Sunday, April 03, 2005

The Hudson River Hall of Fame

From the Woodstock and Kingston Times, March 10, 2005:
Writing this column about the great figures in our region’s remarkably rich past has sparked a big idea, for which I invite your collaboration: to wake the echoes literally in a Hudson River Hall of Fame. Such a setting, whether bricks and mortar or virtual (or, ideally, both), will make the past come alive for young people who think history is something that happens elsewhere and for grownups out of touch with their native sense of place. Uniquely in the Hudson Valley, this cradle of national culture with so many tangible remains of its storied past, ghosts are our everyday neighbors.

To those who would wish to enter into their largely vanished world and learn about how it still shapes us, the Hudson River Hall of Fame is an idea whose time is now. It will bring regional and national attention to its host city and county, and it will extend the educational and community development efforts of the Valley’s museums, libraries, and historical societies.

A hall of fame, as distinguished from a museum, forms a superior educational and inspirational institution for young people especially, focusing as it does on individuals rather than chronological periods, movements, or events (although of course these come into focus soon enough). The physical installation would be the hub for a constellation of web and other media extensions, so that the HRHF will have broad exposure (and in some measure financial support) to a community larger than, say, Ulster County, or New York State. Let me put forward two sites for purposes of example, though possibilities abound throughout the Valley: the Carnegie Library on Broadway in Kingston and the Dutch Reformed Church in Newburgh, both of them historic buildings crying out for adaptive reuse.

Where would the HRHF be located? Who would pay for it? Who would manage it? These are big questions subject to public debate and political process, but the siting will surely be in one of the ten counties defined as the Hudson River National Heritage Area, whose creation was spurred by the efforts of Congressman Maurice Hinchey. Some level of public funding will be welcome if not absolutely necessary, though I believe it should be in the form of a matching grant; the community that wants to host the HRHF must be able to demonstrate its enthusiasm with contributions in cash or in kind. The HRHF could create its own initially skeletal management infrastructure, but its directors would be wise to tap into the ready audience of the public schools and the knowledge base of the local historical societies.

How would the public be served? Could the HRHF, once founded, sustain itself in whole or in part? How would the candidates be nominated and inducted? These are operational issues, for which useful precedents are available, both of them in the State of New York.

The original American Hall of Fame was not the baseball institution in Cooperstown, which opened its doors in 1939, but the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, dedicated in 1901 on what was then a Bronx campus of New York University. In its early years this brainchild of NYU’s Chancellor Henry Mitchell MacCracken was a sensation, engaging the public and the press in spirited debate about who merited inclusion. The NYU Senate, which acted as a nominating committee back in 1900, received nominations from the public and if seconded by a member of the Senate, that candidate advanced to the vote. Initially 50 outstanding Americans were inducted; five people were to be added each fifth year. Designed by Stanford White as a sweeping semicircular arc with wings at either end, the Hall of Fame’s 630-foot colonnade provides niches for the busts and commemorative plaques of up to 150 honorees.

However, to date the institution has honored only 102 individuals. The election process appears to have stalled as society’s notion of what constitutes fame or greatness has changed over time to become more nearly synonymous with achievement or even that contemptible darling of our day, celebrity. To that point, it is instructive to look at the original 16 categories from which nominees to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans might arise (to quote from the official 1900 “Rules for Election”):

1. Authors (Editors, Poets, Novelists, Philosophers, Economists, etc.).
2. Educators.
3. Preachers, Theologians.
4. Reformers.
5. Scientists.
6. Engineers, Architects.
7. Physicians, Surgeons.
8. Inventors.
9. Missionaries, Explorers.
10. The Military.
11. Lawyers, Judges.
12. Statesmen.
13. Business Men, Philanthropists.
14. Artists (Musicians, Painters, Sculptors, Actors, etc.).
15. Naturalists.
16. Men and Women outside the foregoing classes.

The quaintness of certain of these categories became increasingly evident and eventually stimulated thoughts of companion, if not rival, pantheons. As Richard Rubin wrote in “The Mall of Fame” (Atlantic Monthly, 1997), “It was inevitable that something as popular and prestigious as the Hall of Fame would inspire spinoffs. One of the first was the Baseball Hall of Fame, which opened in Cooperstown, New York, in 1939. Four decades had passed since the establishment of the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, and the country had changed quite a bit. We had conquered the world’s greatest military power, only to be ourselves laid low by the world’s greatest economic crisis. Radio had emerged and ushered us into the media age. Inventors and scientists and statesmen and thinkers were no longer the heroes of the day. Athletes were. Yet not a single one had made it into the Hall of Fame, and none ever would. The hall’s standards of admission – indeed, its defining mission – made that impossible.”

By honoring achievement in a single field, the Baseball Hall of Fame seemed more in tune with the times. Indeed, its model was so successful that few people today know of the Hall of Fame for Great Americans and believe that Cooperstown patented the very notion. Of the 500 or more physical halls of fame in the world today, most of them in the United States, 140 are devoted to sports, and barely a handful are interdisciplinary. If athletes could have their own halls of fame, why couldn’t policemen, businessmen, clowns? Today they do, in Miami Beach, Chicago, and Delavan (Wisconsin), respectively. While many of these institutions seem gratuitous or obscure (Crayola Hall of Fame? Shuffleboard Hall of Fame?), the best halls of fame have done the public a service in following baseball’s model – a shrine that honors its past, highlights its heroes, displays its artifacts, and stimulates research. The Hall of Fame for Great Americans was a great idea, but noble statuary in a forlorn venue no longer fires the imagination.

The Hudson River Hall of Fame would aim to provide the best of both models: the specificity and educational thrust of the Baseball Hall of Fame with the sweeping vision of the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. Artists and architects, novelists and poets, military and political figures, and more … all inductees into the HRHF ought to be “great Americans” – individuals who won renown on a national scale in substantial measure through their regional accomplishments – not merely local bigwigs and benefactors. Noble mayors and revered teachers would not find their names on the ballot unless their accomplishments were notable on a national level.

The HRHF would offer memorials (plaques and artifacts being more likely than busts); permanent, rotating, and circulating exhibits; and interactive kiosks that would link with local and national libraries and museums. It would be a destination for students, a boon to scholars, and a complementary tourist attraction to its home city and the Hudson Valley Greenway. Honorees might include some of the men who have been featured in this column – Alexander Jackson Davis, Andrew Jackson Downing, Calvert Vaux, John Vanderlyn, et al. – as well as such no-brainers as Washington Irving, Robert Fulton, Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, George Clinton, Sojourner Truth, George Washington, and on. Finding suitable candidates for nomination and election is a simple if contentious matter. Indeed, it is the contention surrounding each year’s election process that gives continuing interest and media focus to the HRHF’s educational efforts and annual induction event, which might be in the form of a banquet supported by corporations that wish to heighten their standing in the region they serve. Other specifics might include:

1. The annual induction event, constituting a day or a weekend, will be the HRHF promotional centerpiece and will spin off yearlong educational opportunities centered on the new inductees.
2. The HRHF website will be the educational, day-to-day hub of the larger plan. Emphasis will be on Hudson River history education and communication via online collections, virtual exhibitions, chats with prominent figures, and access to a Q&A forum with historians.
3. An HRHF club for children, either as a function of a “Friends of the HRHF” program or free (i.e., corporate-sponsored), with publications, trading cards, discount coupons, etc.
4. A quarterly magazine directed toward young adults that will connect the region’s past to its present, and vice versa, making the pursuit of knowledge relevant and fun.
5. Historians and docents to address schools and community organizations about the HRHF and the story of its members.
6. Documentary Film/Video Production: not for PBS but mini-docs for broadband streaming from the website; student films would be welcome.
7. Interactive Learning Center: a hands-on, “living history” approach to the region’s story.

In a region where adaptive reuse is the watchword, the Hudson River Hall of Fame would give a public-spirited new focus to some grand but troubled old building. It would generate substantial publicity for other historical attractions in the Valley. It would drive daily foot traffic without prohibiting the “private sector” use of the main space to generate income through special events. It would be home to the personalized history of our region, and restore to us our heroes.

In its own description of its mission, the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area Program declares its intent to be “to recognize, preserve, protect and interpret the nationally significant cultural and natural resources of the Hudson River Valley for the benefit of the Nation.” Is there a better idea than this out there? Let me know what you think.

--John Thorn


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