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.

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.

Hetty Green: The Witch of Wall Street, and an eminent investor

hetty_green_cph-3a42973

I recently read Charles Stack’s biography of Henrietta Howland Robinson Green, the American businesswoman and financier nicknamed as the “Witch of Wall Street”, who was one of the richest women in America during the Gilded Age, one of the few women on Wall Street. The book is entitled ‘Hetty Green: The Genius and Madness of America’s first female tycoon’, and both descriptions of her in the title are hugely appropriate.

Born in 1834, Henrietta ‘Hetty’ Green (nee Howland Robinson) was born into a rich whaling family in Massachusetts. The only surviving child of Edward Mott Robinson and Abby Howland, Hetty honed her craft reading the financial papers to her maternal grandfather and her father. At age 13, she became the family bookkeeper and was incredibly knowledgeable in financial affairs.

When Hetty was 26, her mother died, leaving her daughter $8,000 dollars (nearly $200,000 today’s money). But just a few short years later, Hetty would become embroiled in a bitter battle to inherit her mother’s sister’s fortune, which would ensure that all inheritance from her grandfather’s company would go to her.

From her mother’s death, Hetty was determined to ensure every penny of Aunt Sylvia’s fortune went to her. But the invalided Aunt Sylvia, whose relied on the care of servants and health professionals, had other ideas. Sylvia was aware of her niece’s greediness, and temper, and wanted to be sure that all the people who had given their lives to make hers a bit better were remembered. Hetty, knowing this, hastened to her aunt’s home to discourage Aunt Sylvia from bequeathing any money to anyone escape her, Hetty. When Hetty realised Aunt Sylvia’s plans to leave money with her servants, Hetty got so angry she pushed one of them down the stairs. Aunt Sylvia eventually relented and signed a will in Hetty’s presence, bequeathing her entire fortune to her niece.

Hetty was horrified to learn that Sylvia had created a new will after signing the aforementioned with Hetty, leaving most of her $2 million estate (nearly $31 million) to charity. Hetty challenged the will’s validity in court by producing an earlier will that would have bequeathed all of her aunt’s fortune to her. The case, Robinson v. Mandell, which is notable as an early example of the forensic use of mathematics. The court ultimately decided that the earlier will produced by Hetty was a forgery, although she was awarded $600,000 after five years of legal battles.

In 1865, Edward Robinson died, leaving Hetty approximately $5 million (equivalent to $77,293,000 in 2015) which included a $4 million trust fund that drew annual earnings, something she wasn’t pleased about.

Two years after her father’s death, at the age of 33, Hetty married 44 year-old Edward Henry Green, a Vermont businessman who had lived in Asia for several years making his fortune. Hetty requested that Edward sign a prenuptial agreement before the wedding, renouncing all his rights to her money. The couple soon fled to London, probably to get away from the hype created by the Robinson vs. Mandell case. They spent seven years living in the Langham Hotel off Regent Street, during which time Hetty bore two children – Edward Howland Robinson “Ned” Green, and Harriet Sylvia Ann Howland Green (known as Sylvia).

When her children were small, Hetty took to being a mother while her husband pursued investments. However, she soon wanted to make use of her astonishing fortune, and formulated her investment strategy which she stuck to all her life. She made conservative investments, always had substantial cash reserves, and never lost her cool. She began by investing in greenbacks, the notes printed by the U.S. government immediately after the Civil War. When more timid investors were wary of notes put forth by the still-recovering government, Hetty bought in majorly. She claimed to has amassed a fortune of $1.25 million from her bond investments in one year alone.

The family returned to the US in the mid 1870s, settling in Edward’s hometown of Bellows Falls, Vermont. Hetty spent a few years living her with the reputation of an eccentric. She famously quarrelled with all her in laws, servants and neighbours, and was noted for her stinginess in spite of her growing fortune.

The largest investor in the financial house John J. Cisco & Son, Hetty was horrified when the bank collapsed, in 1885 and hastened to New York. She soon learned that the bank’s greatest debtor was none other than her husband, Edward Green. The firm’s management had surreptitiously used her wealth as the basis for their loans to Edward. Emphasizing that their finances were separate, Green withdrew her securities and deposited them in Chemical Bank of New York. Enraged by his dealings, she and Edward would never live together again (although there is evidence that they did reconcile in later years).

Throughout her life, Hetty had a reputation for her stingyness – an ironic fact considering her enormous wealth. While most Wall Street tycoons took a coach in the mornings, Hetty opted to walk. She could have afforded numerous houses in the most affluent parts of New York, a mere stone’s throw to Wall Street, but instead she spent most of her later years in a simple apartment across the river in Hoboken, New Jersey (this was possibly also to avoid having a permanent residence that would bring her to the attention of any tax officials).

One tale claims that Green spent half a night searching her carriage for a lost stamp worth two cents. Another asserts that she instructed her laundress to wash only the dirtiest parts of her dresses (the hems) to save money on soap. Perhaps most interesting, instead of enjoying the new restaurants that were springing up in Downtown New York, Hetty’s lunch while she worked at a Wall Street bank (because she didn’t want to pay rent for her own office) in New York consisted of oatmeal cooked in a big vat on radiator. Her stingyness, combined with her dour dress-habits and austere personality would nickname her ‘The Witch of Wall Street’.

But for all her eccentricity, Hetty was a phenomenally successful businesswoman. While she often dealt in real estate, lending and mines, her main investments were to be in railroads during a golden era of railroad building across America. As soon as Ned became old enough, she stationed in him in Texas, where he learned the tricks of the trade while managing their railroad investments.

The City of New York came to Green for loans to keep the city afloat on several occasions, most particularly during the Panic of 1907. She would travel thousands of miles alone—in an era when few women would dare travel unescorted—to collect a debt of a few hundred dollars.

Edward and Hetty never lived as husband and wife after the John J. Cisco debacle, but there is evidence that they reconciled in later years. Hetty nursed Edward for a few months until his death in 1902.

Hetty was notoriously disapproving of all of Sylvia’s suitors, believing them to just be after her fortune. When Sylvia was in her late 30s, Hetty finally agreed for her daughter to marry Matthew Astor Wilks, a minor heir to the Astor fortune. With $2 million of his own, it was enough to convince Hetty that he wasn’t just a gold-digger. Nonetheless, she compelled him to sign a prenuptial agreement waiving his right to inherit Sylvia’s fortune.

Hetty Green died aged 81 at her son’s New York City home. She earned the title of ‘World’s Greatest Miser’ in the Guinness Book of Records, but left an estimated net work of somewhere between $100 and $200 million, equivalent to around $2-4 billion in today’s money.She was buried in Bellows Falls, Vermont, next to her husband. She had converted late in life to his Episcopalian faith (from her Quakerism) so that she could be interred with him.

You can buy Charles Stack’s biography of Hetty Green here.