March 5: The Hall Of Fame For Great Americans

Hall Of FameToday, let’s take a look at one of the more obscure monuments to American History. It was on this day in 1900 that the Council of New York University received an anonymous donation earmarked for the creation of the Hall of Fame For Great Americans.

The Hall of Fame For Great Americans was the brainchild of Dr. Henry Mitchell MacCracken, the Chancellor of New York University. It was the first hall of fame in the U. S. and MacCracken drew inspiration from European halls of fame that honored national heroes. The Hall, actually an colonnade (seen to the left and right of the domed library in the photo at right), was to set to serve as a centerpiece of New York University’s main campus in the Bronx. The colonnade and library were designed by legendary architect Stanford White. Along the colonnade are bronze busts of all Hall of Fame honorees, each designed specifically for the Hall, with an accompanying plaque detailing the honorees’ years of life and their notable achievements.

So, how did one get inducted into the Hall of Fame? Well, you had to be a notable American citizen who had made a major contribution to American history or culture and also dead for at least 25 years. A board of electors made up of notable Americans (which over time included several Supreme Court justices, congressmen, presidents and seven future Hall of Famers) would then vote on which nominees should be inducted. The first Hall of Fame class was inducted in 1900 with 29 inductees, led of course by George Washiongton and Abraham Lincoln.

For a time, the Hall of Fame was a major source of national pride. Many prominent organizations and individuals promoted the cause of their favored candidates. For instance, the Daughters of the Confederacy were said to be responsible for the induction of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in 1955. (Their campaign for Confederate president Jefferson Davis was less successful.) Inductions were held every five years, and people came from all over the country to attend the elaborate ceremonies in the Bronx.

However, over time Americans lost interest in the Hall and the private donations used to fund the Hall slowed to a trickle. Elections were held in 1973 and then again in 1976, but there was no money to hold further elections or even complete the busts for all of the inductees for those two classes. In fact, it wasn’t until 1992 that money was raised for the bust of 1973 inductee Franklin Roosevelt. Meanwhile, 1973 inductee Louis Brandeis and the three members of the class of 1976 (Clara Barton, Luther Burbank, and Andrew Carnegie) still do not have busts.

When NYU left the campus for its current locations in Manhattan, the Hall of Fame colonnade began to fall into disrepair. When Bronx Community College took over the site in the late ’70s, they spent over 3-million dollars to repair the colonnade and busts. The Hall of Fame for Great Americans still stands today, largely forgotten, even by the students of Bronx CC, and can be visited on tours guided by local historians Art and Susan Zuckerman.

To honor the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, let’s make an All American Cocktail. It’s a classic bourbon and cola with a touch of Southern Comfort.

All American Cocktail

  • 1 ounce Bourbon
  • 1 ounce Southern Comfort
  • 2 ounces Coca Cola

Pour all ingredients into a rocks glass with two ice cubes.

Tomorrow: The King of Western Swing

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