ITS OUT-OF-THE-WAY SETTING IS GLORIOUS IN ITS FASHION
Many important things tend to get overlooked in New York City, including its historic places. The nation’s first President was inaugurated there, and the general who saved the Union is entombed there, yet at the sites of both these events, you will usually find more people outside buying hot dogs than inside experiencing history. Even more neglected than Federal Hall and Grant’s Tomb is the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, a National Historic Landmark that celebrated its one hundredth birthday this spring.
The Hall of Fame for Great Americans was the country’s first hall of fame; its success inspired Cooperstown and all the rest. In its early years, induction was the ultimate accolade for an American. Visitors flocked to the uptown campus of New York University (now Bronx Community College) to find inspiration in the noble bronze busts of Presidents, generals, scientists, and scholars. But on a warm and lovely weekday afternoon this spring, the only people present in the hall (which is actually an outdoor colonnade) were a pair of workers repairing light fixtures and a few students smoking cigarettes.
Today, although the hall is well maintained and scrupulously swept, it remains the very embodiment of the old-fashioned great-man view of history, and there is no escaping the contrast between the faces of the inductees and those of the working-class Bronx students outside. The era when history was an assemblage of names and busts now seems as remote as the time when the Bronx was a rural enclave, staring at statues was a popular form of entertainment, and people knew who Sidney Lanier was. (Lanier, a now-forgotten Southern poet, can be found in the authors’ section of the hall.)
The Hall of Fame can hardly be called a tourist attraction. It stands in a decidedly middle-class neighborhood, far from the theaters and theme restaurants of Manhattan. Yet a walk through the hall makes the surrounding campus’s workaday atmosphere (once you get past the McKim, Mead, & White buildings) seem peculiarly appropriate. Surely everyone who is enshrined there would be pleased to be find himself or herself in the midst of ordinary citizens going about the business of learning. Few institutions do America greater credit than its egalitarian system of public education, particularly in an immigrant-heavy area like the Bronx. For this reason, the Hall of Fame’s 98 enshrinees might find particularly appropriate the motto that is inscribed on Christopher Wren’s tomb in St. Paul’s Cathedral: Si monumentum requiris circumspice (If you seek a monument, look around you).