life so unblinkingly without ever losing its hope and affirmation. I have found it comforting to listen to over this spring.

(top image, Victor Talking Machine Company; lower image, Perfect Records)

John Howland Lathrop’s Unitarian Church

IMG_2089Late last week I was walking though Brooklyn Heights on my way to meet a friend for lunch when I saw that the gates of the First Unitarian Congregational Society Church were open. I love to visit the many places of worship here in New York City, which depending on the era might have been built by Italian craftsmen who came through Ellis Island or were centers of Abolition during the Civil War Era. No, not all of them have such a dramatic provenance but one gets the idea. I had never been in the First Unitarian before, though I had walked past it dozens of times. The neo-gothic structure dates to 1844 and carries the years well.

IMG_2096I was only there for all of five minutes when, heading toward the door, I noticed a Great War marker on the wall in the vestibule. Of course I took a few pictures to research and submit to the World War 1 Memorial Inventory Project. The plaque itself was nothing out of the ordinary, nor would one expect it to be. With simple dignity it marked the contributions of those from the the congregation who served in war from 1917-18. A few of them made the ultimate sacrifice. I could not find too much information about when the plaque was dedicated. The church leader though turned out to be an interesting individual.

HowlandThe Reverend Dr. John Howland Lathrop led the First Unitarian from 1911-57. He was against American involvement in the war but when it came in April 1917 he made his own contribution: Lathrop helped bring the Red Cross into the United States Navy. When that initial work was done he led the Red Cross’s WW1 initiative within the Third Naval District. That jurisdiction covered most of the Northeast. He was successful in these endeavors and continued a life of public service until his retirement in the late 1950s. A lot of that work involved cleaning up the mess in Europe that resulted from the chaos and destruction of the Great War.

I intend t do a little more with Lathrop in the coming months. A little digging revealed that his papers are at the Brooklyn Historical Society, which is across the street from the church that he served for nearly half a century.


The Lost Sketchbooks interview, part 2

Here is the second and concluding part of the Rex Passion interview. Yesterday’s installment brought Edward Shenton up to the Armistice.

#122 Germans at  Haumont

The 28th Division remained in France for six months and as the weeks passed, there was less and less for the soldiers to do and more and more time for Ed to draw. He was in the villages of Vignuelles, Uruffe, Colombey-les-Belles and Le Mans sketching everything he saw before he finally boarded the ship for home.

#134 Railway Gun

#144 Side Show#143 Hospital Train Attendant









On April 20, 1919 the engineers of Company B boarded the SS Finland and sailed back home They marched in a parade down the streets of Philadelphia and celebrated a job well done.

#150 Comin Home

The Strawfoot: What were the conditions under which he made the sketches?

Rex Passion: Before he left for training camp, Ed bought several canvas-bound sketchbooks from Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia, along with pencils, graphite sticks and a water color set. In both Camp Meade and Camp Hancock evenings and Sundays were his own and he had a good deal of time to draw. He was able to store his art supplies in a foot locker so he could use the larger (9” x 10 ¾”) sketchbooks and he could also paint with watercolors. All this changed when he shipped overseas.

#22 Meade Sketchbook Cover

#67 Mostly Billets Sketchbook

Once he landed in Calais, he was ordered to store his personal effects and limit his kit to what he could carry on his back. One of the things Ed did was to cut his 6” x 9” sketchbooks in half. I suspect this was to be able to keep them inside his helmet where they would be protected from the weather and especially the mud. The first two drawings in this sketchbook were cut when the book was cut, the others were drawn to fit the smaller pages.

Some of Ed’s wartime sketchbooks were mailed home to his father in Philadelphia and have his address on the cover. Some of the drawings in these books have place names obscured by the sensor
Many of the images from Ed’s time in combat are drawn on larger sheets of loose paper (13 ½” x 9 ¼”). The captions are carefully drawn in ink, but the drawings are done in pencil. There are a couple of instances where sketches in a cut-down sketchbook are very similar to those on a larger sheet. It appears that the sketchbook images were re-drawn at a later date on larger sheets. Perhaps this was even done once Ed was back home.

There are, however, many images on larger sheets for which there is not a corresponding one in a canvas-bound sketchbook. Also, there are no drawings from his trip from the US to France in 1918; all the sea drawings were done on the return trip. Ed would have had a great deal of time to draw on the boat trip over, and many new things to see. Are these sketchbooks still missing? Continue reading

The Lost Sketchbooks interview, part 1

Recently I posted about Rex Passion’s new book The Lost Sketchbooks: A Young Artist in the Great War. Rex has performed a labor of love in preserving the voluminous corpus of work Shenton left behind. A few weeks back I sent Rex the link to an article about The Sketchbook Project, a Brooklyn-based library of 33,000+ sketchbooks from around the world. I believe Rex sent them a copy of his new book for their collection. The visual history of the Civil War–Winslow Homer, Alfred Waud, and their contemporaries–has been so well documented. It seems we don’t fully appreciate the visual culture of the First World War to anywhere near the same degree. I am hoping that changes during the Great War Centennial. The public needs to know of the work of such solider/artists as Ed Shenton, John W. Thomason and their counterparts from across the globe who lived and fought in the trenches of 1914-18.

The Strawfoot: Tell us about Edward Shenton and his experience in the First World War.

Rex Passion: At the time the U.S. declared war on Germany, Edward Shenton was in his second year as a full-time art student at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art in Philadelphia. He had just gotten through a very trying and depressing winter and the decision to join the army seems to have cleared away some of the dark clouds.

#20 Mug Wamp

#21 Mugwamp goes to war

Ed and fifteen of his high-school friends joined the Pennsylvania National Guard at the armory in Philadelphia and Ed was assigned to Company apt, 103rd Engineers, which was later attached to the 28 Division. After several weeks of drill and training at the armory, Company B moved to Camp Meade between Baltimore and Washington. The land for the camp had been purchased by the government only weeks before so Ed was present with his sketchbooks as the camp was being built. He kept up his art school habit of drawing what he saw every day.

12.14 shovel

The new recruits spent the spring at Camp Meade then moved to Camp Hancock near Augusta, Georgia where their training intensified. They learned the building and demolition techniques of a combat engineer, but also the craft of an infantry soldier.

#30 pick and shovel gang

#40 Shooting Silhouettes

In addition to the soldiers’ training the men of Company B had various camp chores but still found time for a bit of rest and recreation.


#31 the gamblers

Finally, after nearly a year of training, Ed Shenton and his friends embarked for France and the war.

4.12 life boat row

On the first of June they arrived in Calais and after an additional three weeks of training moved toward the front.

#66 Calais Rest Camp

The engineers’ first taste of combat was near the town of Charly-sur-Marne. They lived at a chateau near the river and marched to and from a place called la Canarderie (the duck farm) amid cannon fire and aerial combat. During this period Ed was building trenches all day and only had time to draw after a long days’ work.

#75 The Third Billet, an Old Chateau

On July 14, the engineers were hastily withdrawn from Charly-sur-Marne and redeployed to the east near the town of Condé-en-Brie. On the night of the 15th they marched to a hillside above the town of St. Agnan and the next morning relieved the 109th Infantry, which had been decimated by the advancing Prussian Guard.

#81 Engineers in the Front Line, St. Agnan About noon the advancing Germans started shooting at the Americans and the engineers returned their fire. An hour or two later the Germans started shelling the shallow trench where Ed and his fellows were crouched. Many were wounded and some killed and Ed Shenton had his baptism of fire. Continue reading

More Booth

Edwin Booth, 1833-1893

Edwin Booth, 1833-1893

I suppose there will be all sorts of articles about the Booth family online and elsewhere throughout the week. So, I should not have been surprised when I came across this piece about Edwin in yesterday’s Boston Globe. It’s about he and his brothers’  ties to The Hub. As nineteenth century actors the Booths were nomads. It is not surprising they had ties to many locales. The accompanying photos include a picture of John F. Fitzgerald, John F. Kennedy’s grandfather, paying his respects at Booth’s grave. I had an idea for an interpretive program for the TRB to be held in Union Square on the anniversary of the Lincoln funeral procession passing the Roosevelt household on 14th Street. For unfortunate reasons outside of my control that did not come to pass.

We really were fortunate to visit his Gramercy Park home last week on the anniversary of Appomattox. We were speculating that night where Edwin was buried, and guessed it was either in New York or Baltimore. I knew it was not Green-Wood Cemetery because, well, that’s something I would have known. As it turns out, he rests today on Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery. Crazily, at the exact moment of his 1893 funeral a terrible accident at Ford’s Theater in Washington killed several people. It was something straight out of a Shakespearean tragedy.

(image/By Midnightdreary (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Sunday morning coffee

Eighty Aprils after Lincoln's funeral the country mourned the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Note the bloom on the trees in the upper left hand corner.

Eighty Aprils after Lincoln’s funeral Americans mourned the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Note the bloom on the trees in the upper left hand corner.

Doing my tours at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace yesterday I did not fail to mention that April 12–today–marks the 70th anniversary of Franklin Roosevelt’s passing.

It was not until I began volunteering at the TRB that I realized how intertwined the two sides of the family were, and indeed remain today. To give one example: when Franklin was himself assistant secretary of the navy, in the Wilson Administration, he and Eleanor rented a Dupont Circle house from Anna Roosevelt Cowles. Mrs. Cowles was Theodore’s older sister and Eleanor’s aunt. Throughout much of World War One, Theodore himself used to drop in to that N Street home to discuss preparedness and how the war was going. FDR learned much in Washington from 1913-1921 that served him well as commander-in-chief thirty years later.

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt's final resting place, Hyde Park, New York. The Roosevelt Library and Museum are in the background.

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s final resting place, Hyde Park, New York. The Roosevelt Library and Museum are in the background.

One thing I always mention is how young many of the Roosevelts were when they died. Theodore Roosevelt Sr. was 46 and his wife Martha Bullock just 48. Their son Elliott, Eleanor’s father, was all of 34 when his demons finally caught up with him. Elliott’s son Hall had just turned 50 when his own difficult life came to an end in 1941. Theodore Roosevelt was a mere 60. Then there was FDR himself. All presidents age while in office but Franklin Delano Roosevelt looked considerably older than his 63 years when, after months of failing health, he succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage at his Warm Springs, Georgia retreat seventy years ago today.

(top image/Library of Congress)

Leonard Wood marks Opening Day

Major General Leonard Wood had just been relieved of command when he tossed out the Yankees first pitch on April 11, 1917.

Major General Leonard Wood had just been relieved of command on Governors Island when he tossed out the Yankees first pitch on April 11, 1917.

It is not everyday you see an image that captures a precise moment in the history of the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Governors Island, and the beginning of American involvement in the First World War all rolled into one These two images however do just that. The two photographs you see here were taken at the Polo Grounds on April 11, 1917, ninety-eight years ago today. The occasion was Opening Day for the Yankees at the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan. Congress had declared war on Germany five days earlier.

What is so dramatic about these images is lost on us today. In contrast, the 16,000 in attendance would have grasped the significance of Wood’s very public appearance quite clearly. President Wilson had notified Major General Wood that he was being relieved of command of the Department of the East on Governors Island three weeks previously, on March 24 to be exact. Wood had annoyed the Wilson Administration for much of the past three years with his calls for preparedness; by one estimate he had given as many as one hundred speeches advocating that cause since the war began in 1914. Finally Wilson had enough. To get rid of Wood, the War Department split the Department of the East into three jurisdictions. They gave Wood a choice of where he wanted to go, and he surprised them by choosing Charleston, South Carolina. His final day on Governors Island would be April 30, when he would turn command over to J. Franklin Bell.

Wood poses with Yankee skipper "Wild Bill" Donovan. The Yankees were not yet THE YANKEES. A few years later they would acquire Ruth and move to the Bronx into the stadium he would help make possible.

Wood poses with Yankee skipper “Wild Bill” Donovan. The Yankees were not yet THE YANKEES. A few years later they would acquire Ruth and move to the Bronx into the stadium he would help make possible.

Wood’s demotion was unpopular in many circles. Supporters invited him to speak or appear at numerous venues between the demotion (March 24) and his departure from New York City (April 30). In what can only be interpreted as a dig at Wilson, Wood was invited to toss out the first pitch that season. The Yankee players even put on a military drill before the game. Babe Ruth was the starting pitcher for the Red Sox. He won the game 10-3, going the full nine innings and scoring a run.

(images/Library of Congress)

Edwin Booth’s New York

Edwin Booth was part of the fabric on New York City social and cultural life for decades. The extent to which this is true is often lost on us today.

The extent to which Edwin Booth was part of the fabric on New York City social and cultural life is often lost on us today. This playbill is from 1872, seven years after his younger brother assassinated Abraham Lincoln.

Last evening I had the unique opportunity and privilege to visit The Players NYC and see Edwin: The Story of Edwin Booth. The play is what is called in preview, which means the production is almost complete and is being shown in front of a live audience to work out the final details before it makes its public opening. I found the play poignant and will not give the ending, which surprised me totally. What made the evening special, besides the company and our gracious hosts, was the setting. Edwin Booth founded The Players in 1888. The Gramercy Park brownstone had been Booth’s private residence until he hired Stanford White to renovate it as a theater and social club for actors, writers, and artists. Samuel J. Tilden was Booth’s next-door-neighbor. It opened as a theater on December 31, 1888. Throughout the house was memorabilia from the club’s long history. Original members included William T. Sherman, Horace Porter, Mark Twain, and Elihu Root. That gives you an idea of the circles in which Booth mingled.

Members of The Players NYC who have enjoyed this Gramercy Park view have included Pete Hamill, Humphrey Bogart, William T. Sherman, Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart, and Morgan Freeman.

Members of The Players NYC who have enjoyed this Gramercy Park view have included Pete Hamill, Laurence Olivier, William T. Sherman, Dwight Eisenhower, Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart, and Morgan Freeman.

After the play our host took us to see some areas open to members-only. This included the one-room space in which Booth resided. It remains exactly as it was when he died. Propriety–unfortunately–prevented me from taking pictures. The sense of history was palpable. There was a large photograph of Edwin and John Wilkes’s booth father which was decorated with a black mourning ribbon common in Victorian times. There was so much else besides. I find it comforting that some remnants of Old New York are still here today in the twenty-first century. Thank you again to those who made such a memorable night possible.


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