Under the Dome

I received this recently as a re-tweet from the NYPL. What a beauty! It’s a rare daguerreotype of the interior of New York’s long-since-destroyed Crystal Palace. The “Palace” was a fabulously surreal structure erected as part of New York’s 1853 Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations. London had thrown its own Great Exhibition three years earlier. The hall of wonders was an enormous “Crystal Palace” gracing Hyde Park. The British fair’s impressive display of art and manufactured goods was so successful that the capitals of Europe and New York City followed suit. The city fathers of New York apparently wanted to erect their own palace, smaller and less expensive than the English model, but one that was nonetheless gasp-worthy. So on the site of what is now Bryant Park they installed a delicate confection of cast iron and glass. The palace dome, over sixty feet high, was supported by twenty-four iron columns set with over thirty enameled and finely-etched panes. The finished structure contained roughly 10,000 of these translucent panels.

When the building opened July 30, 1853, reviews were enthusiastic. Some commentators found the edifice mystical, a modern Xanadu. Walt Whitman hailed it in poetry as “a place loftier, fairer, ampler than any yet.” Even Mark Twain rhapsodized, “’Tis a perfect fairy palace – beautiful beyond description.”

Others were skeptical. George Templeton Strong recorded in his diary entry of June 18, 1854 that he had attended a “Musical Congress” at the Palace and the circus-like extravaganza, produced by P. T. Barnum, was “one of the grandest humbugs on record.”

The crowd was enormous. It is estimated at fifteen thousand by some and forty thousand by others. I’ve no opinion at all as to the accuracy of either estimate. But for some time after taking our seats, I was seriously exercised about the possibility of falling galleries and panic-stricken multitudes and was tempted to evacuate the building at once…

The Palace was, indeed, too fragile to support human traffic. Although its architects boasted that it was fire-proof, that proposition was laid to waste in October of 1858 when a blaze that began in a lumber room raced through the flimsy structure, causing the dome to explode in just twelve minutes. The entire Palace fell in twenty-one. (You can read Strong’s account of the disaster in his entry on page 325 of New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009.)

Miraculously, all 2,000 visitors inside got out alive.

The daguerreotype, owned by the New-York Historical Society, is identified only as having been taken by an unknown photographer during the mid-1850’s. This was most certainly l854 or thereafter since the statuary shown here was introduced during a “renovation” that year. The central figure is called the “Genius of America” inspired by a figure on the pediment of the U.S. Capitol building. Beyond her, you can see a full-length statue of George Washington, flanked on either side by Eve After the Fall, and Adam and Eve after the Fall.

The lithograph below shows the original rotunda when the fair opened in l853. Occupying the central position at that time was the equestrian statue of George Washington.

Thank you New York Public Library, New-York Historical Society, Wikipedia and Tumblr.

Now, Chorister

High on my list of summer reads? Stacy Horn’s Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others.

The behind-the-scenes-experiences of a Greenwich Village chorister. Absolutely fascinating! (I didn’t know what to call that fragment of music that goes round and round in your head for days. It’s a “brain worm.”)

Imperfect Harmony is the memoir of a single woman, who, troubled in life and love, finds two precious hours of joy each week singing with one of the world’s most demanding amateur choirs, The Choral Society of New York’s Grace Church. She describes how the experience creates a sense of the physical body falling away – possibly due to the release of endorphins, dopamine, prolactin and oxycotin — and a feeling of literally merging with other humans. For a chorus, a performance is magnificently more than the sum of its parts. The effect is transcendence.

Imperfect is never self-important and much of it is touching and out-and-out hilarious. After singing about death (apparently sad oeuvres release empathy hormones), Stacy is overwhelmed by the plight of a pigeon dying in a gutter. She scoops it up in a box and takes it home, and then Googles “pigeon rescue New York.” Bingo. She connects with a “pigeon first responder, who turned out to be B-movie actress and Fifties pin-up girl Meg Myles, star of Satan in High Heels.” (The pigeon recovers and is packed off to a sanctuary.)

One passage I found particularly wonderful as it evokes so vividly the Village neighborhood in which it is set.

To get to Grace Church, I walk east on Eleventh Street from Seventh Avenue to Broadway. It’s a lovely walk that I’ve taken more than a thousand times. Some city streets are gray or brown but this particular stretch is a magical mystery tour of color, even at twilight. Nature and humanity have had a couple hundred years to settle into a luscious coexistence on these four blocks, and it’s like walking through a friendly forest that has been peacefully settled by people. In the spring and summer, boxes of brilliant flowers and strange plants crowd almost every apartment window, some with leaves so large they look tropical. Clover, wood-sorrel, crab grass, and violets sprout from the sidewalk cracks that are off to the side, and there’s always a sweet perfume that comes from either wisteria, pine or honeysuckle. Steam rises from the manholes like water escaping from a pot. Branches from each side of the street reach across, forming awnings overhead whose leaves sound like hundreds of tiny drums whenever it rains. In the winter, holiday decorations pick up where nature leaves off and the color comes from tasteful wreathes hanging on the windows and doors, and gates, railings and balustrades.

Rehearsals are every Tuesday evening from 7:15 to 9:30, so this is a walk I take at night, when my view is lit by the moon, street lamps and whatever light filters out from the first-floor parlor windows. It’s a very wealthy part of town and it shows. Sometimes I feel like the Little Match Girl as I pass by, forever on the outside, catching glimpses through lace curtains of the enchanting lives in the small palaces of glimmering chandeliers, floor-to-ceiling bookcases, and grand pianos In one window is a small sad painting of a gerbil with lettering that reads: In memory of Mr. Pokey, 2001-2003. In another is Paddington Bear. For as long as I can remember that bear has stood in the window, looking out, his outfit regularly changing with the seasons. It’s the beginning of January now, and he’s dressed in a top hat and tails, as if he’s making the party rounds…

The last two blocks before I get to Grace Church are filled with antique shops. I never once stopped inside any of them and I probably never will. The splendid gilded tables and French country armoires are much too grand for me. The very last block is relatively barren, the vegetation tapers off, and a parking garage takes up almost a third of the south side of the street. And then I come to Broadway.

Note: Stacy had an indispensable role in the publication of New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009. You’ll find photos of her below under “Happy Anniversary.”

The Fourth of July

Observations of a visiting Brit on the sixty-first anniversary of the Declaration.

Pop-pop-bang-pop-pop-bang-bang-bang! Mercy on us….Well, the Americans may have great reason to be proud of this day, and the deeds of their forefathers, but why do they get so confoundedly drunk? Why on this day of independence, should they become so dependent upon posts and rails for support?…

When the troops marched up Broadway, louder even than the music were to be heard the screams of delight from the children at the crowded windows on each side. “Ma! Ma! There’s pa!” “Oh, there’s John.” “Look at uncle on his big horse.”

The troops did not march in very good order, because independently of their not knowing how, there was a great deal of independence to contend with. At one time an omnibus and four would drive in and cut off the general and his staff from the division; at another, a cart would roll in and insist upon following close upon the band of music; so that it was a mixed procession – generals…music, cartloads of bricks, troops, omnibus and a pair, artillery, hackney-coach, etc. etc. Notwithstanding all this, they at last arrived at the City Hall, where those who were old enough heard the Declaration of Independence read for the sixty-first time; and then it was – “Begone, brave army, and don’t kick up a row.”

Captain Frederick Marryat
July 4, 1837

(New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009. p. 212.)

Throbbing Fountain

Sat in Madison Square. Watched the Throbbing Fountain. Think I’ll soon tackle a plate on this subject. The sensuous attraction of the spurts of water is strong subconsciously on everyone…..John Sloan. September 9, 1906 (New York Diaries:1609-2009. p. 283.)

Glad he did. The result is wonderful.

Still Crazy After All These Years

That termagant little South Carolina has declared herself out of the Union and resolved to run away and to the sea. How many of the Southern sisterhood will join the secession jig…remains to be seen…. It’s a grave event for any family if one of its members goes mad. But as an offset, we have the influx of gold from England and the growing hopes that Northern cities will get through the winter without the panic and crisis and uprising of hungry mobs that our Southern friends complacently predict.

George Templeton Strong
December 21, 1860

(New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009. p. 413.)

A Butterfly High

Tomato appeared on roof vine! Potted in shallow pan at that. Also, in the evening an enormous butterfly flew in the window…. Most beautiful creature, six inch wings almost of delicate pink verging on beige with a sky blue stripe….

Dawn Powell
July 30, 1958

(New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009. p. 242.)

If you have not been so fortunate as to spot one of these lovelies in the wilds of Manhattan, let me recommend the next best thing; a visit to the Butterfly Conservatory at the American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West.

The exhibit is annual, running early October through May. Visitors are allowed to walk freely through a vivarium, a simulated rain-forest. No chasing or petting of the butterflies, but if one lands on your sleeve, you may keep still and observe it. The forest is staffed by extremely informative personnel who carry around wedges of citrus fruit with b-flies languidly feeding on them.

You may expect to find the iridescent Morpho peleides, scarlet swallowtails and owl butterflies – so named for the spots like large dark eyes on on their undersides. Anywhere from 150 to 500 free-flying tropicals.

A glass case near the entrance displays part of the collection of the novelist, Vladimir Nabokov, an ardent lepidopterist, who is credited with discovering a Lysandra cormion. Is it a hybrid of two existing species or a distinctly new one? Still a matter for debate, among lepidopterists.

The Buttefly Conservancy is open until May 28.

For a look inside:

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Time and Place

Thumbing through a hardcopy of New York Diaries recently, I remembered how much effort had gone into dating those entries. There were four separate calendars to consider. Did a given entry, for instance, fall under Julian or Gregorian accounting. No problem here. The oldest entry dates back to 1609. The Julian Calendar had given way to the Gregorian in the late 1500s. Were there any undated entries that could nailed down with the assistance of events mentioned in the body of the entry? And what to do about the Quaker Calendar? Again, there was an old and new version to be considered, September being the first month of the year. We were satisfied, finally, that we had reconciled the new Quaker with the Julian system.

But what about hours within the day? Did an event occur at One o’Cock, Five o’Clock, Midnight? We simply had to take the diarists’ word: Begging the larger question, How did those diarists tell time?

Curiously, there is no mention of clocks or other timepieces in any of the entries. The earliest allusion to timekeeping is that of Robert Juet, a mate on the Half Moon, On September 2, 1609. The little galleon, which had apparently been under sail the night before, anchored at the mouth of “a great Bay.” Juet’s journal records that this happened after sunrise, at “five of the clocke.”

The most likely “clock” for a mariner of the place and time would have been a heavy brass ring called an “astrolabe.” A sailor viewed a star or sun along a bar with a plate, or vane, mounted at each end. When the holes in the vanes were aligned perfectly upon the celestial object, a pointer came to rest at a spot on the circumference allowing one to calculate the correct hour.


By the Revolutionary War, the British had developed their trusty nautical chronometer, so accurate it could keep time in the rough seas and stay on Greenwich mean time. Officers on both sides of the conflict had access to portable timepieces, pendant or pocket watches often so clumsy they were called “turnips.”

It fell to diarists of the 1800s to make distinctions within an hour. The first is the grief-stricken Philip Hone, who mentioned that his beloved invalid child Mary had “left this world at 11:45.” Her doctor, in the business of recording time of death, most likely had timepiece with not just a minute hand, but a second hand for precision. When a son was born to George Templeton Strong at “half-past twelve P.M,” that, too, was considered an occasion worth recording with uncommon particularity.

During the Gilded Age, New York ladies wore timepieces as jewelry. Men, who, found this effete, apparently didn’t start wearing “wristlets” until World War I when it was considered a good idea to equip troops with some means to coordinate action. As manufacturers cranked out wristwatches by the millions, the refined pursuit of horology became the domain of academics and the very few artisans who still made or make timepieces by hand.

Today, collecting old masterpieces is the province of the rich. And perhaps the richest collection in New York resides in the Portico of Clocks at the Frick Museum on Upper Fifth Avenue. The entire collection contains thirty-eight clocks and watches spanning the 1500s to the early 1800s, a bequest from Winthrop Kellog Edey, an oil heir who was an authority on Medieval French timepieces. The clocks and watches are all of Northern European derivation. They are under glass for climate control and, one imagines, to discourage tinkering, These casings have intricately wrought exteriors, something Edey valued as much as the interiors. Among these beauties are gilt brass cases adorned with mythological scenes painted on ceramic.

My own favorites were two plainer objects; one a gold pocket watch with Tourbillon (circa 1822) and the other a carriage clock (circa 1811). The first acknowledges that watches, because of their constant movement, are not as reliable as clocks. The designers, Breguet and Fils eliminated the “positional error” by mounting the gears on a carriage, that rotated at intervals to neutralize the glitch. The “Tourbillon” translates roughly as “Whirlwind.” The carriage clock, also by the Breguets, offered a traveler every possible convenience. Portable, it told not only time, but the phase the moon, day, date, month and year. If it was too dark to see the face, the traveler could press a button on top and the clock would chime to the last quarter hour. It also had an alarm clock mechanism to set for a given interval desired for sleep.

The Frick exhibition, Precision and Splendor: Clocks and Watches at the Frick Collection, runs until February 4, 2014. Museum hours are Tuesday through Saturday 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Closed on Mondays and Holidays.

Corcoran’s Brigade

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YouTube is, among other things, an excellent source for photo research. Not long ago I was scanning Civil War songs looking for a series of prints illustrating Sherman’s March to the Sea. (I found them on PrinceChaloner’s “Marching Through Georgia.”) In the process, I came across another Union tune that raised some curious issues. “We’ll Fight for Uncle Sam.”

It’s a feisty ballad about one Paddy Kearney who enlists in New York’s 69th to fight the rebels. Straight out of the gate he proclaims himself a “modern hero,” a perception contrary to the one many New Yorkers held of the Irish prior to the outbreak of Civil War. The Irish had arrived in waves after the potato famine. Their sheer numbers and the fact that they were Catholic (the vast majority of previous comers were Protestant) branded them outcasts. “No Irish Need Apply” was posted unapogetically on the windows of shops and restaurants about town.

The Irish formed a volunteer “militia” ostensibly to keep the peace but meant more generally to protect Irish interests. One of these units was “Corcoran’s Brigade.” It was led by one Michael Corcoran whose ulterior purpose may have been to recruit and train Irish riflemen in the U.S. for a war against Great Britain. But there was another geopolitical force at play. In the early days of the Civil War, Britain was seriously considering throwing its weight on the side of the Confederacy in order to co-opt the profitable cotton trade. So joining forces with the North was Corcoran’s way of sticking it to John Bull.

“The Irish Brigade” was para-military rather than regular army, but the distinction blurred when Corcoran refused to parade his men past the visiting Prince of Wales. For this, he was court-martialed, but before he could be tried, The Civil War broke out and in 1860 the Brigade was mobilized and later mustered into the Union forces. The North could not afford to lose the fighting ability of the notoriously combative Irish.

The 69th won renown for its courage under fire and it suffered staggering losses. At the First Battle of Bull Run, it successfully defended the U.S. capital against on-coming Confederates. During the Battle of Antietam, it held the Confederates at bay giving Union troops time to break the Seccessh line. The Irish Brigade suffered a casualty rate of sixty percent. During the Battle of Fredericksburg Its remaining 1,600 men dwindled to 256. Lee himself reportedly bestowed upon the brigade the grudging title of “The Fighting 69th”. The undermanned brigade fought on to Chancellorville suffering yet more casualties. It put its wounded back in the lines for the battle of Gettysburg where the casualties took their final toll. The Irish volunteers still standing were folded into two other existing brigades.

“We’ll Fight For Uncle Sam”, sung here by folk artist, David Kincaid, is the work of an anonymous lyricist set to the tune of an Irish drinking song, “Whiskey in a Jar.” Not a march per se, it was probably sung more often in dance halls and around regimental camp fires.

Note: “Give him Ballyhooly” seems to be an all purpose insult; Ballyhooly being a hot, humid town near Cork considered by the Irish to be the most miserable spot on earth.

Note: The song apparently emerged at the start of the war, circa 1860, but the last verse, referring to General George “Little Mac” McClellan had to have been added later since McClellan was removed of his command by Lincoln in 1963.

Another Word about the 69th

The Irish Brigade had a powerful patron in Maria Lydig Daly. Daughter of a family of undiluted blue-bloods, she scandalized her clan by marrying an Irish Catholic Judge, Charles P. Daly. (See “Circumstances Make the Man” below.) She undertook to supply the 69th’s Irish banners, three of which she ordered from Tiffany’s. They were to be carried and flown next to three silken banners bearing the Stars and Stripes. The 69th carried Maria’s flags into the First Battle of Bull run which proved a terrible rout for the Union. In the process of retreat a standard bearer dropped one Flag of Erin.

Maria lamented:

My flag, which I gave to the 69th, was lost. The ensign dropped it in his retreat, and, as he escaped unhurt, has not dared to show his face. The Regiment declared that he shall be shot if he does.… If anyone asks me about it, I shall say that one of ensigns was killed and nothing more…. Besides. It was the first battle, and I would forgive the poor fellow and give him another chance.

Maria Lydig Daly
July 28, 1861

(New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009. p. 239.)

The Dissed Kiss

When New York’s Provincetown Playhouse agreed to mount Eugene O’Neill’s “All God’s Chillun Got Wings”, it probably knew what it was in for. The year was 1924 and, enthusiasm for the Harlem Renaissance notwithstanding, the subject of miscegenation was still largely taboo. Paul Robeson was cast as an aspiring black law student bound in a tender and rather twisted way to his childhood sweetheart – later bride – played by the white actress, Mary Blair. The play had been published in advance of production, so word circulated that it included “love scenes”. These boiled down to a simple gesture: Blair’s lips pressed to Robeson’s hand. (She’s rejoicing over his having failed the bar exam, hence allowing her to retain control over him.)

The Playhouse received bomb threats. O’Neill received hate mail. He wrote in his journal entry of February 23, “Threatening letter from K.K.K.” The Klan threatened to march on New York. New York’s mayor, whipped into a moral frenzy by William Randolph Hearst’s New York American, threatened to disallow the production on various legal grounds. Shady maneuvering and the strain on the cast delayed the opening for weeks. When the curtain finally rose on May 15, the theater was encircled by police, deployed ostensibly to put down a race riot. The Playhouse’s managers, in turn, hired unemployed steelworkers whom they stationed outside dressing rooms to protect the cast from an angry mob and/or the police.

Despite the fiery run-up, the play opened to a full house. There was apparently cheering and whistling, but no violence. It ran for a month at the Provincetown and through the fall in other New York venues with no disturbance of the peace.

“Chillun” is not remembered as O’Neill’s best play, but it did go a significant distance in expanding leading roles for black actors. And its success, coming on the eve of the l924 Democratic Convention in NYC, dealt Hearst and the KKK a high-profile political defeat.

Photo of Robeson and Blair (Wikimedia Commons.) Though it was widely believed that he kissed her hand, she, in fact, kissed his.