Last weekend, Bronx Community College held their Diversity in Public Art event which celebrated artistic contributions made by and reflecting a multitude of cultural backgrounds, and above all to honor the historic first Hall of Fame in the United States.
Opened to the public, this event began on September 21st and will run through October 25th displaying a mix of exhibitions that include paintings, sculptures, films, digital art and various mixed media, with the focal point being to reexamine the Hall of Fame and focus on the importance of cultural diversity in public monuments.
Kicking off the commencement last Saturday in the Gould Memorial Library were some opening remarks by Luis Montenegro, BCC Interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs. A musical performance followed by the Hondurian Bodoma Garifuna Culture band to get the “party” started featuring inspiring rhythmic drum compositions and harmonized singing, which included colorfully dressed traditional dancers performing in time with the music.
Film screenings, poetry readings and performances filled the day culminating with an award ceremony and closing remarks.
For many in attendance, (and I count myself among this group) the tour of the Hall of Fame of Great Americans was the prominent highlight of the day. Considering the fact that the weather could not have been more cooperative and one of the most beautiful Fall days ever, our group tour was conducted by the esteemed Bronx Historian, Lloyd Ultan.
Both a Bronx native and a graduate of Hunter College and Columbia University respectively, Mr. Ultan has been the borough’s historian since 1996, having an illustrious career as a professor of history at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Petrocelli College of Continuing Studies and a member of the adjunct faculty at Lehman College. Needless to say, the tour was very illuminating!
Sharing both historical facts and pertinent pop culture information about the Hall of Fame itself and the individuals honored, Mr. Ultan’s charm and knowledge were matched only by his ability to sprinkle humor throughout the tour, making it captivating and entertaining.
The outdoor sculpture gallery that comprises The Hall of Fame for Great Americans is of course located on the grounds of Bronx Community College, but what many may not realize is that it is the first ever such hall of fame in the country.
Conceived by Dr. Henry Mitchell MacCracken, Chancellor of New York University, the Hall of Fame was intended as a way to honor Americans who made a significant contribution to our society. According to The American Monthly Review of Reviews published in 1900, Chancellor MacCracken acknowledged that his inspiration was derived from the Ruhmeshalle (Hall of Fame) in Munich, Germany.
And while fame has come to mean more of “celebrity” these days, over a century ago, the meaning was more akin to that of “renown” which is ever apparent from the 96 (formerly 98) portrait busts that line the 630 foot open-air Colonnade of the Hall of Fame.
Originally built on the grounds of what was New York University’s University Heights campus, the school was forced to sell the campus to the City University of New York in 1973 when it then became Bronx Community College. What a lovely inheritance for BCC – an architectural masterpiece which had previously been designated a New York City Landmark on February 15, 1966 and would be added to the National Register of Historical Placed on September 7, 1979.
Mr. Ultan delighted our mesmerized group with fundamental facts about those individuals honored and a few tidbits of trivia which included how the Munchkins of Munchkinland mentioned the Hall of Fame in the 1939 feature film, The Wizard of Oz when they were honoring Dorothy.
The Beaux Arts structure was designed by the architect Stanford White (who, incidentally also designed the BCC Gould Memorial Library), was named for its donor Helen Gould and dedicated on May 30, 1901.
If you are curious like me, you may be wondering how it came to be decided who would be featured in the Hall of Fame. Well, as Mr. Ultan explained, there was a procedure and a number of requirements to the process. Each state was allowed to nominate notable persons for consideration, regardless of gender or race, however, individuals were required to be native born or naturalized (since 1914) citizens of the United States.
To avoid the prospect of self promotion, it was required that nominees be dead for 10 years from 1900 to 1920 and then it was increased to 25 years deceased in 1922. Lastly, a nominee must have made a major contribution to the economic, political, or cultural life of the nation.
I decided to embark on a little research myself about the election process and came upon a wonderful article written by Richard Rubin of The Atlantic Monthly, written in 1997, entitled “The Mall of Fame” which explains the election process beautifully:
“MacCracken wanted to make sure that the people enshrined in his Hall of Fame were truly famous, not just memorable. So he established a board of electors, composed of men and women who were themselves possessed of some measure of renown, ostensibly people of great character and sound judgment. Over the years that body would include the most respected writers, historians, and educators of their day, along with scores of congressmen, a dozen Supreme Court justices, and six Presidents…It was a truly democratic institution — anyone could nominate a candidate, admission would be free, and although NYU served as a
steward, raising funds and running the elections, the whole thing was technically the property of the American people.”
The Colonnade is well-designed and broken into categorized marked sections, that comprise fifteen classes and our delightful tour guide highlighted several individuals from each one, providing insight into their accomplishments and contributions. These classes include authors and editors, businessmen, inventors, missionaries and explorers, philanthropists and reformers, clergymen and theologians, scientists, engineers and architects, lawyers and judges, musicians, painters, and sculptors, physicians and surgeons, politicians and statesmen, soldiers and sailors, teachers and distinguished men and women outside of these classes.
Equally relevant are the sculptures who created the busts, who were as diversified in their backgrounds and native countries as the elected individuals whose likenesses fill the hall. Upon entering from the grounds of the campus, the first category featured are inventors and scientists, which was a great way to kick off the tour!
Here is a short list of those individuals featured on our tour. See how many you know!
In the case of Robert E. Lee, he is disliked today because he was a commander of the Confederate States Army, however, he was a top graduate of the United States Military Academy and an exceptional officer and military engineer in the United States Army for 32 years. He also distinguished himself during the Mexican–American War, and served as Superintendent of the United States Military Academy.
As for Stonewall Jackson, he was also a Confederate general during the American Civil War and his military strategies are still studied today.
Elisa is a travel blogger and freelance writer. She is co-founder of TravelinCousins.com travel blog and writes a weekly column for ThisIsTheBronx.info.