New Ideas Highlight An Inspired Setting

By Cathy Rainone

There’s the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Football Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But the original Hall of Fame — located at Bronx Community College — might be among the best-kept secrets in America.

On a recent spring day, student John Abreu was immersed in a book of Latin literature while sitting among bronze busts of Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Graham Bell and Ulysses S. Grant.  He discovered the Hall last fall and since then has been going there to read whenever weather permits. “I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else in New York,” says Abreu, a criminal justice major. “But I didn’t know what it was, and I don’t think a lot of people know about it.”

Founded in 1900 to honor prominent Americans, it’s the country’s first Hall of Fame. Ninety-eight busts of American luminaries grace the open-air colonnade overlooking a view from the Hudson River to the Cloisters. Besides figures familiar to just about everyone, there are lesser-known, but influential Americans, such as scientist Josiah Gibbs and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

BCC students, who enjoyed the Hall during the unusually balmy weather in March, say that they recognize some of the prominent men, but they hadn’t known they were standing in the original Hall of Fame.

“It highlights the people that influenced America,” says Laura Alcantara, a psychology major who was doing homework for her French class in the Hall, “but I didn’t know that it’s the [first] Hall of Fame. It looks really nice with all the busts.”

Nahshon Baum, a tour guide at the Hall, says that in the 1900s the national press wrote about the nominees and the Hall would receive lots of letters from citizens making recommendations for the honor. But since the mid-1970s, a lack of funds has kept the Hall off history’s radar. In fact the last inductees, Louis Brandeis, Andrew Carnegie, Luther Burbank and Clara Barton, were chosen for the four remaining vacant Colonnade spots in 1976, but there wasn’t enough money to commission their busts.

In recent years, the college has been trying to revive the landmark, which has a total of 102 honorees, including 11 women and two minorities. Wendell Joyner became director last year and he says things are looking up. Hundreds of people have visited the Hall on guided and self-guided tours since October. To increase awareness, the college requires freshmen taking an orientation class to complete a small project about the Hall, and some history and English courses are paired with the Hall of Fame. Joyner sees it as a practical educational tool.

“It’s academic and it’s historic,” he says. “It’s people you know, some you may not know, so it’s educational. Our vision is to expand it into the community. We’re working on a coloring book and another book with historical facts for middle-school kids — you have to be creative” to get students interested.

The idea for the Hall came from Henry Mitchell MacCracken, chancellor of New York University from 1891 to 1910, and it was built as part of the construction of the undergraduate college in University Heights.

The focal point of the Hall, which sits behind the Gould Memorial Library, the Hall of Languages and the Cornelius Baker Hall of Philosophy, is the 630-foot Colonnade, built to hold 102 bronze sculptures. The Colonnade and the complex of three buildings were designed by Stanford White, architect of Madison Square Garden.

The busts are original works by American master sculptors, among them, James Earle Fraser, who’s known for the figure of justice and the figure of law at the U.S. Supreme Court and Frederick MacMonnies, whose spandrel reliefs are on White’s Washington Arch.

Nominees had to have had a significant impact on the nation’s history and had to be deceased for at least 10 years (later extended to 25 years). The inductees, who were chosen every three years, then every five, were authors, educators, architects, inventors and military leaders. Judges, theologians, philanthropists, scientists, artists and explorers are also represented.

The Hall changed hands in 1976 when the NYU campus was sold to BCC.

Along with the Gould Memorial Library, the Hall is a New York City landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is awaiting a National Landmark designation, which, Joyner hopes, will create some much-needed buzz about it. He would like to raise enough funds to commission the four missing busts and to create a virtual tour of the Hall, to entice people to visit in person.

Florraine Clarke-Hewitt recently visited the Hall after making a trip to BCC’s admissions office and was surprised to find it.

“I didn’t know it was here, and I love history, especially American history,” says Clarke-Hewitt, who hails from Jamaica and is thinking of studying social work at BCC. “I was impressed; it’s unique, it helps you understand what these people looked like back then.”

Amid statues of great Americans, BCC student Mohiuddin Ahmed chats with his family in the United Kingdom.