Monday, October 25, 2010

Thank you, Frederick MacMonnies

Last week (Oct 21) was the anniversary of the dedication of the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument in Grand Army Plaza - that big Arc de Triomphe-looking thing at the main entrance to Prospect Park.

I love this monument. I live in near-by Prospect Heights, and it lifts me up every time I pass by.

It was dedicated in 1892, and was designed by John H. Duncan, who also did Grant’s Tomb in Manhattan. My favorite parts of the monument are the 3 beautiful - and enormous - sculptures that adorn it. (Pardon the old-timey photo, but this is a history blog).

"Quadriga" is on top, and she is flanked on two lower pedestals by "Army" and "Navy" — dramatic and surprisingly action-packed sculptures, with swords and guns and muskets and even a trident or two popping every which way. These are by Frederick MacMonnies, who was actually from Brooklyn. Since I came to admire his work so much, I dug around a little to find out a bit more about Mr. MacMonnies.

Frederick William MacMonnies (1863-1937) was actually one of the most famous and successful sculptors of the late 19th century. His work can be seen among collections in the world’s most prestigious museums, such as the Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York City.

Though MacMonnies spent much of his adult life in France, he was born on Sept. 28, 1863 in Brooklyn. His family of six (he had two brothers and a sister) started out at 341 Pacific St. before moving to Bedford-Stuyvesant, where they lived at 111 Van Buren St. and then 643 Madison St.
It was said his mother, a descendent of the painter Benjamin West, had infinite confidence in her son’s artistic abilities, but his father tried to make a merchant out of him before acquiescing to the boy’s obvious talents.

Sculpture seemed his calling from a young age. By five, he was prone to using chewing gum and dough from his mother’s pantry to sculpt George Washington or the animals he observed at the circus.

Once old enough, he studied under the celebrated sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and at the Art Students League and the National Academy of Design. He went to Paris in 1884, where he studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and won the prestigious Prix de Atelier.

He briefly returned to New York, but then moved back to Paris where he lived and worked until the outbreak of WWI, though he benefited from many American commissions and made frequent return visits.

Tall, slender, with blue eyes and reddish-brown hair, MacMonnies first achieved fame after he designed the celebrated centerpiece for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 — the sculpture of Columbia in her Grand Barge of State in the central fountain of the Court of Honor.

In his long career he made approximately 114 sculptures, as well as more than 100 paintings. Among these works are the bronze doors and statue of Shakespeare for the Congressional library, the statue of Nathan Hale in City Hall Park in Manhattan, “Truth” and “Beauty” in the New York Public Library’s fa├žade, and the Marne Battle Monument, which he presented to France in exchange for the Statue of Liberty. In 1931, he designed the medal given to Charles Lindbergh upon his completion of the first solo trans-Atlantic flight.

A reporter from The New York Times visited MacMonnies at his studio in Paris, no. 44 Rue de Sevres, in 1897 while he was working on the sculptures for the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument. The writer, Lilian Hoyt Foster, described watching him work as such:

“In modeling, Mr. MacMonnies seldom employs an implement of any kind, using his thumb and his thumbnail almost entirely for molding the soft clay. He works rapidly; he is of the quick, nervous temperament that accomplishes much in little time. His sharp, searching glance takes in every detail; he comprehends his subject and all its possibilities with swift intelligence, and the skillful fingers in an instant, with a pinch, press, scrape — it is too rapidly done to see what — bring into life the bit of clay. He has keen perception, a technical eye and a swift execution, and when possessed of an idea, the inspiration is in his fingertips, and he neither eats nor sleeps until at least a rough conception is produced.”

MacMonnies life and work was not without controversy. He married fellow artist Mary Fairchild, with whom he had three children. But another child was born out of an affair he had with a woman named Helen Glenn. He and Mary divorced in 1909, and he married Alice Jones, daughter of a Nevada Senator.

One of his best known statues, the “Dancing Bacchante with an Infant Faun” (pictured at right), was refused by the Boston Public Library on account of indecency and ended up going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

His “Civic Virtue” (1919) caused quite a stir as well. The piece, which depicted an enormous male figure standing over a prostrate female figure, was intended for the fountain in City Hall but ended up in Queens. There were complaints as to how women were portrayed. It appeared the male figure had planted his foot upon the back of the statue of a woman. In response to these critics, MacMonnies said, “These ladies are evidently not acquainted with their own backs, as it is very evidently a rock and not a lady’s back on which the youth has planted a foot.” He added, “I am sure no man would make a mistake like that.” Ouch.

In Brooklyn, he was a favorite son — and he never forgot where he came from. According to a New York Times article, MacMonnies gave to Brooklyn the right to all first models of his work.
He received several commissions from his hometown, including a bronze statue of Gen. John B. Woodward for the Brooklyn Museum, a statue of the “father of Prospect Park” J.S.T. Stranahan, and a statue of Gen. Henry Slocum.

In 1897, he offered to make a bronze tablet for the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument in Fort Greene Park free of charge. [He was not taken up on it because the committee felt they should open up the project to competition. Adolph Alexander Weinman won the commission, and sculpted the bronze lantern that surmounts the 143 ft. Doric column designed by McKim, Mead and White.]

The 1920s and ‘30s proved less successful for MacMonnies as the Beaux-Arts style fell out of fashion. He did not appreciate the modernist style that was taking hold, and said that modernity, “although meaning progress in other lines, stamps the world nevertheless with ugliness.”

He ended his life in relative obscurity and died of pneumonia on March 22, 1937.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Historical Society Releases New Book Detailing History Of Fort Greene/Clinton Hill

“Decline and renewal often are simultaneous processes,” Francis Morrone said last week at the Brooklyn Historical Society. This refreshing break from the typical oversimplified dichotomy offered in discussions about gentrification and “urban renewal” was offered at the launch of the Brooklyn Historical Society’s new book about the history of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill.

As the eighth volume in the historical society’s series of Neighborhood and Architectural History Guides — each highlighting a different neighborhood of Brooklyn — this latest is the most ambitious to date, containing more original, nuanced research, as well as an ISBN number, making it “an actual book,” says Morrone, the book’s author. It’s available for purchase at Amazon and other places outside of the historical society’s building in Brooklyn Heights.

As slim as the book is (108 pages), it packs a punch, partly because Morrone does not attempt a comprehensive history of what he rightly acknowledges as “a very complex place,” but at the same time goes beyond the canned history you may have heard about the neighborhood.

He excavates some of the forgotten notables who made Fort Greene and Clinton Hill their home, and adds enticing new details to those whose time there is well remembered, such as the literary figures Walt Whitman, Richard Wright and Marianne Moore (the latter, who moved to Fort Greene in 1929 to be nearer her brother, the chaplain at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, was a diehard Dodgers fan, often seen at Ebbets in her trademark black cape and tricorn hat).

The neighborhood is home to what is believed to be the only house still standing in Brooklyn that was a home to Walt Whitman — 99 Ryerson Street. In detailing Whitman’s brief but important time in the house — which happened to be when the poet (and one-time Brooklyn Daily Eagle editor) was “putting the finishing touches” on and publishing Leaves of Grass (1855), Morrone is able to paint a fuller picture of the neighborhood.

He quotes a letter written by Moncure Conway, a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s who went to visit Whitman after Leaves was published: “I found by the directory that one Walter Whitman lived fearfully far (out of Brooklyn, nearly) on Ryerton [sic] Street a short way from Myrtle. The way to reach the house is to go down to Fulton Street Ferry. After crossing take the Fulton and Myrtle Avenue car, and get out at Ryerton Street. It is one of a row of small wooden houses with porches, which all seem occupied by mechanics.”

Digging into the historical society’s archives, as well as old articles from the Brooklyn Eagle, The New York Times and the New York Tribune, Morrone was able to piece together not only some of the more fascinating events, institutions and personalities that have defined the neighborhood’s landscape, but also the way in which the area has been perceived over time, such as when the Times (wrongly) predicted that “the gentrification of places like Fort Greene will be a quaint relic of the 1980s like big hair.”

There are nuggets of architectural history laced throughout the book, owing to Morrone’s specialty. He is the author of An Architectural Guidebook to Brooklyn and has written about the architectural history of New York City for publications including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. (He also wrote the historical society’s Park Slope guidebook from this same series.)

“I had never studied the neighborhood in depth before,” Morrone said of Fort Greene/Clinton Hill. “I studied the architecture, but not what actually went on inside those walls. As I began looking a little more deeply, I found this dazzling variety of Brooklyn people, some of whom aren’t that well known anymore.”

The area was home to some of the wealthiest, most elite families of Brooklyn, including many of the businessmen whose industrial concerns lined Brooklyn’s waterfront. These include John Arbuckle of Arbuckle Brothers Coffee, at one point the world’s largest importer of coffee beans; Charles Pfizer and his cousin Charles Erhart, co-founders of Pfizer pharmaceutical company; typewriter manufacturer John Thomas Underwood; and of course, Charles Pratt, owner of Astral Oil Works, who built several grand homes in the neighborhood for his family, and founded Pratt Institute. There was also Abner C. Keeney and William Kingsley of the engineering firm Kingsley & Keeney, which was of crucial significance to the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Much ink is dedicated in the book to the rich African-American history of Fort Greene, home to several different waves of notable black artists and professionals. In the 19th century a substantial portion of what was a black social elite known as the “Negro 400” lived in the area, including Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Steward, the first African American woman to be granted an M.D. in New York state, and Georgiana Putnam, assistant principal of Colored School No. 1, later known as P.S. 67. (Morrone believes that this book offers, for the first time in print, “an unimpeachable chronology of that school.”)

The neighborhood was also home to several notable jazz musicians during the 20th century, such as Lillie Mae Jones (Betty Carter), Cecil Taylor, Slide Hampton, Steve Coleman and Branford Marsalis. Film director Spike Lee bases his 40 Acres and Mule production company in Fort Greene, and the neighborhood was also the native stomping ground of rapper Christopher Wallace, better known as Biggie Smalls, before he was tragically killed in a drive-by shooting in California.

The contemporary author and critic Nelson George, a long-time Fort Greene resident, actually contributed to the book, writing one of its introductions. Splices of interviews with George and other neighborhood residents are inserted throughout the book. The audio version of these interviews, as well as walking tours narrated by Morrone (which appear in print at the end of the book), will ultimately be available for downloading on the Brooklyn Historical Society’s web site,

One thing you won’t read a lot about in this volume is the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which was deemed beyond the scope of this guide and deserving of a book of its own. The role the Navy Yard played in shaping the character of the neighborhood, however — particularly the working class part known as Wallabout, is given its due.

The latter pages of the book focus on the area’s institutions and neighborhood landmarks, such as BAM, Fort Greene Park and the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument, Wallabout Market, Pratt Institute, St. Joseph’s College, Brooklyn Technical High School, and even the Brooklyn Flea, a relatively recent addition to the neighborhood.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The History of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade

Henrik Krogius, longtime editor of the Brooklyn Heights Press, has for decades been gathering information on the origins and construction of the beloved Brooklyn Heights Promenade. He has composed his findings into a lengthy story for this week's edition of the weekly newspaper, as it is the Promenade's 60th birthday.

Through his research he delved into old articles from The New York Times and the Brooklyn Eagle, as well as minutes from old meetings of the Brooklyn Heights Association, correspondence between NYC master builder Robert Moses and Heights residents, and conducted interviews with engineers from firms that worked on the unique cantilevered BQE roadway/Promenade structure. It's fair to say, that at this point, Krogius probably knows more about the Promenade — how and why it came about — than anybody. I suggest you give it a read.

The photo above (from the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority) shows the cantilevered BQE under construction around 1947. The house at the top, 222 Columbia Heights, was eventually demolished.