Top of the Rock – a history

Top of the Rock – a history

On a recent trip to NYC, one of the first attractions I visited in NYC was Top of the Rock. I’d already been on the Empire State Building, so now it was time to experience something new. I hadn’t bargained that I’d learn a hell of a lot more about the circumstances of the construction of 30 Rock Plaza as part of the process. In fact, if the 1929 Wall Street Crash hadn’t happened, it’s possible that the iconic building might not exist at all.

Rockefeller Center

For those of you that don’t know, Top of the Rock is a building in the Rockefeller Center complex, which has no fewer than 19 commercial buildings. Situated just off the famous 5th Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, the complex consists of 14 iconoic Art Deco buildings (and a private street called Rockefeller Plaza). Five more buildings were later added, bringing the total to 19.IMG_20170113_174059

Rockefeller Family

And the name? Yep, you guessed it, named after the eminent investor John D. Rockefeller (Jr). In 1928, the site was owned by Columbia University. They leased the land to Rockefeller, envisioning that it would be the site for the new Metropolitan Opera Building. But things didn’t go quite according to plan…

The Great Depression

The site (which was originally a botanical garden in the early 1800s) was cited from 1926 as a potential place for the new Met Opera Building. In 1928, Benjamin Wistar Morris and Joseph Urban were hired to come up with blueprints for the Opera Building. When it became clear that the Met couldn’t fund their plans itself, John D. Rockefeller Jr was recruited as an investor (though his father John D. Sr was not involved). New designers were hired, and Columbia agreed an 87 year lease for the plot to Rockefeller.

The principal architect was Raymond Hood, a student of the Art Deco movement which was gaining pace in the late 1920s. By December 1928, was all-systems-go, but two factors were to trouble the plans…

The Great Depression

The first of these factors was the fact that Met was becoming increasingly worried. It didn’t think the proposed site for it’s new opera house was going to be profitable.

And 10 months later, everything came to a halt with the 1929 stock market crash. A few weeks later, on December 6, 1929, the Met confirmed it could not afford a new opera house afterall. Plans were halted. The era of the Great Depression had begun. 

It was a dilemma for Rockefeller, however, who had signed an 87-year lease on the site. He needed to act quickly. Within a month, he had devised new plans to make the site profitable. He entered into talks with Radio Corporation of America, to build a mass-media entertainment complex on the site. Radio City was born. 

And thus, building began – well, that was, after a few plans fell by the wayside, mainly due to the public giving negative feedback. Four small retail buildings and a 41-story tower earmarked the beginning of Rockefeller Plaza in 1931. This was despite the fact that Rockefeller initially did not want the Rockefeller family name associated with the commercial project, but was persuaded on the grounds that the name would attract far more tenants.

After more plan changes, the plan for the building that was to become 30 Rockefeller Plaza opened in 1933.

Building the Tower

Lunch Atop A Skyscraper

(Photo from https://www.rockefellercenter.com/blog/2014/03/12/rock-history/)

“Lunchtime Atop a Skyscraper” is on the of the most famous photographs ever taken in New York City. It was taken on September 20, 1932, showing The Rock construction workers having their lunch with no regard for Health and Safety! According to the Rockefeller Website, the photo was taken 840-feet above the ground – about the 69th floor, during the final months of construction in 1932. And the website confirms that these men are not actors – they are genuine construction workers. Whether or not the photo was staged is another debate!

The website gives a very accurate description of what this photo represents historically:

“Regardless of the specifics, this image came to represent a specific time in modern New York’s history. There’s a nod toward the Depression, when workers were happy to have a job (despite the lack of safety harnesses), as well as a strong representation of the exciting period when New York City grew vertically at a rapid rate. A 2012 film called Men at Lunch explores the immigrant backgrounds of the men in the photo, identifying some as Irish and Swedish.”

‘Men at Lunch’ – documentary

In 2010, two Irish brothers happened upon the photo in a pub in Co. Galway. Upon learning that two men from the region were claimed to be in the photograph, the brothers began researching a documentary on the origins of the men, discovering that they were mainly Irish and Swedish. In 2012, their documentary ‘Men at Lunch’ was released. 

Conclusion

So that’s how a supposedly panoramic view of the city I’m calling home for the next three months left me realising there is always a much bigger story behind such iconic buildings. Who knows what might be on the Rockefeller Center site today if the 1929 Crash hadn’t happened? 

 

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Harvard’s Glass Flowers and the story of the father and son who made them

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants (known as the Glass Flowers) at Harvard Museum of Natural History, and was blown away by its story!

Yep, you read it right – GLASS Flowers. Over 4,300 of them to be exact, and all made by a father-and-son team – Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. Over 827 life-size models of glass flowers, as well as over 3,000 models of enlarged parts-of-flowers, representing nearly 800 different species of plants.

But here’s the twist – Leopold and Rudolf were not botanists (how’s that’s possible considering their attention to detail, I’ll never know).

This collection is unique, the only known collection of it’s kind in the world. Commissioned in 1886 by Professor George Lincoln Goodale, the first director of Harvard’s Botanical Museum, the aim of the exhibition was as teaching mechanisms for teaching, botany and also serve as an exhibit it what was the Museum (forerunner of the Harvard Museum of Natural History).

Back to the bit on glass. At first glance, you would never believe these flowers were glass. How could they be? I had to be told before I believed it. Goodale wanted to have a collection of teaching tools that were nothing but the best and of a standard deemed acceptable for Harvard. Up to then, botany was taught using pressed and carefully labelled specimens, which presented problems: pressed plants were 2D and tended to lose their colour. So Goodale wanted to find a method of teaching botany that involved 3D specimens that were durable.

Enter the experts. Leopold (1822-1895) and Rudolf Blaschka (1857-1939), were glass artists who lived and worked in Hosterwitz, Germany, near Dresden. They had previously produced several glass marine invertebrates for Harvard. Goodale then had the brainwave to commission his specimens out of glass.

Now for the next challenge – the age-old chestnut of funding. Before sending samples, an advance payment of 200 marks was required. When the Blaschkas sent their sample glass models (which all got damaged at Customs), it was enough still to convince Goodale that he needed to proceed with the commission. So he approached his former student Mary Lee Ware and her mother with the idea. Enchanted by the (damaged) sample models, Mary and her mother agreed to funded the project.

Initially the contract was part-time, but after 3 years, in 1890, the Blaschkas agreed to a new contract. Now they worked full-time on the Harvard glass flowers collection, fully funded by the Wares. The collection still carries the name of its funders today. After the death of Leopold in 1895, Rudolf carried on making the collection up until 1936, amounting to over 4,300 pieces covering over 800 species in immense detail.

The Glass Flowers are now on permanent display in the Harvard Museum of Natural History where they draw nearly 200,000 visitors each year.

How Shakespeare influenced the introduction of one of America’s most widespread bird species

Starling (Public Domain)

March 6, 1890. The starling is released in Central Park, an invasive species brought over from Europe by a New Yorker named Eugene Scheiffelin. It was a love of Shakespeare that caused this enthusiast to introduce one of America’s greatest pests to continent.

When Eugene Schieffelin introduced 60 European starlings into New York’s Central Park as part of his ambition to introduce all the birds of Shakespeare to North America, he probably didn’t assess the damage liability.

Born in 1827, and the son of a prominent New York lawyer born into one Manhattan’s oldest families, Schieffelin was a drug manufacturer and amateur ornithologist with links to the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, and the New York Zoological Society. A Shakespeare enthusiast, he was also a founding member of the American Acclimatization Society, a group that aimed to help exchange plants and animals from one part of the world to another.

Victorian societies such as the American Acclimatization Society were fashionable in the late 1900s, but the scientific effects of introducing a non-native species to an ecosystem were not yet known. But after Schieffelin’s death 16 years later in 1906, these effects were to become known.

Indeed, it wasn’t the first time Schieffelin had introduced a non-native avian species to the US. 30 years earlier, he sponsored the introduction of the house sparrow to North America. They are now an estimated 540 million house sparrows in North America! And after the initial release of 60 starlings in 1890, Scheiffelin released a further 40 in 1891. He wanted them to stay…and they did.

Initially, the birds stayed within the realms of Central Park. When the first nesting pair were discovered in the eaves of the Museum of Natural History in 1896, people rejoiced. But the starling was soon to become a menace as it spread across the US, up to Alaska, down to Mexico, today numbering an estimated 200 million.

But why such a menace? Well, the introduction of this non-native species has come at the expense of many native birds that compete for nesting holes in trees. They have had a major impact on the US economy and ecosystem, and have even caused human deaths by nesting in aircraft, among other places.

For the Schieffelin, the project was down to two things: a love of Shakespeare, and a love of birds. When he opened that cage on that cold day in 1890, he probably couldn’t have estimated the impact his endeavour was to have on the continent.

But as numbers spread, so did novel methods to contain the starlings. In Hartford, Connecticut in 1914, residents tried scaring the birds away by tying teddy bears to the tree starlings were nesting in, and firing rockets through the branches. Over 30 years later, with numbers greater than ever, in 1948 the superintendent of sanitation in Washington, D.C., tried using artificial owls to scare away the birds, and when that didn’t work, he put itching powder on the trees to keep them out.

And the starling even made it’s way to the White House. The White House tried speakers that emitted owl calls. The famous columns of the House were fitted with electrified wires to discourage starlings from roosting in it.

But nothing worked. Soon they were expanding right across to the West Coast – in their MILLIONS. And they were taking their toll of human life, too. In October4, 1960, a Lockheed Electra plummeted seconds after taking off from Logan Airport in Boston, killing 62 people in what is to date America’s worst bird-strike. Some 10,000 starlings had flown straight into the plane, crippling its engines.

Today, from Alaska right down to Mexico, it’s believed that there are over 200 million starlings in North America – and it’s all down to one man and his love of literature.

What about Schieffelin’s endeavour to introduce all the birds of Shakespeare to the US? Well, his attempts to introduce bullfinches, chaffinches, song thrushes, nightingales, and skylarks were not so successful. They didn’t have the same staying power as starlings.

On the 100th anniversary of the introduction, the New York Times said Schieffelin’smotives were as romantic as they were ill fated.He probably couldn’t have estimated their drastic impact of ecology and human life. But the legacy of his feat is phenomenal.

Further Reading:

Amy Post: Abolitionist; advocate for women’s rights

If you’ve read my article on the amazing story of Harriet Jacobs, then you’ll be interested to know about one of the influential women who encouraged her to write her memoirs: Amy Post. 

Born Amy Kirby to a Quaker family on Long Island in 1802, in 1828 she married her deceased sister Hannah’s husband – Isaac Post. Isaac was a Hicksite, and after a number of years Amy converted. Hicksite’s were a more radical form of Quakerism, a seperatist group to Orthodox Quakers. Formed after the ‘Great Separation’, Hicksite’s were in fact more true to the beliefs of Quakerism from times gone by, not wanting to take on some of the influence of Protestantism that had occured in North America in the 18th century. Amy and Isaac had four children, Jacob, Joseph, Matilda and Willet, and moved to Rochester in 1836. It was there that Amy’s true calling was to emerge.

Abolitionism

Isaac and Amy Post were to become abolitionist activists. This began with them sheltering numerous freedom seekers as part of the Underground Railroad. They hired free African-Americans to be their servants, and made acquaintance with a number of famous abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, Abby Kelley, and William Lloyd Garrison.

As the years went on, Amy founded the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society (LASS). LASS was a perfectionist group, known for it’s involvement in churches and it’s desire to do kind gestures for people in society. However, as time went on many of Amy’s activities with LASS stopped, mainly because she was an ultraist, keen to make changes in society rather than benevolent gestures. Amy then became more involved in the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society (WNYASS). The WNYASS was a society that had both Quaker and non-Quaker members, something considered radical by other Quakers. 

Amy would later have a falling out with Frederick Douglass over her committment to the WYNASS as opposed to the LASS. This largely due to Amy’s anti-slavery fairs, which he felt served little good for the abolitionist cause and he lost faith in Amy as a result. 

Women’s Rights

A keen advocate of women’s rights, In 1848, attended the Seneca Falls Convention in  in Seneca Falls, NY. It was the first women’s rights convention, and she and Mary Post, her stepdaughter, were among the one hundred women and men who signed the Declaration of Sentiments, which was first presented there. Two weeks later, she and several other women who had participated in the Seneca Falls Convention organized the Rochester Women’s Rights Convention in the Post’s hometown of Rochester, New York

After Isaac’s death in 1872, Amy attempted to vote. Despite being registered, she was turned away, but that didn’t deter her from trying again a year later. She devoted much of her life after the Civil War to womens’ rights. Before his death, Isaac had become a medium thanks to the influence of sisters Kate and Margaret Fox, and Amy remained friends with them until her own death. 

Amy Post died in 1889, aged 86, and leaving behind her a major moral legacy. 

Related Links:

Historic Facts about Yellowstone National Park

Historic Facts about Yellowstone National Park

I made my first trip to Yellowstone National Park a few months ago and it blew me away. An imminent return visit is certainly on the cards, but in the meantime, I’ve drawn up a list of some Historic Facts about Yellowstone National Park:

  1. Humans have inhabited the Yellowstone Region for over 11,000 years. This is known thanks to archeological sites, trails, and oral histories.
  2. The region was not properly explored until the 1800s, but it kept hitting barriers. The first visitors were largely hunters, seeking fur. Among them was Daniel Potts, who also published what is largely regarded as the first account of the beauty of Yellowstone, in a Philadelphia newspaper. (You can read more about Daniel Potts here).
  3. Yellowstone was the first ever National Park in the USA, created by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872.Initially run by the Secretary of the Interior, the US Army oversaw the management of the Park for 30 yers until 1917, when the National Park Service, then one year into it’s existance, took it over. 
  4. The hugely famous Old Faithful geyser got it’s named before the creation of the park. It was named in 1870 during the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition, on which Nathaniel P. Langford was a member, and was the first geyser in the park to receive a name, and was given the name for it’s predictability, erupting every 45-90 minutes. In the early days of the park, Old Faithful proved to be an effective laundry machine!
  5. Yellowstone’s first superintendent, Nathaniel P. Langford, who was part of the party who named Old Faithful, was unpaid. Without pay, without funding and without laws to protect wildlife and other natural features, he did his best to promote the park but was removed from the post in 1877.
  6. Nathaniel P. LangfordThe first Yellowstone railway station was built near the north entrance to the park, at Livigstone, Montana, in the early 1880s. There were 300 visitors to the park in 1872, but this numbered had increased to 5,000 in 1883, largely thanks to the introduction of the railway. (Read more about early rail travel to Yellowstone here
  7. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt lay the cornerstone to the Arch at Gardiner. The 1903 visit was his second to the park – he loved it, and took with him a naturalist, opting to camp outside for many nights and really experience the beauty of the area. 
  8. Cars were first permitted in the park in 1915, much to the upset of stagecoach drivers, whose horses were startled by the new vehicleYellowstone stagecoachss and often caused injury to both horses and humans. Frequently, horses had to be used to rescue cars that became stuck in the muddy roads or broke down miles from any places they could be repaired.
  9. The park’s boundaries were officially expanded for the first time in 1929, by President Hoover.
  10. Nearly one third of the park was lost during fires in 1988, with the summer wildfire’s being the largest in the history of the park
  11. The creation of the national park did not provide protection for wolves or other predators. This meant that wolves were constantly being poached. The last native wolves were killed in Yellowstone in 1926. But with elk populations getting out of control, they were reintroduced in 1995 and now there are over 100 wolves in 12 packs in the park.

 

Harriet Jacobs and the amazing story of her escape from slavery

On a reHarriet Jacobscent trip to New Orleans, I made my second visit in as many years to the Whitney Plantation (http://whitneyplantation.com/) and once again felt compelled to read as many true accounts of slavery as I possibly could. That same day, on a random trip into a cute little second-hand bookstore, I came across the perfect one – Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. And I was hooked.

The book is an account of a former slave’s life under the rigid slavery laws of North Carolina in the 1800s. Born in Edenton, NC in 1813, Harriet Jacobs was born into slavery. She had some white blood in her, and her maternal grandmother (who became her closest family member when she was orphaned) was half-white and had been freed from slavery, and even owned her own house (something slaves were not permitted to do).

Harriet bounced around through various ‘owners’ in her childhood – some kind, some not so. When her owner began making sexual advances towards her as a teenager, coupled with refusing her permission to marry the man she love, she retaliated, becoming pregnant by a local white man and fathering two mixed-race children with him while still in her teens. But soon Harriet’s domestic situation became unbearable, prompting her to make her escape (not seeing her children for many years). She disappeared and living in horrifically isolated, solitary conditions before escaping to the North in 1842, settling in New York where slaves were free.

Reunited with her children years later, Jacobs worked as a nursemaid in New York before beginning a lifelong friendship with the Quaker reformer Amy Post. Upon being officially granted her freedom upon the death of her owner, Harriet was encouraged by Post to write an account of her experiences as a slave – and Incidents was published in 1861.

Harriet’s story is captivating – both in terms of her heroic escape from a life of slavery but also in terms of her stoicism and an insight into how female slaves had to cope with sexual advances among everything else attached to being in slavery. It was largely forgotten about for over 100 years, before being discovered during the civil rights movement.

A highly recommended read: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Incidents-Slave-Dover-Thrift-Editions/dp/0486419312

 

Did Columbus really discover America?

ship-1433438960L8bIt’s one of the most celebrated moments in history – “In 1492, Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue”. It was on August 3, 1492, that the fateful voyage departed Europe. The next year, he returned to Europe proclaiming the land for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. But was he really the first European on American shores? What physical proof exists today? Did Columbus discover America?

THEORY 1: THE VIKINGS

PHYSICAL PROOF: L’Anse Aux Meadows

It is accepted among historians that around 500 years before Columbus sailed, the Vikings actually had settlements in Greenland and Newfoundland. The Norse Saga’s (stories about ancient Nordic history and travel) tell us that after the heroic expeditions and settlements of Erik the Red, founder of Greenland, his son Leif converted to Christianity and began making diplomatic voyages eastwards.

This is where the history gets hazy – the sagas give two differing accounts of what happened next. 1) He arrived in America after sailing off course while returning to Greenland from Norway, and 2) a trader had told him stories of a strange land west, and Leif decided to go in search of it. What’s not disputed is that Norsemen certainly did reach – and settle – and area of modern-day Newfoundland known today as L’Anse aux Meadows. The sagas tell us that Eriksson originally called the area he landed ‘Helluland’, Norwegian for “Stone Slab Land” – possibly present-day Baffin Island.

The Norsemen then voyaged south to a timber-rich location they called Markland, before finally setting up a base camp likely on the northern tip of the island of Newfoundland. They called the area ‘Vinland’.

Eriksson returned to Greenland the following year for supplies; and although he himself never returned, there remains evidence of a Viking settlement there. In the 1960s, the Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad discovered Viking remains at L’Anse aux Meadows. The remains of the Viking village are now part of a UNESCO World Heritage site.

So whether or not you believe the story of the Sagas¸ what’s not disputed is the fact that Norsemen settled in North America at least 500 years before Columbus.

THEORY 2: THE IRISH

PHYSICAL PROOF: Tim Severin’s 1976 voyage in the Currach

Anyone who grew up in Ireland (like me!) will know the story of St. Brendan which comes from Navigatio, a ninth-century account of Brendan’s travels in the Atlantic Ocean. Many versions of the story exist, with much crossover in other mythology (especially Welch).

St Brendan allegedly travelled tirelessly to establish monasteries, continuing the work of Ireland’s patron Saint, Saint Patrick. He is told to have frequently sailed to places such as Scotland, Wales, and Brittany to preach the Gospel. And the, one winter, he is told to have embarked on a mission that would remain in historic memory for more than 1500 years. For 40 days St. Brendan fasted and prayed atop a mountain on the rugged Dingle Peninsula, before going in pursuit of a fabled land over the horizon. He is told to have crafted a traditional Irish boat called a ‘currach’, with square sails and leather skins stitched together to create a watertight seal over the vessel’s wooden skeleton. Then along with a crew gleaned to be somewhere between 18 and 150, depending on the account, he sailed out into the Atlantic, encountering towering crystal pillars afloat in the oceans, an island of sheep, among other fabled encounters.

Finally, as the boat drifted through a fog – landed was cited – Paradise! A lush land of vegetation, fragrant flowers, and an abundance of fruit. After staying for 40 days, an angel told the men to return home. When St. Brendan came back to the Emerald Isle after the seven-year voyage, pilgrims who heard the sensational story flocked to his side in remote County Kerry until he died around 577 A.D.

The story comes with an immediate word of caution – Navigatio was written some five hundred years after the purported voyage took place. Yet that doesn’t mean the book wasn’t highly revered – it became so widely known that cartographers began to include Paradise, recorded as “St Brendan’s Island”, on maps. Columbus himself is said to have taken note of the elusive island as he embarked to on his own voyage in 1492.

Could St. Brendan have influenced some of Columbus’ voyage? Similarities on what St. Brendan saw – and where they might have been. Think of what Columbus’ crew claimed to have seen on their journey – ‘towering crystal pillars’ could have been icebergs. The ‘island of the sheep’ could have been the Faroes, and foul-smelling fireballs have been sulfuric dioxide spewed by Iceland’s volcanoes.

But would a trans-Atlantic voyage have even been possible in the sixth century? In 1976, modern-day adventurer Tim Severin attempted to answer the question – and succeeded.

So whether or not you believe the story of St. Brendan finding America before Columbus – one thing is known – it’s not entirely impossible.

THEORY 3: THE POLYNESIANS

PHYSICAL PROOF: The Chicken Bone

Moving to the other side of the world, we can’t forget the Pacific neighbours of America – those of the Polynesian Islands. It’s known that they definitely sailed as far afield as Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island in relatively small boats. These navigators had the tools and knew how to sail using only the starts and their ability to detect land nearby. So is it in inconceivable that they reached South America?

In 2007, an ancient chicken bone was discovered in Chile – chickens aren’t native to America and they can’t fly, so they could only have been brought there by other settlers. The bone was dated anywhere between 1304 and 1424 – so well ahead of Columbus’ era and the subsequent European settlement of the southern part of America. DNA extracted from the bones also matched closely with a Polynesian breed of chicken, rather than any chickens found in Europe. The bone was a close match for chicken bones found in Pacific Islands such as Tonga, American Samoa, Hawaii, and Easter Island.

And arguers for the case claim that’s not the only tangible evidence: Scientific arguments based on linguistic evidence and fish-hook styles suggest increasing evidence of multiple contacts with the Americas. And in the style of Tim Severin, in 1947, Thor Heyerdahl, the famous Norwegian anthropologist, made the voyage from Peru to Polynesia aboard his Kon-Tiki raft to prove that the trip was doable in a rudimentary vessel.

So again, whether or not you believe that the Polynesians could have reached American land before Columbus, one thing that’s known for sure is that it wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility.

The one thing we do know for sure, is that Columbus was NOT the first non-native American to reach the continent.