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.