Historical Summer in New York – Week 1: Top of the Rock

Historical Summer in New York – Week 1: Top of the Rock

I’ve just moved to New York and it’s the height of summer. So I decided to make it my mission to visit to one new historical site here every week while the weather lasts!. Week 1 wasn’t intended to be the subject of a historical attraction post, but I really enjoyed reading about it’s construction, so here we are!

So 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? 

I’m setting myself the challenge of visiting 1x new historical scene in New York every week that I’m living here. Follow more of my historical NYC trails on Twitter: @blogger_history.

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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:

Remembering the Bethnal Green Tube disaster

The single-biggest loss of life of civilian life in London during WWII happened was not caused by a German bomb – in fact, it happened on a night when not a single bomb fell. It was a human crush which cost the lives of 173 people.

3 March 1943. By now, Londoners were well-accustomed to the air-raid siren. Tragedy had occurred not caused by the bombs themselves – earlier in the war, over 60 people had been killed when a mains pipe burst in Balham, causing people sheltering underground in the Tube station to perish. 

At 8.17pm, the air-raid Civil Defence siren sounded, triggering people to run down the blacked-out staircase from the street. The civilians of Bethnal Green were no doubt used to this practise, but on this particular night, a woman and a child fell over three steps from the base and others fell around her, triggering a human crush of nearly 300 people. Of these, 173 lost of their lives, being crushed and asphyxiated in what is thought to have been the largest single loss of civilian life in the UK in the Second World War and the largest loss of life in a single incident on the London Underground network. 27 men, 84 women and 62 children.

Cover-Up?

Thanks to wartime censorship, news of the disaster was withheld for 36 hours. The story which was reported by the media was that there had been a direct hit by a German bomb, and the official results of the investigation were not released until after the war had ended in 1946. Meanwhile, rumours circulated of the cause. It was suggested by the Minister of Home Security, Herbert Morrison that a panic had ensued caused by a discharge of anti-aircraft rockets from nearby Victoria Park. There is disagreement over this.

A secret official report showed that Bethan Green Council had warned London Civil Defence, in 1941, that the staircase was a liability and needed a crush barrier to slow down crowds, but was told that would be a waste of money. Damages cases were taken by those who were bereaved, such as Baker vs Bethnal Green Corporation. The Baker lawsuit was followed by other claims, resulting in a total payout of nearly £60,000, the last of which was made in the early 1950s.

 

 

 

Historic Facts about the Bolivian Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni)

The-History-Blogger.com

I ticked a long-standing aim off my bucket-list in 2018 – visiting the Bolivian Salt Flat (Salar de Uyuni). It didn’t disappoint from a natural perspective! But I was delighted to uncover some bitesize pieces of history about it. Here are some historic facts you will learn while touring the Bolivian Salt Flat:

  1. The Bolivian Salt Flats were formed sometime between 11,500 and 13,400 years ago years ago, the legacy of a prehistoric lake that went dry, leaving behind a desert-like, nearly 11,000-sq.-km. landscape of bright-white flat salt. img_0948
  2. Name Origin: Salar means salt flat in Spanish. However Uyuni originates from the Aymara language and means a pen (enclosure). So Salar de Uyuni loosely translated means ‘salt flat with enclosures’. It’s disputed as to whether or not the enclosures are referring to the various islands on the Salt Flat itself, or animal enclosures at Uyuni town itself. 
  3. The Aymarans lived in the region before…

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Twitter 7-day book challenge – now with explanations!

I’d seen this challenge going around on Twitter for a while so I was delighted when Hisdoryan (check out her brilliant blog http://hisdoryan.co.uk/) tagged me in it. The challenge is to post the cover of a book you enjoy, one per day for seven days, but without any explanations of any further info. I’ve now completed the challenge, so decided to discuss the books I chose and why. (They are all historical novels, by the way). 

While I could easily have chosen 700 books here, never mind seven, these are books that truly left a mark on me. In fact, I read most of them many years ago but they still stick out for me. They are all novels, but in a historical setting, and I highly recommend them all.

(Click on the book titles for further information on them)

DAY ONE: BACK HOME by MICHELLE MAGORIAN

One of the first books that truly left a mark on me. I think I read it four times in as many months when I first came across it when I was 14. I’ve probably read it close to ten times now! Reading about the challenges faced by Rusty upon her return from evacuation in 1945 after 5 years away from her family encouraged me to dig much deeper into the topic of evacuees and the impact the war had on their lives and relationships with their families. You can truly get inside Rusty’s head in this story and you find yourself really identifying, sympathising and engaging with all the together. Such a favourite for me.

DAY TWO: THE SILVER THREAD by KYLIE FITZPATRICK

Okay, this one isn’t the most historically accurate book, but I just love the topic! This books tells the story of a wealthy Dublin woman whose family fall on hard times, and she must try and make her own way in Victorian London to support her family. However some unfortunate encounters thanks to her uncle’s business dealings lead to her to be wrongfully accused of theft and transported to Australia in the early days of the colony. A must read for those interested in 1800s Ireland, London and Australia alike.

DAY THREE: THE LAST RUNAWAY by TRACY CHEVALIER

Tracy Chevalier might be best known for her classic ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’, but she has produced so much more than that. I’ve read four of her novels to date, but ‘The Last Runaway’ remains my favourite. It was probably my first real introduction to the Underground Railroad, and tells the story of a British Quaker who reluctantly emigrates to America and finds herself obliged to assist the plight of runaway slaves trying to escape to the North – much to the horror of her family. Truly gripping and accessible, this is a brilliant read.

DAY FOUR: THE THORNBIRDS by COLLEEN MCCULLOUGH

Okay, so this was written well before my time, and I’ll confess I watched the 1983 TV series before I actually read the book – but as always, the book is much better. Set in rural Australia at the turn of the century, ‘The Thornbirds’ explores a forbidden relationship through numerous decades – that of a Catholic Priest and Meggie, the young daughter of a family he befriends in order to get access to their wealth to feed his political ambitions within the church. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is ‘chick-lit’! Rather, the book explores themes of poverty, hardship, wealth (and the loss of it), politics, religion and taboo – all the while against the backdrop of fledgling Australia.

DAY FIVE: A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS by KHALED HOSSEINI

Readers will no doubt be familiar with this one, and while it’s not set as far back in history as some of the other books I write about here, it is historic for sure. The follow up from Khaled Hosseini’s award-winning debut novel ‘The Kite Runner’, and set in Afghanistan, it tells the story of Mariam, an illegitimate child born in the 1950s, who, after her mother’s suicide, is sold into an abusive marriage by her father but forms an unlikely friendship with her neighbour Leila. Leila is many years younger than Mariam and has the complete opposite upbringing, but is forced to accept a marriage proposal from Mariam’s husband in order to survive after Afghanistan enters war and her home is destroyed by rockets. The books focuses primarily on female characters and their roles in Afghan society against the backdrop of war and Mariam’s lifelong struggle to escape from the stigma of her illegitimacy.

DAY SIX: WILDFLOWER GIRL BY MARITA CONLON-MCKENNA

My non-Irish readers might not be as familiar with this as my Irish readers undoubtedly will, but this is a classic, and a follow-on from the sensational Great Famine novel ‘Under the Hawthorn Tree’. I first read this book when I was very young having already been gripped by Under the Hawthorn Tree. This series, and the third instalment, ‘Fields of Home’, follows the lives of three young siblings during the Irish Great Famine and the years afterwards. In ‘Wildflower Girl’, the youngest sibling, Peggy, emigrates to America and experiences everything from coffin ships to the reality of domestic service in Victorian America. Despite being a children’s book, it is accessible to both young and old and is a real insight into the horror that was the Great Famine.

DAY SEVEN: PROPERTY by VALERIE MARTIN

This was the winner of the Orange Prize in 2003, and not without reason. This book is a history-lovers gem. It has two settings – New Orleans (where our protagonist grew up) and the sugar plantation she now lives on that is owned by her husband. It explores the subject of slavery from the perspective of a childless mistress who feels oppressed and worthless and stuck in a loveless marriage. However in a unusual move, the crux of the story is her resentment of her black maid, Sarah, who she was given as a wedding present. Sarah is also Manon’s husband’s sex slave and this causes increasing tension between the two women. The story is played out against the backdrop of the civil unrest and slave rebellion. A phenomenal insight, and a step back in time. I’d highly recommend this book.