Anna Hyatt Huntington and the Hall of Fame for Great Americans
by Lidia Ferrara
The Hall of Fame for Great Americans was once a thriving institution that captured the public’s attention and housed an extensive collection of America’s most sophisticated and accomplished contemporary artists. One of these artists is Anna Hyatt Huntington. In the year 1927, Anna Hyatt Huntington created a bronze portrait bust of the zoologist Louis Agassiz that is now accompanied by 101 other portrait busts, many of which were created by artists who were her mentors, teachers, colleagues and contemporaries. Yet the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, situated on the campus of what is now Bronx Community College, does not explicitly celebrate these great American sculptors, despite its being a remarkable record of early 20th century sculpture production. The Hall of Fame lauds the “great men” of America—the authors, scientists, political leaders, soldiers, and artists who have had made significant contributions to the nation.
The Hall of Fame was both a “shrine of patriotic memory and of inspiring contemplation” yet was also a monument to America’s great (though less explicitly featured sculptors). Anna Hyatt Huntington’s involvement with this dual function monument was multi-faceted, and Huntington’s ambitions as an artist coincided and converged with the establishment and development of this once dynamic and contemporary national monument. All between the years 1920 and 1930, Huntington played the role of adviser, sculptor, and patron of the Hall of Fame. The rising sculptor engaged in a symbiotic relationship with a growing and engaging collection of sculpture that was, at the time of Huntington’s early and rising career, an important aspect of the social and cultural world of New York City.
Built during the first year of the 20th century, the Hall of Fame for Great Americans forms part of what was then a brand new campus for New York University situated in a rural and picturesque landscape. New York University acquired their University Heights campus in 1890 due to the exclusive devotion of Washington Square East to the university’s graduate and professional schools, and the necessity of new grounds for the undergraduate schools. The location of the Bronx campus was chosen for both its picturesque view of the Palisades and the Hudson River, its historical prominence during the Revolutionary war, as well as its geographical characteristics that would lend themselves to “a great college quadrangle” and an adjacent athletic field. In a text he published in 1904, Chancellor of New York University Henry Mitchell MacCracken says the “chief attraction of the entire hillside will be the Hall of Fame.”
The Hall of Fame was first imagined to meet the logistical and geographical needs of New York University’s recently acquired University Heights campus. In 1894, New York University began to build on its Bronx site, and took advantage of the area’s picturesque hills and view of upper New York City’s “extended and varied landscape.” Chancellor MacCracken of New York University, who first envisioned and proposed the construction of the Hall of Fame in 1900, writes, “The inception of the Hall of Fame, as many another product of civilization, is due in considerable part to hard facts of physical geography.” The grade of the land where the buildings that form college’s quadrangle were to be built was such that their exterior basement walls would have been exposed. The Hall of Fame was thus conceived of “to conceal these walls and to present an ornamental effect.” MacCracken writes, in order to justify “a university of comparatively small resources in possessing so costly an ornament,” it was felt that the structure must serve an educational purpose. To fulfill this dual need that was both pedagogical and aesthetic in nature, MacCracken proposed The Hall of Fame for Great Americans.
Architect Stanford White of the leading American architectural firm at the turn of the century, McKim, Mead and White, designed the colonnade’s neo-classical structure. The New York-based firm designed some of America’s most important landmark buildings such as the now-demolished Pennsylvania Railroad Station, the Boston Public Library, as well as much of Columbia University’s own campus, most notably Low Library. McKim, Mead and White’s designs quote forms from antiquity, the Renaissances of Italy and France, as well as the architecture of Europe and America’s more recent past during the 17th and 18th centuries. The eminent architects believed that America should be a further development of the past’s classical impulses, and participated in what the turn of the century’s contemporary architects, artists, and patrons believed to be an American Renaissance. The 630-foot curving colonnade sits atop a large granite edifice that was originally designated to house a museum of memorabilia and Americana, and provides us with a perfectly intact relic of the monumental neo-Classical ambitions of turn-of-the-century America.
The colonnade, which originally only stretched five hundred feet in length and has since been extended, was designed to ultimately house one hundred and fifty panels, the inscriptions on which were to honor the same number of great Americans. The inaugural installment introduced fifty panels to the colonnade, and fifty more were to be added after each successive period of five years. After the initial construction of the 500-foot structure, an addition of 130 feet was added between the years 1912 and 1915, and was designed by the firm Crow, Lewis and Wick, while McKim, Mead and White were retained as consultants of the project. In the Preface of his “Official Book” of the Hall of Fame, written in 1901, MacCracken mentions “the indebtedness of the Hall of Fame…to Mr. Louis C. Tiffany and his associates of the Tiffany Studios, who have carefully designed the twenty-nine bronze tablets” which formed the inaugural installation of memorial bronze tablets that line the inner base of the colonnade. Tiffany Studios was a part of the larger company Tiffany & Co., whose celebrated works took the form of glass windows and lamps, jewelry, pottery, furniture, among other things, and rendered the company a prominent creative force at the turn of the century, much like the architecture firm McKim, Mead and White. Today, the Hall of Fame is 630 feet in length and lined with 102 commemorative busts and plaques. The curving open-air colonnade is a lasting shrine to not only those great Americans whose portraits line the structure, but also America’s most sophisticated and prominent metalwork and architecture at the start of the nineteenth century.
The Hall of Fame is a Pantheon of America’s most eminent soldiers, leaders, teachers, authors, scientists and artists, yet the impulse to honor and preserve the memories of a society’s greatest contributors was far from being, at the time of the colonnade’s construction, a new invention. In a text entitled The Story of the Hall of Fame, published in 1902, author Louis Banks writes, “It was curious that no plans for an American Pantheon had before this time been presented to the nation.” Johnson echoes this thought in his 1935 book and states “What is remarkable about the Hall of Fame for Great Americans is not that the idea should have occurred to the imagination of one scholarly and patriotic man, but that it should have waited until the year 1900 for its conception.” St. Clair McKelway, editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, said after the 1901 dedication of the Hall of Fame, “A national Pantheon is an instinct with any strong people.” Johnson makes a similar statement, and writes, “Every nation has had the impulse to celebrate its great men in a similar way.” This “impulse” that Johnson attributes to every nation, and the “instinct” that McKelway named stretch as far back into history as Greek and Roman antiquity. The Hall of Fame participates in an ancient legacy of memorialization through both its form as well as its function. As Banks describes, “In Rome still stand the remains of the Pantheon, built by Agrippa (to-day the most perfect of the existing classical buildings in the city), dedicated to all the gods, and goddesses, and deities of Roman mythology.” In ancient Greece and Rome, the archetype of the Pantheon served the purpose of honoring the gods, yet as the tradition continued, gods were replaced with mortals: those “great men” who contribute significantly to their nations.
According to Johnson’s 1935 account of the conception of the Hall of Fame, “the architectural motive in the mind of Dr. MacCracken was related to that of the Temple of Victory in Athens.” The Hall of Fame for Great Americans, in addition to participating in a legacy that finds its earliest examples in the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome, quotes the classical forms found at those sites. The Temple of Victory, also known as the Temple of Athena Nike, is a Hellenistic temple from the 420s BC. The Hall of Fame visibly quotes the temple’s architecture. Echoes of the temple’s ionic fluted columns and pediments can be found in the Hall of Fame entrance, as well as the two square porticoes on either end of the colonnade. The Hall of Fame’s direct recapitulation of specific classical forms offers material evidence of MacCracken’s ambitious interest in situating New York University, New York City, and even America within this ancient legacy of honoring and paying homage to greatness with monumental structures.
In an address MacCracken made in 1918, he discusses how the idea for the colonnade first came to him: “one more school of preparation which helped me to propose and to organize the Hall of Fame for Great Americans was my study as long ago as fifty-one years of the halls of fame of three other nations.” MacCracken lists: “Westminster Abbey, as the Hall of Fame for Great British Citizens,” the Pantheon in Paris, “as the Hall of Fame for Great Frenchmen,” and the Ruhmes Halle and Walhalla in Bavaria and Germany, respectively. These sites are results of that very same impulse described previously: to preserve in a nation’s memory the lives and achievements of its greatest men. Yet MacCracken critiques these various pantheons, and says boldly: “All of them are very faulty, their faults coming from the governments which organized them.” According to MacCracken, these sites are too monarchical in nature, and do not aptly represent the people of their nations.
The Chancellor makes abundantly clear in his address that the American Hall of Fame will be vastly different from these other sites, will be “in its constitution like America and not like the Hall of Fame of the nations across the sea,” and will better represent the contemporary state and values of its nation. A New York Tribune article published May 31, the day following the Hall of Fame’s day of dedication, reacts to the apparent similarities between the Hall of Fame and these comparable sites: “Neither one of these nor any other such institution is comparable with our Hall of Fame…in its freedom from ecclesiastical, political, personal or other influence, apart from the simple merit of its subjects, and in the nationally representative manner in which the subjects of its commemoration are chosen.” These texts written on the Hall of Fame decisively confer on their emphasis of the American pantheon’s unique character and scope. Thus, despite MacCracken’s interest in participating in a centuries-old tradition, he has the additional urge to differentiate the Hall of Fame from those shrines that came before it.
Beginning even before its construction, The Hall of Fame for Great Americans raptly engaged the public’s attention. A noteworthy element of the Constitution of the Hall of Fame is its invitation to the public for nominations of names to be honored. MacCracken describes, “An open door is offered to popular participation. An invitation is given to every citizen, young or old, to send names worthy to be inscribed to the Senate of New York University.” The inclusionary and democratic process by which names were added to the Hall of Fame aimed at capturing an accurate popular opinion of who exactly were the nation’s greatest contributors. Prominent newspapers throughout the country publicized the plan and called for nominations from the public. Johnson writes that “Next to the presidential election of that year, the project was foremost in the minds of thinking people, and more than one thousand names were proposed.” The College of Electors, comprised of “one hundred distinguished men and women” who were chosen by the New York University Senate, then voted on the nominations to make the final selection of names to include in the Hall of Fame. Johnson writes that as a result of the public’s participation, the decision made by the College of Electors “was thus ratified in advance, so to speak, by the country.” Johnson concludes his discussion of the public reception of the Hall of Fame by saying that “the press of the country has not only greeted the project as being of education value, but considered with meticulous attention the basis of fame that should prevail in the selections.”
The Hall of Fame was officially dedicated on May 30th, 1901, and was met with similar notice and public interest as the election of the names had been. Banks writes, “The dedication of the Hall of Fame evoked editorial notice and discussion in thousands of newspapers throughout the length and breadth of the land.” The New York Tribune article published the day following the Hall’s dedication calls the Hall of Fame “an epitome of all phases of the nation’s many-sided greatness” and “the sample room of the nation’s manhood.” The article even mentions the inevitability of the Hall’s comparison to those other national shrines that inspired it, but says comparisons “are not to be feared by the Hall of Fame, which stands unique and supreme in its fulfillment of the purpose of such a building.” Despite being “far surpassed in age and in illustrious associations” by other pantheons of great men such as Great Britain’s Westminster Abbey, the Hall of Fame stands on its own as “a national shrine which the university may well be proud to own, the city to cherish and the nation to regard.”
How better to ensure the unparalleled quality and sophistication of the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, than to establish and maintain a unified artistic ideal for the edifice? In his text, Johnson makes a final comparison between New York University’s memorial and the Hall of Statuary in Washington, D.C., “the only American precedent of the Hall of Fame.” Johnson faults the Hall of Statuary in the Capitol at Washington, for having “no body of expert opinion, such as the present Federal Art Commission, to give counsel, or, if necessary, to veto mediocrity.” As a result of this lack of leadership, “No scale was established, no oversight was exerted, no material prescribed.” Johnson critiques the Hall of Statuary for its lack of unity and standardization. Yet, he says, “things have changed,” and “provincialism has given way to that humility which is the beginning of wisdom.” The Director of the Hall of Fame discusses the increasing “spread of artistic standards and ambitions,” that he says were catalyzed by such “a dismal failure as the National Gallery of Statuary,” in which all pieces “suffer by the juxtaposition of figures constructed on various scales, and of different materials and often pretentious motives.”
It becomes increasingly clear that the Hall of Fame for Great Americans at New York University’s Upper Heights campus would distinguish itself by establishing an artistic unity and standard that had never before been achieved in America. In the year 1919, Robert Underwood Johnson became the Director of the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, and very soon after taking charge of the project, he established an Art Committee that would, throughout the memorial’s expansion and evolution, maintain the highest possible aesthetic quality of the colonnade. Johnson humorously calls the National Gallery of Statuary “The Chamber of Horrors, and describes, “the lesson of that calamity has not been lost upon those in charge of the Colonnade at University Heights.” The Art Committee, as Johnson describes it, was comprised of “three distinguished sculptors, with a view to maintaining in all details the highest artistic standard.” In a 1920 letter from Chancellor Brown’s stenographer to the Dean Bouton of New York University’s undergraduate school, Chancellor Brown wishes to pass on a letter from the Director of the Hall of Fame, and says that Johnson finds the establishment of a committee for the selection of busts entirely agreeable. The concept of enlisting a group of experts to establish a high artistic standard for the Hall of Fame thus arose as early as 1920, more than a full year before the final institution of the committee.
The inaugural Art Committee of the Hall of Fame included the sculptors Paul Bartlett, James Fraser, and Anna Hyatt Huntington. The Chancellor of New York University to succeed Chancellor MacCracken, Chancellor Elmer Ellsworth Brown, wrote a letter to Huntington in the year 1921, the year of the Art Committee’s inception. Brown graciously thanks Huntington for being “willing to take the trouble and render the public service involved in membership of the Art Committee, advisory to the administration of the Hall of Fame.” Brown writes: “The administration of the Hall of Fame must…depend on expert advice,” so that “no bad break should be made in the admission of busts of the persons who have been regularly elected by the Electorate for commemoration in that corridor.” The Chancellor continues, “We count ourselves fortunate indeed that you and Mr. Bartlett and Mr. Fraser have accepted this responsibility and have already visited University Heights with a view to suiting your advice to the actual conditions as you find them.” This abundantly gracious letter from Chancellor Brown to Huntington provides evidence of not only the importance of the Art Committee to the institution of New York University as a whole, but also the significant commitment required to serve this leadership role. The letter attests to the importance and relevance of the Hall of Fame in New York society of the early 20th century. By February 1921, the three eminent sculptors had already taken the time and consideration to visit the site, and to provide accurate judgments on its aesthetic development.
Huntington was thus involved in a seminal element of the Hall of Fame, and was part of the inaugural committee that would establish and maintain the colonnade’s aesthetic unity and sophistication, the importance of which Dr. Johnson made emphatically clear in his 1935 publication. According to Dr. Johnson’s text, the Art Committee served without compensation, and donated, “in a spirit of patriotic devotion,” their time and expertise to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. The main, and perhaps most significant responsibility of the Committee was to select and approve the sculptors whose works were to line the colonnade. Johnson writes of this selection process, “The sculptors are selected from among the best available Americans after the most careful and conscientious conferences by the three veteran sculptors who have considered the special aptitude of each sculptor’s work—its picturesqueness, nobility, etc.” Johnson writes that these busts “are to be the work of contemporary American artists so that the Colonnade may present distinguished examples of American sculpture.” The Committee also established a required scale for the busts: “ten inches from crown to chin, and twenty inches more to the plinth.” Johnson is sure to add that any deviation from this established scale “has been so light as to be negligible and not to mar the unity of the collection.”
The unity and standardization of the colonnade, despite housing contributions from many different artists, was of the utmost importance to Johnson and the Art Committee. The combination of the high artistic standard established by the Committee, so that only the most distinguished renderings would be accepted to the colonnade, as well as the establishment of a unity of size and scale, ensure, as Johnson writes, that “there is now nothing to impair the dignity and impressiveness of what is, in the main, a major exhibition of contemporary American portrait sculpture.” As a result of the Art Committee’s commitment to a high aesthetic standard, The Hall of Fame for Great Americans stretches across the hillside, a lasting relic of the most distinguished sculptural production of the early 20th century.
In addition to offering their expertise and judgment on the portrait busts that, beginning in the year 1922, began to line the colonnade, members of the Art Committee were expected to contribute sculptural offerings of their own to the colonnade. Johnson’s text provides record of Chancellor Brown and Johnson’s insistence “that the eminent members of the Committee should be ‘commandeered’ to contribute to this unique gallery of portraiture in bronze.” Anna Hyatt Huntington’s contribution to the Hall of Fame takes the form of a bust of the zoologist Louis Agassiz. Created in the year 1927, and unveiled on May 10, 1928, the bust provides evidence for Huntington’s contributions to the Hall of Fame not only as administrator, but as artist. The bust was a gift of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and an anonymous admirer of Agassiz’s work. Agassiz was most notably a professor of zoology and geology at Harvard University, and as a teacher, “trained an entire generation of naturalists,” including Huntington’s own father, the paleontologist Alpheus Hyatt. It is highly plausible that Huntington’s engagement in the creation of this particular portrait bust was due to her personal and familial connection to Agassiz and his achievements as scientist.
Huntington’s personal letters to her mother offer interesting insight to the process by which the bust was created and ultimately installed. In a letter she wrote in September of the year 1927 to her mother, Huntington mentions that she must soon finish the bust. Although Huntington does not explicitly state which exact bust it is she is working on, one can assume she means the bust of Agassiz, which was completed the same year this letter was written. Later that year, in another letter to her mother, Huntington writes, “We had the art committee for the Hall of Fame to lunch Tuesday.” The Art Committee, of which she was one of the inaugural members, was now comprised of different sculptors, and was exercising their judgment on Huntington’s own work. 1927 was thus the year Huntington’s contributions to the Hall of Fame shifted from not only having been administrative in nature, to also being material. Referring to her bust, Huntington writes that the Art Committee “seemed to think it had character and vitality, so it has gone over to the foundry.” The Art Committee passed their final approval of Huntington’s work, certified that it met the necessary requirements, and deemed the sculpture worthy of being accepted into the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. One might assume that after donating her time and expertise to the memorial in a consulting capacity, her contribution of sculpture would have been allowed to circumvent the approval process—yet even the “veteran sculptor” herself was at the mercy of the Art Committee’s approval.
On May 10, 1928, Huntington writes to her mother that she had the bust of Louis Agassiz photographed, and will send one along if any are acceptable. Interestingly, May 10, 1928 was the date of the bust’s unveiling ceremony at the Hall of Fame. Unveiling ceremonies were held every year to celebrate the addition of a new group of busts to the colonnade, and were celebrations not unlike the Hall of Fame’s initial dedication in 1901. After being appointed Director of the Hall of Fame in 1919, Johnson immediately commenced the work of acquiring busts for the names honored in the Hall, and it was under his leadership that the celebratory unveiling of the busts emerged as a regular tradition. The ceremonies involved a procession from the University Heights Library to the colonnade, preceded by a quartet of trumpeters and headed by the Chancellor and Director of the Hall of Fame. These grand ceremonies and the public’s interest in the bronzes drew such crowds that the events were later arranged to take place in an adjacent outdoor space, and for the procession to pass through the entire length of the colonnade.
Johnson’s text offers an image of the world into which Huntington’s Agassiz bust emerged, and the reception it must have received. Huntington herself was interested in having a photograph taken of the final installation of the bust in the impressive milieu that is the Hall of Fame. The unveiling ceremonies of the busts were public spectacles, and were occurring with as much vigor and enthusiasm as the Hall of Fame’s dedication ceremony, almost three decades earlier. Huntington’s bust was not only one of the earliest members of a great and impressive collection of sculpture, but contributed to a New York City institution that dynamically engaged with the society around it. The monument was a testament to New York City’s becoming a great metropolis, America’s becoming a great and powerful country, and finally, though no less importantly, Huntington’s high status as a great American sculptor.
In addition to her administrative and even more direct, sculptural contributions to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, Anna Hyatt Huntington was connected to the Hall of Fame through yet another channel: her husband, Archer Huntington. Archer Huntington was a savvy and cultivated patron of the arts, and founded myriad societies, academies, and museums in New York City. Archer Huntington inherited his great wealth from a rather unconventional source, his adoptive father, Collis Huntington, an extraordinarily wealthy, self-invented railroad tycoon. Upon Anna Vaughn Hyatt’s marriage to Archer Huntington in 1923, she shifted from not only being a successful artist, to being one of the greatest 20th century patrons of sculpture, and joined in Archer Huntington’s support of art institutions.
Early in the year 1926, Chancellor Elmer Ellsworth Brown wrote to Archer Huntington, reminding him of one of his previous visits to University Heights. He lauds the site to Mr. Huntington, and writes: “the plans of McKim, Mead and White, which have been faithfully followed hither-to, give promise of one of the most glorious architectural groups in this country.” He extols the colonnade’s position as a great national monument—one with immense potential for growth and development. Yet he goes on to say, “all that is lacking is the means for the full realization of a magnificent dream.” The Chancellor asks Archer to visit the Upper Heights campus again, and is sure to mention he would be glad if “Mrs. Huntington” accompanied him on his visit, “the more so that we remember with gratitude her part in maintaining the artistic standard of the Hall of Fame.” At the time this letter was written, Anna Hyatt Huntington had not yet made her sculptural contribution to the colonnade, but would do so only a year later. Chancellor Brown’s emphatic plea for a donation from Archer Huntington is a record of the role the wealthy patron played in New York society, as well as of Anna Hyatt’s high status as sculptor, and the value of her sage advice. In marriage, the two lovers of the arts were joined—a powerful union, the influence of which was highly coveted by institutions like New York University’s Hall of Fame.
Archer Huntington responded to the Chancellor’s enthusiastic letter immediately, and respectfully declined his request. Yet Archer was sure to add that he hoped to revisit the possibility of joining Chancellor Brown in his expansion and development of the Hall of Fame sometime in the future. Two years later, in 1928, Chancellor Brown wrote to Archer Huntington again. This time, the letter carried a very different message: “Our Treasurer’s office has been hearing from you – three checks for three thousand dollars each, for busts in the Hall of Fame.” Between 1926 and July of 1928, Archer Huntington’s position on donating to the Hall of Fame had evidently changed. It is certainly no coincidence that also between the years 1926 and 1928, Anna Hyatt Huntington was crafting her sculpture of Louis Agassiz for the Hall of Fame. It may have been Anna Hyatt’s efforts and involvement with the Hall of Fame that were the ultimate impetus for Archer Huntington’s generous donation. The Agassiz bust was unveiled only two months before Archer’s donation was made, which renders the correlation between the two nearly impossible to ignore.
At the close of a decade that saw Anna Hyatt Huntington’s changing, but continuous involvement in what was once one of New York City’s most important landmark institutions, Chancellor Brown wrote a third time to Archer Huntington. In his letter he describes how walking through the Hall of Fame for Great Americans earlier that very morning, a thought suddenly struck him: “that right here is the chief center of the portrait sculpture of America.” Anna Hyatt Huntington contributed to this “chief center” of American portrait sculpture in perhaps every way possible. As early as 1921, Anna Hyatt was chosen to be a member of the Art Committee of the Hall of Fame, an undeniable ratification of her accomplishments and a testament to her great success as sculptor. By 1927, she was creating her own sculptural contribution to the Hall, and less than one year later, her husband had donated enough money to fund the addition of three busts to the colonnade. Anna Hyatt Huntington’s multivalent contributions to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans provide a lens through which to gain a privileged glimpse of the artist’s early career. Huntington’s engagement with the Hall of Fame as adviser, sculptor, and patron, provides an example of the convergence between artist and institution, and testifies to the high ambitions and achievements of both. Elections for new additions to the Hall of Fame ceased in 1976, and no new busts have been added since, due to a lack of funding. Yet despite the monument’s apparent irrelevance to a world so changed since the turn of the century, the Hall of Fame still stands, a proud relic of what was once an ambitious and influential New York City institution, and a lasting memorial to the efforts of an equally ambitious sculptor.
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