WHEN they had finally gotten clear of King George and set about the business of establishing a new country, America's Founding Fathers wanted to sever their ties to the old order of Europe. So wary were they of the trappings of monarchy -- especially an official aristocracy -- that they declined to establish any kind of national mechanism to recognize greatness. There would be no knighthoods in America; fame could be acknowledged, and revoked, only by popular assent.
Henry Mitchell MacCracken wanted to change that somewhat. MacCracken was a Presbyterian minister, and also the chancellor of New York University. A century ago he decided to expand his college from crowded, commercial Washington Square to the more bucolic Fordham Heights (now University Heights) section of the Bronx. MacCracken bought a parcel of land on one of the highest natural elevations in the city, once the site of Fort Number Eight, a British installation. Then he secured a $2 million gift from the daughter of the railroad baron Jay Gould, and hired Stanford White to design and build the city's most beautiful campus. But MacCracken had something still bigger in mind.
Henry Mitchell MacCracken took great pride in his country's history and heritage. It pained him that America had no pantheon, no shrine to those whose achievements and contributions would forever touch the nation and even the world jurists and statesmen, scientists and inventors, writers and artists. So he decided that he would build an American pantheon on his new campus. He had White design a 630-foot open-air Beaux Arts colonnade with niches for busts and tablets; it would sit prominently on the crest of a hill overlooking Washington Heights and the Palisades. But what to call it? MacCracken came up with the words "hall of fame" -- and called his pantheon the Hall of Fame for Great Americans.
"Fame" is one of those words that have changed some over the years. These days it means "celebrity." But in MacCracken's time "fame" was a more value-laden concept, closer in meaning to "renown." And MacCracken wanted to make sure that the people enshrined in his Hall of Fame were truly famous, not just memorable. So he established a board of electors, composed of men and women who were themselves possessed of some measure of renown, ostensibly people of great character and sound judgment.
Over the years that body would include the most respected writers, historians, and educators of their day, along with scores of congressmen, a dozen Supreme Court justices, and six Presidents; seven former electors have themselves been elected to the Hall of Fame. To ensure that nominees would be evaluated with adequate sobriety and perspective, it was decided that no one could be elected who had not been dead for at least twenty-five years. Everyone thought that was just fine; after all, as the old maxim holds, "Fame is a food that dead men eat."
Gilbert Stuart, Member
Even before the Hall of Fame was formally dedicated, on Memorial Day, 1901, it had become a focal point for national pride. Part of its appeal lay in the fact that it was a truly democratic institution -- anyone could nominate a candidate, admission would be free, and although NYU served as a steward, raising funds and running the elections, the whole thing was technically the property of the American people. But more important, it was the first institution to unite the notions of fame and America. The country was still in its adolescence, still struggling to emerge from the shadows of the great powers of Europe, still trying to heal the rifts of the Civil War that had torn it apart. The Hall of Fame promised, for the first time, to launch Americans into the orbit of universal immortality. In a sense it was the vehicle of our validation, and people took it very, very seriously. Newspaper publishers used their editorial pages to lobby for or against nominees, and groups like the American Bar Association and the United Daughters of the Confederacy waged extensive, expensive campaigns to get "their" candidates elected. Installation ceremonies were elaborate events. For a while the term "Hall of Famer" carried greater cachet than "Nobel laureate," and a hilltop in the Bronx seemed, to many, the highest spot in the country, if not the world.
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It was inevitable that something as popular and prestigious as the Hall of Fame would inspire spinoffs.
One of the first was the Baseball Hall of Fame, which opened in Cooperstown, New York, in 1939. Four decades had passed since the establishment of the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, and the country had changed quite a bit. We had conquered the world's greatest military power, only to be ourselves laid low by the world's greatest economic crisis. Radio had emerged and ushered us into the media age. Inventors and scientists and statesmen and thinkers were no longer the heroes of the day. Athletes were. Yet not a single one had made it into the Hall of Fame, and none ever would. The hall's standards of admission -- indeed, its defining mission -- made that impossible.
So the Baseball Hall of Fame filled a void. Its mission was different. It had to be, because this new hall of fame, with its narrow scope and particular focus, could not afford to hold to the standards of the original. The people enshrined in Cooperstown were undoubtedly gifted and even inspirational, their achievements not easily forgotten, but it would be a stretch in most cases to claim that those achievements will forever touch the nation and the world. The Baseball Hall of Fame's founders knew this; they also knew that its inherent limitations liberated them to diverge from the staid, almost ascetic dignity of the original. They weren't restricted to bronze busts and plaques; they could build glass display cases and fill them with jerseys and gloves and balls and banners. Nominees didn't have to be dead, just retired -- so much for the old maxim. Their electors weren't senators and historians and poets; they were sportswriters (who now have their own hall of fame, in Salisbury, North Carolina). And the Baseball Hall of Fame could, and did, charge admission.
That last item could have sunk the new venture, but it didn't. People came and paid to get in a lot of people. So many, in fact, that people decided to open a Football Hall of Fame, in Canton, Ohio; a Basketball Hall of Fame, in Springfield, Massachusetts; a Boxing Hall of Fame, in Canastota, New York; and a Bowling Hall of Fame, in St. Louis. Today there are halls of fame for volleyball, lacrosse, tennis, soccer, swimming, skiing, golf, yachting, polo, fishing, racquetball, gymnastics, field hockey, figure skating, auto racing, horse racing, water skiing, weightlifting, skeet shooting, snowmobiling, surfing, curling, and dozens of other pastimes. Canada opened a Hockey Hall of Fame, in Toronto. Individual states opened their own athletic halls of fame. So did cities. So did teams.
By this time, of course, the definition of "fame" had changed dramatically. It no longer required achievement on a broad scale coupled with some kind of lasting universal contribution. Now achievement alone was enough, even achievement within a narrow context.
This change opened the hall-of-fame door -- opened it wide. If athletes could have their own halls of fame, why couldn't cowboys, policemen, businessmen? Today they do, in Oklahoma City, Miami Beach, and Chicago, respectively. There is a "Hall of Flame" for firemen, in Phoenix. Astronauts have a hall in Titusville, Florida. Daredevils have one in Niagara Falls. Rock-and-roll has one in Cleveland. It is just a short drive from the Checkers Hall of Fame, in Petal, Mississippi, to the Agricultural Aviation Hall of Fame, honoring crop dusters, in Jackson. St. Petersburg seems like a logical place for the Shuffleboard Hall of Fame, but why is the Marbles Hall of Fame in Wildwood, New Jersey? What's the Burlesque Hall of Fame doing in Helendale, California, in the Mojave Desert? Will the Clown Hall of Fame really bring busloads of tourists to Delavan, Wisconsin (population 7,000)? Can the Soap Box Derby Hall of Fame breathe new life into Akron? Should Newport's renaissance be attributed to the fact that it is home to halls of fame for tennis, yachting, and croquet?
There are hundreds of halls of fame in America; no one knows for sure exactly how many. Some celebrate people who didn't actually do much more than exist. Some don't even celebrate people. Palo Alto, California, the home of Stanford University, is also home to the Barbie Hall of Fame, where visitors can pay four dollars to see America's most popular plastic doll in its many incarnations and outfits. Select Sires, a bovine-artificial-insemination cooperative, runs the Bull Hall of Fame, in Plain City, Ohio; its dozen honorees were chosen for the quality and quantity of their output. Michael Bohdan, an exterminator in Plano, Texas, has established a Cockroach Hall of Fame in the back of his shop; according to Bohdan, the museum, which features both gargantuan roaches and roaches dressed up to resemble Elvis, Liberace, and Ross Perot, is the third most popular tourist attraction in the Dallas area (after the Kennedy Memorial and Southfork Ranch). And there are two halls of fame honoring the once important, now irrelevant Route 66.
It would be easy from all this to draw the conclusion that the divorce of fame and achievement is now complete -- that the only achievement most halls of fame celebrate these days is the achievement of fame itself. And it would be easier still to lay the blame at the feet of those who created and own such "lesser" shrines. But with a few exceptions the proprietors of America's halls of fame do not themselves bestow fame; they merely acknowledge it. Only society can bestow fame. And there is no surer measure of the values of a society than those things upon which it chooses to bestow fame -- or from which it revokes it.
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Today the Hall of Fame for Great Americans is forgotten. For twenty years, in fact, it has been too broke to hold new elections, too broke even to commission busts of the people it elected two decades ago, including Louis Brandeis, Clara Barton, Luther Burbank, and Andrew Carnegie. It took nineteen years to raise the $25,000 needed to commission the bust of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In 1973 NYU abruptly abandoned its Bronx campus and the Hall of Fame. Eventually the state bought the whole thing, and it is now in the hands of Bronx Community College. In the late 1970s the state spent $3 million restoring the colonnade's crumbling foundation; a few years ago it spent another $200,000 restoring the ninety-eight bronze busts, many of which had deteriorated badly. But private gifts, which were always the Hall of Fame's primary source of support, stopped coming many years ago. No one is quite sure why the public has abandoned the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, but it most definitely has.
These days hardly anyone even knows it exists. Only 20,000 people visit it each year, most of them local school children on field trips. What they see there is less a shrine than a tomb, the last repository of a seemingly defunct kind of American idealism and dignified self-respect. The state gives what it can for maintenance, but it's not nearly enough; there is evidence everywhere of the insidious presence of pigeons and vandals. Not long ago the latter pushed over the bust of Andrew Jackson, sending it tumbling down the hill toward the Harlem River, leaving nothing in the seventh President's niche but a bronze plaque bearing the quotation
"Our federal union -- it must and shall be preserved."
Nearby is the bust of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, arguably the country's greatest sculptor. Saint-Gaudens created the hall's bust of Abraham Lincoln, who was elected the first time around, in 1900; twenty years later the artist himself was elected. The quotation on his plaque "Too much time cannot be spent in a task that is to endure for centuries" -- could in days past have been the Hall of Fame's motto. Today it seems more like an epitaph.
Photographs by John Curry