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Trump’s New Sculpture Park for “American Heroes”? Fuhgedaboudit! The Bronx Already Has that Covered

I did a double take at the end of Donald Trump‘s long-winded July 3 paean to the four Mount Rushmore-enshrined Presidents, which devolved into a diatribe against “the violent mayhem we have seen in the streets of cities that are run by liberal Democrats in every case…the predictable result of years of extreme indoctrination and bias in education, journalism, and other cultural institutions.”

Trump went on to demonize not only Democrats, journalists and cultural institutions, but also educators who have been teaching children “to hate their own country, and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes, but were villains.” I don’t known where his grandchildren are going to school, but that’s not what mine have been taught.

POTUS and FLOTUS at Mount Rushmore last Friday
Image from the White House website

Denigrating detractors is a familiar maneuver in the Trump playbook. But I never anticipated the kicker at the conclusion of his speech—a proposal for an ambitious public art project!

Under the authority vested in me as President of the United States, I am announcing the creation of a new monument to the giants of our past. I am signing an executive order to establish the National Garden of American Heroes—a vast outdoor park that will feature the statues of the greatest Americans to ever live.

After recovering from my “did-he-really-say-that?” shock, I realized that we already have what he wants in my native Bronx—a borough where the Donald may never have ventured (unlike Manhattan, his native Queens, or Brooklyn, where I met him in 1974 at the Trump Organization’s then headquarters, to interview him for an article in the NY Times “Real Estate” section).

As a culturally curious teenager, I had made the 20-minute hike from my Bronx apartment to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, a once popular, now little-known pantheon for bronze busts of great men and women, some by well-known sculptors (including four busts by Daniel Chester French, two by Augustus Saint-Gaudens). I had learned about it from my father, who got his undergraduate degree at New York University’s uptown campus (later taken over by Bronx Community College), before earning his LLB at Harvard Law School.

A part of that campus since the early 20th century, this leafy Stanford White-designed sanctuary overlooking the Harlem River is probably more comprehensive (featuring 96 notables from diverse fields) and certainly more cost-effective than what we’d get by starting over in a new location. It needs some repair and some additional honorees (including four who had already been inducted before money for new sculptures ran out).

As detailed in his Executive Order on Building and Rebuilding Monuments to American Heroes, Trump has called for the creation of a task force to propose options for the new National Garden. That advisory group would include the chairpersons of the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, the administrator of the General Services Administration, the chairperson of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and “any officers or employees of any executive department or agency designated by the President or the Secretary [of the Interior].”

Mary Anne Carter, chairperson, National Endowment for the Arts

Preempting the task force’s expertise, the Curator-in-Chief’s executive order already singled out specific honorees to be considered:

John Adams, Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Daniel Boone, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Henry Clay, Davy Crockett, Frederick Douglass, Amelia Earhart, Benjamin Franklin, Billy Graham, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Douglas MacArthur, Dolley Madison, James Madison, Christa McAuliffe, Audie Murphy, George S. Patton, Jr., Ronald Reagan, Jackie Robinson, Betsy Ross, Antonin Scalia, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, George Washington, Orville and Wilbur Wright.

Let the debate begin: When it comes to Supreme Court Justices, I’d pick the progressive Louis Brandeis over Scalia, the recently deceased conservative, whose fame may not stand the test of time. Brandeis was chosen in 1973 for inclusion in the Hall of Fame, the year when Bronx Community College (BCC) took over NYU’s University Heights campus. He and three other inductees are there in name only: They still haven’t gotten their busts.

Here’s how the Hall of Fame summed up Brandeis’ achievements:

First Jewish U.S. Supreme Court Justice. He served from 1916 to 1939. Champion of economic, social and political justice, he was known as “the people’s attorney”…

…not to mention the fact that he has a university named for him.

Where would the money for the new monuments come from? According to the terms of Trump’s executive order, the task force would make recommendations for “the use of these agencies’ appropriations” to commission new sculptures. No word yet on whether NEA’s and NEH’s normal appropriations would be redirected to this new project. Given his track record, it seems unlikely that Trump would recommend big increases in the federal arts and humanities agencies’ budgets.

Fortunately, many of the notables singled out by Trump in his executive order are already ensconced in the Bronx.

Image from the homepage for the Hall of Fame For Great Americans

When I asked Richard Ginsberg, BCC’s assistant vice president, for his thoughts on Trump’s proposed National Garden, he told me this:

My reaction, quite frankly, is: One exists already! I would love for him to give to us the funding and let us improve everything that’s going on in the Hall. It’s in such a state of disrepair. We need to raise funds to bring the Hall of Fame back to its glory and it would bring great focus to the college.

According to BCC’s fundraising pitch for its Hall of Fame:

Repairs are estimated to cost nearly $12 million—far beyond a public college’s ability to afford. We are raising funds for the most urgent of these repairs, which will require $1.2 million.

That’s chump change compared to the cost of creating a new national park, with many newly commissioned pieces, “on a site of natural beauty that enables visitors to enjoy nature, walk among the statues, and be inspired to learn about great figures of America’s history. The site should be proximate to at least one major population center, and the site should not cause significant disruption to the local community.”

That description from Trump’s executive order befits BCC’s airy, architecturally distinguished colonnade, which in 2011 was designated (along with related buildings) as a historical landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The architect’s great grandson, Sam White, is on the Hall of Fame’s board.

Among the 96 busts arrayed there are luminaries from a wide range of pursuits—politicians, statesmen, artists, authors, scientists and teachers, not to mention several Presidents, including Grant (whose first name Trump kept mispronouncing as “Ulyssius”):

“Ulysses S. Grant” by James Earle Fraser &
Thomas Hudson Jones (fronting BCC’s Gould Memorial Library, designed by Stanford White)
Photo by Mark Goldberg, Wikimedia Commons
“George Washington” by Jean-Antoine Houdon
Photo: Bronx Community College
“Abraham Lincoln” by Augustus Saint-Gaudens
Photo: Bronx Community College

Author Nathaniel Hawthorne got a bust by the sculptor best known for Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Memorial:

“Nathaniel Hawthorne,” by Daniel Chester French
Photo by Jim Henderson, Wikimedia Commons

And of course, Bronx-ite Edgar Allan Poe is also included. That writer’s last home (which I’ve visited) is in the Fordham section of the Bronx, not far from the Hall of Fame:

“Edgar Allan Poe” by Daniel Chester French
Photo: Bronx Community College

George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Booker T. Washington are among the BCC Hall of Famers whose names appear on Trump’s wishlist.

Although women are noticeably under-represented in the Hall, Susan B. Anthony and Harriet Beecher Stowe were among those making the cut. African-American sculptor Richmond Barthé was responsible for the likenesses of two black luminaries—George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington:

“Booker T. Washington” by Richmond Barthé
Photo: Bronx Community College

Any new commissions should prioritize fuller representation of women and people of color, at a school where the student population is predominately black and Latino. There won’t be any need to knock Confederate generals off their pedestals, though: NY Governor Andrew Cuomo already took care of that in 2017, ordering Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson to be removed.

His reason (as he tweeted):

New York stands against racism.

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