Remembering Elizabeth Ann Seton this Gettysburg weekend

Today starts the 152nd anniversary of the Gettysburg Campaign. Alas we did not make it down to Pennsylvania this year but the campaign is not far from my mind. I thought I would share this post from two years ago about Elizabeth Ann Seton. Visiting her home and shrine during the centennial was something special.

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)

Olmsted’s Civil War

Olmsted in 1857

Olmsted in 1857 around the time he was to begin constructing New York City’s Central Park

Today marks a unique moment in Civil War and American history: Frederick Law Olmsted arrived in Washington D.C. from New York City on this date 155 years ago today. It is interesting to note that while he was one of the few predicting a long war and not the ninety day fight many forecast, he thought his own work with The Sanitary was only going to take six weeks or so. After that he would,he believed, go back and finish Central Park. The timing, for the country if not Olmsted, could not have been better; the Central Park commissioners had just significantly cut back his authority, which subsequently freed him total on the job of the Sanitary Commission secretary. Olmsted passionately believed in Union and an end to slavery, and I have a feeling the USSC secretaryship was not the means by which he most wanted to serve in putting down the rebellion. Had his health issues not been a hindrance,he might well have served in uniform.

Olmsted stayed on with the Sanitary Commission for two years and eventually left due to burnout and endless squabbles with his superiors, something that was a pattern with the intense landscaper artist. Still in those two years he set many of the procedures and precedents that carried on through the Great War via the Red Cross, the Second World War with the USO, and really on to the present day, albeit in different ways. It all began less than a month before the First Battle of Bull Run when Olmsted stepped off that train on June 27, 1861.

A Day in the Life…

IMG_1785At the beginning of the summer I added my chapter from The Wonder of It All into Academic Works with the help of a colleague at work. She recommended to me and others that we post our efforts on social media, etc. And so I figured I would link here to “What a Day with a Park Volunteer Can Do.” Essentially it is the story of how I came to Governors Island 5-6 years back. They asked us not to use names in our submissions. Here though I can say that the volunteer in the title is the great Sami Steigmann. Sami if you are reading this: we will do that interview sometime over the summer.

Treetones: a Strawfoot interview

There is a unique and thought-provoking art installation going on at Governors Island right now called Treetones. Governors Island is a fitting place for a show using trees. Native Americans called the island Pagannack, which was a reference to the abundant chestnut trees that then covered the island. The artist of Treetones is Jenna Spevack, who generously sat down and answered a few questions.

The Strawfoot: What is Treetones?

Jenna Spevack: Treetones, is a site-specific installation on Governors Island. Hand-sewn fabric wraps, made from tree rubbings, are tied to 12 different trees on the Island. Visitors are guided by a self-directed tour map to locate and identify the trees. They may also collect bark rubbings from each stop on the tour. Highlighted species include American Elm, Red Oak, Norway Maple, Horse Chestnut and London Plane. 

IMG_3210What was the inspiration for the installation?

I started my residency at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Process Space on Governors Island in March, before the trees started to leaf out. I had visited the Island before, in the summer, but hadn’t really noticed the trees. The lack of leaves accentuated the impressive size and distinctive shapes of the tree trunks and branches. I kept coming back to older trees, in awe of the age and the variations in bark; much of it deeply fissured and rough. It struck in me a sense of mortality, of the history of the Island, of my own life. The project was a way of bringing awareness to the trees and recognizing their endurance and strength.

IMG_3213How did you choose the trees?

I spent a lot of time at the start of my residency walking and biking the island, because I was doing research for another project, Overtones. I created maps of my walks and rides- identifying interesting routes and areas. I was drawn to the larger, older trees and was fascinated by bark. I started by making bark rubbings and discovered that subtle and not so subtle differences appeared in the rubbings. I then looked up the descriptions of the bark in tree identification books and loved the poetic descriptions, many reflecting on how the age of the tree changed or enhanced the appearance of the bark. For me, the character and attitude of the tree was defined by these visual and physical textures. In the end, I chose the trees for the project for their bark and for their locations around the Island.


This is a faraway photograph of the Honey Locust one sees directly above this image.

This is a faraway photograph of the Honey Locust one sees directly above this image.

What was the process of making the wraps?

I experimented with several different types of fabric and forms. I started with very simple muslin fabric wraps and then tried much louder sequined fabric flags. In the end I found something in the middle. I created bark rubbings on strips taffeta-type fabric using gravestone rubbing wax and then sewed them into bright orange sashes to draw attention to the trees. I created small pockets in each sash to hold the paper “give-away” rubbings. These tokens include a rubbing of that particular tree, the name of the tree and a short description of the bark.

Part of the experience of making the wraps was figuring out how to create a participatory installation for the visitors. The addition of the rubbings came about somewhat by accident while experimenting sewing. I like it when the act of making informs the final conceptual aspect of the project.

Yellow ribbons are a thoughtful detail.

Yellow ribbons are a thoughtful detail.

Have you done similar installations in the past. or is this a new direction for you?

Yes, I have completed similar public art and participatory installations.

“Birds of Brooklyn,” is an on-going, community-based audio artwork that brings the sounds of Brooklyn’s endangered and bygone birds to sites around the Borough to reconnect city dwellers with the natural sounds of the area and raise awareness about declining bird populations in urban environments. It was exhibited as a special project installation at the Pulse Miami / Art Basel art fair and is currently installed in locations in Brooklyn. [ ]

“Inside Out House,” a binaural audio installation embedded with sounds recorded in woodland and quiet agricultural landscapes. Using simulated blindness to enhance the aural sense, the project aims to mimic the restorative experience of being outside in nature using auditory stimuli. Viewers are invited to enter into the darkened structure and visualize their experience by contributing a drawing to the installation. It was exhibited at the BRIC Biennial and at CR10 Gallery in Hudson, NY.

Other participatory and public art projects can be viewed on

What is you next project?

I’m working on a public audio installation, Overtones, that aims to create aural connections to natural environments through the harmonic tones generated by wind harps discreetly installed in trees and abandoned buildings. I started research for this project while at my residency on Governors Island. More information:

When and how can people see Treetones?

Treetones is installed on Governors Island until June 30th.
For more information:

Bon weekend

IMG_3197Hey all, it’s shaping up for what should be a beautiful weekend. I’ll by doing my first Interp of the year at Governors Island this Sunday. I thought I would share this picture I took last Saturday of people queuing up to get in the Jazz lawn party. To tell you the truth it’s a city-sponsored event about which I have always felt ambivalent. It seems dangerously close to mimicry and cosplaying. But then if others enjoy it then who am I to judge? Most of the party goers are probably unaware of it, and then why shouldn’t they be, but in many ways it was the Great War that made the Jazz Age as we know it possible. The iconography of the 1920s–prohibition, the gangster and flapper girl–all stem from the political and moral failings of the years directly proceeding. It’s something to think about while watching Boardwalk Empire Enough of that though. Just enjoy the weekend.

Flag Day

IMG_2104Today happens to be Flag Day. Sadly I didn’t see any in my neighborhood when I left the house this morning. I thought I would share these photos I took in Green-Wood Cemetery not long ago at the resting place of Samuel Chester Reid, hero of the War of 1812 and designer of the American flag. Flag Day goes all the way back to the Revolutionary War but it was in 1916–100 years ago right now–that President Woodrow Wilson fixed June 14 as the permanent date for the remembrance.


The Fort Jay eagle

I am sitting in a coffee shop in Downtown Brooklyn as I type this. It’s clear and bright outside. I was back on Governors Island yesterday. It was good seeing old faces along with some new ones. I can already tell it’s going to be a special summer. We had our orientation, part of which included a special behind-the-scenes look at the restoration of the eagle atop Fort Jay. The sculpture is one of the oldest built-structures in New York City, tracing back to the construction of the fort in the 1790s. Over the centuries that Army and then the Coast Guard did what they could to preserve the sandstone figure; still, because historic preservation falls outside the bounds of their missions, their efforts were helpful but sometimes haphazard. Time, salt air and harbor winds took their toll, and Superstorm Sandy damaged the statue even further. The current renovation work has been progressing with all the accouterments of modern preservation techniques. As it turns out Governors Island National Monument is in the running with nineteen other NPS sites in a competition for funding to further the work. Learn more–and vote–here if you are so inclined. One can vote once a day through July 5.


A ranger discusses the ins-and-outs of the project.

A ranger discusses the ins-and-outs of the project.


The sandstone is heavy and is moved into place with hoists. One can the scaffolded eagle in the background.

The sandstone is heavy and is moved into place with hoists. One can see the scaffolded eagle in the background.


The eagle as seen in a late nineteenth century publication of the Military Service Institution.

The eagle as seen in a late nineteenth century publication of the Military Service Institution. Note that it is called Fort Columbus here, which was the fort’s name for about a century until Elihu Root changed the name back to Fort Jay during the Theodore Roosevelt Administration.

Find your park.

The other June 6th

Kennedy was a U.S. senator representing New York while running for the presidency in 1968

Kennedy was a U.S. senator representing New York State while running for the presidency in 1968.

I was leaving work last night when I struck up a conversation with one of my co-workers about the anniversary of the Normandy Invasion, the 72nd anniversary of which was of course yesterday. That led to a discussion about another event that took place on a June 6: the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. All told it was a terrible year in American history, with the Tet Offensive, MLK assassination, riots, violence at the Democratic Convention in Chicago and so many other things I am leaving out as a type this. As my friend’s and my conversation continued I remembered that there is a bust of RFK in Cadman Plaza and that I had showed it to students during one of our walk-throughs this past semester. In the spring it was behind some construction fencing, but as you can see from these images I took after work last night, that fencing has been removed.

The phased renovation has led to the removal of plaques and trees dedicated to Great War veterans.

The phased renovation of the plaza (this is another part of the plaza, just north of the RFK memorial) has led to the removal of plaques and trees dedicated to Great War veterans.

There are a great many memorials within Cadman Plaza. Three of our students wrote about different ones in their final papers, and even with that there were still a good 4-5 we left out. Unfortunately some of the memorials are now gone; trees with memorial plaques dedicated to Brooklyn men who had served in the Great War have been torn up to make way for the renovation of Columbus Park and Cadman Plaza that has been taking incrementally over the past year or so.

One of the inscriptions on the Robert F. Kennedy memorial.

One of the inscriptions on the Robert F. Kennedy memorial.

Though she did not address the audience Ethel Kennedy, Boby Kennedy’s widow, was on hand during the unveiling of the bronze bust when it was dedicated on November 2, 1972. Coincidentally or not the dedication came five days prior to the presidential election in which Nixon defeated McGovern. I was curious to see if anyone would be making note of the statue but in the five minutes or so I was there no one did. It will be interesting to see if two years from now they do something in the Plaza to mark the 50th anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s assassination.

Thinking of Charles P. Summerall on Memorial Day

As I mentioned the other day I could not make it out to Governors Island this weekend because I have some things I must catch up on. I’m sure they’re having way too much fun out there. I thought I would do the next best thing and mark Memorial Day by recognizing one of the great men to have passed through the island: Charles P. Summerall. I wrote about his frequent visits to the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace two years ago. The top photograph was taken on September 22, 1937 at a reunion of the Society of the First Division. The 16th Infantry Regiment re-enacted the 1918 Battle of Fleville that afternoon, and later that evening there was a banquet at the Hotel Pennsylvania overseen by Colonel Theodore (Ted) Roosevelt. The images of his headstone were taken in Arlington Cemetery last month.

I am out the door in a few minutes to get some things done. Whatever you do today, stop and remember this Memorial Day.




top image/A Seventeen-gun salute was accorded General Charles P. Summerall, retired (center, hat on chest), when he returned to Governor Island to see the re-enactment of the Battle of Fleville today. General Summerall was a war-time commander of the First Division. (Photo by Anthony Calvacca / (c) NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images)



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