The Journal of the American Revolution has uploaded my article about the early days of Tammany. I hope you enjoy reading it a much I enjoyed putting it together.
This morning a friend and I ventured to the end of the 1 Train on a gorgeous summer day to visit the Van Cortlandt House Museum, the oldest remaining house in New York City. The structure dates to 1748. It was more coincidence than anything else–we did not realize it when we booked out tickets online earlier in the week–but in a piece of good fortune we happened to be there on the 240th anniversary of the Washington-Rochambeau Grand Reconnaissance. The two generals had met on the premises on July 23, 1781 on the third of three days of reconnoitering British strengths in and around New York City. Ultimately they of course decided against an offensive against the Redcoats headquartered in Manhattan and instead went south to face Cornwallis at Yorktown. It was great to see people out using the park, and also striking up conversations with fellow museum visitors and knowledgeable museum staff. I took the photo you see here of one of the gardens from the second floor. Summer 2021 is on. Go get some.
Last night I finished watching the new PBS documentary “The Black Church.” Over these past several evenings I watched each of the four one-hour installments over four nights. I got into something of a routine where when each episode concluded I would email a friend who was also watching and we would compare notes, if you will, with our impressions. I can’t recommend the film highly enough. One of the things I like the most about Henry Louis Gates as a documentarian is the way he listens without judgment and lets the interviewee tell their story. One need not agree with everyone all of the time, or even any of the time, to respectfully let them have their say. The Black Church, like all human institutions, is a flawed—one might say fallen—institution whose stirring triumphs exist within the complexities and ambiguities inherent in human existence. Gates and his team capture that. It is hard to image an America without the Black Church and everything it has given over the centuries not just to its followers but to the country as a whole.
Last night the same friend sent me this article asking if I had heard of the recent opening in Nashville of the National Museum of African American Music. Almost twenty-five years ago now this same friend and I took in a great exhibit about jazz at the African American Museum of Dallas. I had not seen the opening of this new museum, or even heard of its creation. With the pandemic still very much on this is a tough time for a museum to open. Hopefully it can weather these crazy times until the world opens up again. I would love to visit this place some day.
(image/photographers Carl Van Vechten via Library of Congress)
Here is something one does not see every day. It is a circa 1790s medal of The Society of the Cincinnati. The Cincinnati was an organization founded by American officers of the Revolutionary War in the 1780s just as the conflict was winding down. The first owner of this would thus himself have fought in the war. The “original” Cincinnati, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, was a Roman statesman and military leader who gave up power so as not to become a martial dictator. It was in this same spirit that George Washington resigned his own commission in December 1783.
I took this image yesterday at the Yale Art Gallery. Francis Patrick Garvan and his wife Mabel gave the medal and 10,000 other objects from the Colonial and Early American periods to Yale in 1930 in celebration of their twentieth wedding anniversary. It was the Garvan’s hope that these items be seen by as many people as possible, both via display in the Yale University Art Gallery itself and through loan to such institutions as Mount Vernon and elsewhere so that the items might, in the Garvan’s own words according to a 1938 Yale arts bulletin I discovered in JSTOR, “become a moving part in a great panorama of American Arts and Crafts.”
I went today as a tourist to the Daughters of the American Revolution headquarters in Washington. The museum and library are in Memorial Continental Hall, which are connected by a hallway to Constitution Hall, which I did not see. The museum is really something, as is the library. There were many things to see; among the things that struck me the most were these genealogy pamphlets about how to research one’s Revolutionary War ancestor by ethnicity. It’s a small reminder of how complicated the Revolutionary War period was. There are handouts for French, Jewish, Native American, and Spanish ancestry. And this is just touching the surface. The Dutch, for instance, are another category all their own. Then there are the Portuguese, and so on and so forth. New York City alone was a babel of languages and dialects.
I had a great talk with several young staffers during my excursion about the museum and its historical mission and memory. If you are ever in D.C. and are looking for something to see right near the mall, the DAR headquarters is not a bad choice.
was I received an email last week from artist Robert Gould, who introduced himself and invited me out to see his current art exhibit, which he did in collaboration with poet Gerald Wagoner. Tis past Sunday I ventured out to the Gowanus, where I met Rob and Jerry. We had a great conversation. They sat down and answered some questions about their current installation.
The Strawfoot: Robert Gould, tell us about “On the Tides of Time.” What inspired the series?
Robert Gould: I am an artist who draws inspiration from historical events. Over the years I have created a body of work about the Battle of Brooklyn, and this year I was offered a month long residency at Gowanus Dredgers boathouse. The month of August was chosen because it marks the anniversary of the battle. As part of the residency I created an exhibit that includes my paintings and the poetry of my good friend Gerald Wagoner who shares my passion for history. His poems have a different approach to the passage of time and add his personal observations. He also came up with the title, “On the Tides of Time,” which he pulled from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
My painting series is a continuation of a piece I made a couple of years ago, “Maryland Willow of the Gowanus.” It includes the names of the Maryland soldiers written on willow leaves. I combined these leaves with a photograph I had taken of the Old Stone House using a primitive camera.
For this new series I expanded the theme by incorporating natural elements from the fields of battle. For example, the picture titled “Black Eyed Susan of the Gowanus” features actual river marsh grass with collaged paper black eyed Susan flowers (the Maryland state flower).
Who were the Maryland 400?
RG: The “Maryland 400” was a nickname the Maryland Militia earned during the Battle of Brooklyn. They were under the command of William Alexander also known as Lord Stirling, although his Scottish earldom was rejected by the House of Lords. They were one of General Washington’s most competent troops at the battle. They repeatedly counter-attacked and fought a delaying action to allow other militia troops to cross the difficult terrain of the Gowanus marsh lands thus saving a number of other units from capture and destruction.
The state of Maryland is meaningful to me because I was born there. I moved to NYC to attend college and have remained ever since. My family is originally from eastern Ohio. The first Robert Gould, in our family records, settled what was then the frontier of Ohio after his services in the War of 1812.
The Gowanus Dodgers Canoe Club Boathouse is an ideal venue for the exhibit. How does the site, being where it is, relate to the art works?
RG: I agree it’s an ideal venue for this exhibit! It is located on the exact spot of the Battle of Brooklyn. I have included a painting by Alonzo Chapple, a 19thCentury American painter. His image of the battle from Brouwer Mill pond was within a hundred yards of the boathouse site. The interior of the boathouse space is also ideal because it has long, high, unfinished walls. Because my work uses natural materials the scale of the materials dictates the finished size of the paintings. For example “Hessian Bayonets” incorporates steel bayonets that I fabricated along with rubbings of real tree bark. The resulting painting ended up being 8×15 feet. Thus the scale of the works needs a larger forum than most local gallery spaces.
Is place a recurring theme in your work?
RG: Yes, place is a recurring theme. I strive to find novel ways to describe “place”. The various materials that I use to create the paintings become the subject matter. It is this curated use of materials that reference the place of the battle. I keep coming back to this quote from Gen. Joshua L. Chamberlain taken from his dedcation speech to the 20th Maine Monument at Gettysburg in 1888:
“In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.
Explain broadly the piece in the series. What materials did you use? What inspired them?
RG: I’ll include what I’ve written about each painting:
“Maryland Willow of the Gowanus” (2016)
I was inspired to create this work from a photograph that I saw in a book about the Old Stone House, called The Stone House of Gowanus by Georgia Fraser (1909). The house was the center of the fighting during the Battle of Long Island in 1776. Near the end of her book there is a photograph of a lone willow tree in the vacant lot where the house once stood. (pp.129) The author claimed that it is the same willow that is depicted in old paintings of the house. I am not so sure of that, however, I became fascinated by the idea of an old Willow tree that links us back to the times of 1776. So my creative idea was to inscribe the names of the Maryland soldiers onto willow leaves. The leaves are then arranged in long hanging branches that represent the different fighting units that the soldiers were with. For example all the soldiers from the Second Company are represented by leaves on one branch that hangs down in the image.
“Elements of Gun Powder 75%, 15%, 10%” (2019)
Rock Salt, Charcoal, Paper Mache, Sulfur, Acrylic Paint, Marsh Grass.
A graphic representation of the ratio of the three elements that compose gunpowder (known today as black powder). Various armies used slightly different ratios of these essential elements to create explosive powder. This is the ratio of the British army: 75 % saltpeter or potassium nitrate, 15% charcoal, 10% sulfur.
In the painting, the different elements are displayed as horizontal bands. The thickness of the bands represents the ratio of that element as present in the British formulation. This is overlaid on marsh grass that has been sourced in Brooklyn. Marsh grass was plentiful in the Gowanus area during the time of the Battle of Long Island.
Black-Eyed Susan of the Gowanus (2019)
Marsh Grass, Acrylic House Paint, Powdered Pigment, Natural Dyes, Rock Salt, Iron Powder, Paper College, mounted on Paper Shopping Bags.
This painting references the Maryland state flower, the black-eyed Susan, and uses marsh grass as a form of requiem. The Gowanus area was a barrier for the retreating American army. It was the sacrifice and repeated attacks of the Maryland troops that allowed other American soldiers to retreat to the safety of downtown Brooklyn. The development of the Gowanus area has been built over the unknown graves of the Maryland soldiers.
Hessian Bayonets (2019)
Welded Steel, Canvas, Oil Stick, Acrylic House Paint, Powder Pigment, Iron Powder, Paper collage, Paper Shopping Bags Mounted on wood frame.
This painting has evolved from local folklore. Hessian soldiers were German mercenary, “solders for hire”. They were used by the British army to supplement their own troops. During the Battle of Long Island Hessian troops acted as a diversion to deceive the American army into thinking the main British attack was happening in what today is known as Prospect Park. Meanwhile the true British attack was able to cut off and isolate the American troops facing the Hessians. The Americans, upon realizing this, fled towards what today is downtown Brooklyn. The Hessian troops, perhaps because of language barriers, or perhaps because of British propaganda, did not take prisoners. Instead they used bayonets mounted at the end of their muskets to kill any surrendering American solider they came across.
The painting was created using rubbings of actual tree trunks from the “Battle Pass” area of Prospect Park. Oil stick was used to transfer the bark pattern from the trees to the canvas strips. These strips of canvas were mounted to the substrate of paper shopping bags and hand forged steel bayonets were impaled into the tree bark.
Gun Powder Sky (2019)
Acrylic House paint, Powder pigment, Iron Powder, Rock Salt, Marsh Grass, Charcoal, Sulfur on Paper Shopping Bag.
This work references the painting “Battle of Long Island”by Alonzo Chappel (1828-1887)That painting depicts the retreat of the “Maryland 400” across Brouwer’s Mill Pond which was located across the canal from this site.
The title alludes to the great blinding noxious clouds of white smoke that were created by the burning gunpowder. Battles of this time in history were often hard to directly observe because of the tremendous volumes of thick smoke that were generated. Consequently, because the battle was totally obscured, generals of the time had a difficult time controlling the movements of their troops.
The artist has layered the ingredients of gun powder and local marsh grass. White paint covers and obscures that under-structure. The paint is layered in such a way so as to let the chemical reaction of iron and salt stain and penetrate the white painted surface. Rust and decay are modern components that allude to both the past and present environment of the Gowanus canal.
You and Gerald have visited many historic sites over the years. Which ones have meant the most to you?
RG: I will let Gerald speak more about that.
Any ideas for future projects you can tell us about?
RG: Nothing concrete yet, but I can see us doing something on Governor’s Island next summer during one of their art fairs.
The Strawfoot: Gerald Wagoner, you have lived in Brooklyn thirty-five year now. What does the borough mean to you?
Gerald Wagoner: I moved to New York because this is where the art is, and the artists are. I ended up in Brooklyn and have never regretted it. A few years ago I decided to express my creative urges in poetic form, and now Brooklyn is a hive of poets, so it is exciting to be part of the conversation.
What was your life like before moving to Brooklyn? Where did you grow up and how did it make you who you are today?
GW: I grew up in Eastern Oregon and in northern Montana on sixty miles east of Glacier National Park. In my poems Montana weather and people are joyless adversaries of mine in a magnificently grand landscape
The West, I think, made my language spare. I was a creative writing major at the University of MT when the poet Richard Hugo was teaching. He left a lifelong impression on me, as did Richard Stankiewicz when I earned my Sculpture MFA at SUNY Albany.
As I brought up with Robert, the two of you have visited many historic sites. Which would you say have meant the most to you?
GW: I think maybe it was tracing Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg over South Mountain to Falling Waters where the army crossed the Potomac because on that trip we learned things that were totally new and perspective altering.
Your poetry complements Robert’s art works in the exhibit. Tell us about your poems.
GW: The poems surprised me. Which is always a good thing. I had taken pages of notes about the canal, and learned some new things about the Battle of Brooklyn, but it is rare for me to sit down at the table and sketch out three related, but distinct poems like I did one morning. The Gowanus Canal is tidal, so it comes in and goes out, and up and down giving it metaphorical qualities of time and change. The title Tides of Time is from a line in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
I’ve known this canal for twenty-five years and things are changing, and I am lamenting that change partially because I’m older and decaying too. The only other thing I would add regarding my poems is that I revise relentlessly, and I aim for a fluid musicality that is suitable to the poem.
Where and when can people see “On the Tides of Time?”
GW: “On the Tides of Time,” at 165 2nd street in Brooklyn, is on view Saturdays and Sundays in from 1:00-5:00 in August and there will be a poetry reading Wednesday August 14 from 7:00-9:00 pm featuring 12 poets and myself reading original theme related poems.
I would love to have been able to visit Mount Vernon today but alas that was not feasible. I imagine they are having events today, and again this coming Friday on President Washington’s actual birthday. Inspired by yesterday’s post about Al Smith and his annual viewing of the retired firemen of Brooklyn, I’m leaving in a bit to visit the New York City Fire Museum in SOHO. Fire houses played a role in Washington and 4th of July observances from the time of the Early Republic until just a few recent decades ago. I’m up and out early because when I return I have to prepare for the week ahead, not least the laundry.
Enjoy your Presidents Day, everyone.
(image/Early twentieth century Edward Penfield poster via Library of Congress)
This past August, almost six months ago now, a friend and I visited the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Upper Manhattan. Among other things, on display at the time was an exhibit of the works of cartoonist Charles Addams. The artist was the originator of The Addams Family, which he based on his real life family much in the way Matt Groening later based The Simpsons on his own family. I have no doubt that Groening knew the history of Addams’s work when starting out in the late 1980s, around the time Charles Addams died of a heart attack in 1988. Addams had begun working for the New Yorker in 1935 during what we know see was a golden age of magazine writing and drawing. His contemporaries include such figures as Rea Irvin, Norman Rockwell, and J. C. Leyendecker. The item that struck me the most that day at the Morris-Jamel house was this image we see here of the presidents, which Addams created for the June 3, 1972 New Yorker cover. This would have been the summer of the McGovern vs Nixon presidential race.
The photo is not the best because the drawing was behind a pane of glass. I told my friend on that hot August day that I would post this come late January on what would have been Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s birthday. FDR was born on this day in 1882. We see him here in the top row, fourth from the left, standing tall with his characteristic big grin.
Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act on this date in 1864. This legislation deeded Yosemite and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the state of California. It is interesting to note that Congress wrote and President Lincoln signed the measure in late June 1864, just days after the Overland Campaign in which so many men had been killed or wounded in ghastly ways. Even with the war far from decided people were looking ahead.
I tell the story a little bit in my book. The painting we see here was begun by Albert Bierstadt in 1863 and finished in 1864. While out west Bierstadt was also writing to his good friend John Hay, Lincoln’s secretary, back in Washington about the scenic beauty of California. It is not difficult to imagine Hay describing all this to his boss in the White House. As it happened, another man from back east was in California in 1863: Frederick Law Olmsted. He had resigned his position as secretary of the United States Sanitary Commission in September to take a job running a mine in Mariposa. Olmsted was burned out from his work with the Sanitary Commission and got as far away as he could by going out west. Soon after Lincoln signed the Yosemite legislation, Frederick Law Olmsted found himself part of a commission whose job it was to survey Yosemite and the Big Tree Grove and create for California officials a plan the state might use to make these protected parklands. Olmsted and his colleagues went about their task and submitted a report in August 1865. California officials ultimately tabled Olmsted’s report, deeming his provisions too expensive.
As for the painting we see above, it quickly ended up in New York City just after Albert Bierstadt completed it in early 1864. That spring officials of the Sanitary Commission sold the art work during the Metropolitan Sanitary Fair. The fair, like others held in various locales, raised funds for the Sanitary Commission to do its work tending the needs of soldiers out in the field. Albert Bierstadt’s “Valley of the Yosemite” sold for $1600, the highest sum for any artwork on sale for charity at the New York Sanitary Fair.
(image/Museum of Fine Arts Boston)
I am having my Sunday coffee and listening to Yusuf Lateef. With the semester in its final few days, it’s going to be a working Sunday. I have already sent a few emails and will tie up various loose ends over the course of the day. Yesterday a friend and I braved the rain and crossed the river to visit the Newark Museum of Art. I had not been there in 6-7 years and can say that officials there have been doing great work maintaining what has always been an outstanding cultural institution. If you live in New York City and are ever looking for a place to visit, I can attest that the Newark Museum is very easy to get to. Top it off with lunch or dinner in The Ironbound, as we did, and you’ve had a good day.
I took this photo of the Newark Paramount theater on the way to the museum. Some readers may know of the old Paramount Theater in Midtown Manhattan that they tore down decades ago. The reason there was “another” Paramount in Newark is because the movie studios owned their own theaters until losing a major antitrust case in 1948, after which Paramount and others had to divest themselves of their movie houses. As you can see, the Newark Paramount now stands empty. If my memory serves, the last time I was in the vicinity this was a storefront in which Rastafarians were selling oils and incense. Some rudimentary internet searching informs me that this opened as a vaudeville theater in 1886. To put that in perspective, that was the year after Ulysses S. Grant died.
The space in Newark came under new management and was expanded in 1916. Expansion in this period makes sense; in 1916 with the Great War raging in Europe there was a great deal of activity in Essex County, New Jersey. The docks were teeming and it makes sense that there would be entertainment options such as this. During and immediately after the First World War this would have meant live stage entertainment, and starting in the late 1920s moving pictures.
Last night on the train home I sent this photo to a friend who was born in the early 1960s and lived in this area until the mid-70s, when his family moved to a Sunbelt State. This led to a philosophical discussion over text messaging about loss and memory. My friend mentioned how this all seemed like eons in the past. The Newark Paramount closed as a movie theater in April 1986–itself now a lifetime ago–and while my friend in all likelihood never saw a film there, it is a good bet his mother and father did in their own early years.
I have a yen for these old theaters, having in the 1990s worked for a large chain bookstore based in old art deco move house that in the 2010s because a Trader Joe’s. The race seems to be on to save the Newark Paramount. A society cannot let things lie literally in ruins just for the sake of holding on to the past, but hopefully some vestige of this old treasure can be incorporated into Newark’s future as things continue to move forward. We’ll see how things develop, no pun intended.