GREAT FORTUNE THE EPIC OF ROCKEFELLER CENTER
By DANIEL OKRENT
VIKING Copyright © 2003 Last Laugh, Inc.
All right reserved. ISBN: 0670031690
In an era when nearly every college president bore a triple-barreled name, none carried as potent a charge as Nicholas Murray Butler. To his intimates the president of Columbia University was "Murray"; to the associates who saw him found the school's Teachers College in 1887 at the age of twenty-five he was "Nicholas Miraculous." His employees simply called him President (when they didn't refer to him as "Czar Nicholas"), his acquaintances, Doctor. The editors of Life
named him "one of the most erudite men of his time." None of this necessarily contradicted Senator Robert M. La Follette, who said Butler was a "bootlicker of men of fortune." Theodore Roosevelt was even blunter: he considered him "an aggressive and violent ass."
It was inevitable that a man so comfortable within the embrace of the American patriciate would provoke such epithets. He had built a career, a reputation, and an unblemished belief in his own virtue upon a nearly holy devotion to the marriage of money and power. Wherever Butler traveled, his focus italicized by the vivid smear of his luxuriant eyebrows, he looked benevolently upon the deeds, and the needs, of America's last ruling class. Rising from a middle-class New Jersey upbringing, he had become a pillar of the Republican Party (and a plausible candidate for its presidential nomination in 1920), a ubiquitous presence on the circuits of international power (he was Gladstone's houseguest as a young man, dined with Kaiser Wilhelm in his early forties, met with Mussolini when Italian fascism was still new), a joiner and a leader so prolific in his associations and so enamored of his own renown that, year after year, he made certain that his was the longest entry in Who's Who. This annual exercise in self-celebration cataloged honorary doctorates (writer Alva Johnston, who thought well of him, called Butler "a harvesting machine of university degrees"); club memberships (in New York alone, he belonged to the Century, the Union, the University, the Lotos, and the Metropolitan); publications (mostly re-purposed speeches, few of them substantive, none of them memorable); and a sufficiency of other details that each year consumed more than a column and a half of tiny type, a mutable monument to his floodlit success.
Whatever it was he was seeking, the man worked at it. He produced all those speeches without the aid of ghostwriters, and his workday was frighteningly efficient. Letters poured from the President's House on Morningside Heights or from his office in Low Library in a volume that would overwhelm the hardiest archivist. He dictated each morning until noon, pacing back and forth, his coattails flying behind him, his secretaries desperately trying to keep up. Even the most trivial letters were answered within a day of their receipt at 60 Morningside Drive-or at his summer place in Southampton, on Long Island, or at the hotels in which he lived on his annual visits to Europe. In London he always stayed at the Berkeley, where he would receive wires from the States addressed in care of the hotel's comically inappropriate cable address: SYBARITE, LONDON.
Butler's European trips were largely the product of his long-held presidency of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a platform from which he helped negotiate the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928. This was a document that renounced war, a deeply Butlerian notion insofar as the nobility of its sentiment balanced precisely with its specious futility. Still, it was an accomplishment that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize three years later, which was a nice thing but probably not nearly as gratifying to Butler as the honor that would endure for forty-three years of his long life. The presidency of Columbia University had brought Butler everything he had-the club memberships, the patronage of the Republican hierarchy, the offer of railroad presidencies extended by E. H. Harriman and J. P. Morgan. But it had also brought him a problem that by his own admission had vexed the university's board of trustees (and, therefore, Butler himself) since the day he had been installed as Columbia's president in 1902: what to do with the eleven acres of midtown Manhattan that Columbia owned-land that produced so very little, and that if properly exploited could be worth so very, very much.
Butler was not the first Columbia president to salivate over the potential revenue from the land, originally almost four full blocks stretching from 47th to 51st Street, from Fifth Avenue nearly all the way to Sixth. For decades the land had looked to Columbia's officers and trustees much like a lamb chop must look to a wolf. But long before the institutional drooling had begun, the property was more nuisance than asset, acquired almost as a sort of booby prize in a state distribution of public lands.
Originally part of the Dutch-controlled Common Lands assembled by Peter Minuit in 1624, the acreage that Butler would eventually turn into Columbia's dowry became, by the end of the seventeenth century, property of the City of New York. But the city, such as it was, still lay huddled around the southern tip of Manhattan, and this twenty-acre chunk of hilly slopes and rocky promontories might as well have been in Poughkeepsie.
To David Hosack, though, it was a convenient and comfortable ride up the carriage road that ran along the spine of Manhattan Island. Hosack was a man of parts, most of them glittering: physician, scholar, gentleman botanist, salonnier, friend to both Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Through a provident marriage and his own native talents, he had by 1800 become one of the foremost citizens of the growing city. His portrait was painted by Rembrandt Peale; Tocqueville wrote of the pleasures of Hosack's table. He was also a professor at the College of Physicians and Surgeons-precursor of Columbia's medical school-and longed for a piece of land that he could turn into a garden of materia medica, a sort of natural pharmacy.
Finding the ideal conditions for his garden about three and a half miles up the carriage road from the heart of inhabited New York, in 1801 he purchased the plot from the city for slightly less than five thousand dollars. Within three years the Elgin Botanical Garden, named after Hosack's father's birthplace in Scotland, bloomed with species from all over the world, some of them rare items contributed by Thomas Jefferson. A sixty-two-foot-long greenhouse anchored a row of structures running west from present-day Fifth Avenue. The entire plot was, Hosack noted with satisfaction, encircled by a "belt of forest trees and shrubs judiciously chequered and mingled," which were in turn enclosed by an imposing stone wall, two and a half feet thick and seven feet high.
Many years later a student of Hosack's recalled his mentor as "a man of profuse expenditure" who "had he the wealth of Astor" would still never have had enough. Over the nearly ten years he owned the Elgin plot, Hosack tried to prove his student's point, spilling nearly $100,000 into the garden until his wife's fortune could no longer bear the leakage. Unable to find a buyer for land he could no longer afford, he turned to the state legislature, where he had many friends, for relief. After two years' effort, Hosack was able to persuade the lawmakers to give him $75,000 for a parcel of land that no one wanted.
Including the state of New York. Soon the spot to which the city's grandees had once proudly brought their European visitors became a near ruin. When the trustees of Columbia College came hat in hand to the state government seeking funds, just as their brethren at Union and Hamilton Colleges had done recently and successfully, the tapped-out legislature considered its empty pockets and instead gave Columbia land. The college trustees, whose existing buildings were confined to a plot of land on Park Place, some four miles away in downtown Manhattan, were more bemused than gratified. The trustees turned over responsibility for the plot to the son of a past Columbia president, but Clement Moore proved a better light poet ("'Twas the Night Before Christmas") than an agricultural manager, and the place sank into utter decrepitude. By 1823 the best Columbia could do with Hosack's Folly was rent it to a private individual for $125 a year and taxes.
The evanescent Eden that was the Elgin Garden would manifest itself in the life of the city several times over the next century. Many of the surviving plant specimens were shipped off to the Bloomingdale Asylum in distant Morningside Heights, where they were planted on what would decades later become the site of Low Library, the dominant building on Columbia's eventual campus. The Elgin itself became the model for the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx; Hosack's large collection of horticultural texts was incorporated into its library; And both the carriage road that led to the garden and the pathway that fronted its south-facing expanse found their eventual forms in the city's decision, in 1807, to appoint a commission to plan New York's future. When they emerged from their deliberations four years later, the commissioners put forth a scheme to organize mile after mile of empty Manhattan terrain on a grid of 12 numbered avenues running north and south, and 155 similarly labeled streets cross-hatching the island east and west. It was, wrote architect Rem Koolhaas in 1994, "the most courageous act of prediction in Western civilization: the land it divides, unoccupied; the population it describes, conjectural; the buildings it locates, phantoms; the activities it frames, non-existent."
But the grid gave names to the carriage road, which became Sixth Avenue, and to the pathway in front of the greenhouse, which became 50th Street. And what was soon known as Columbia's Upper Estate (to distinguish it from the Lower Estate, its property downtown near City Hall) was now fixed on the map, and in the city's history.
In 1838, when the first crosstown streets of the city's courageous imaginings were finally opened up in the area, Columbia's nearly valueless land suddenly had a future. But there was no agreement at Columbia regarding what that future might be. The original downtown campus, a relic of the school's beginnings as King's College in 1747, was at best inadequate, and the prospect of a move to the leafy precincts of the Upper Estate was enticing. But so was the new opportunity, presented by the areas incipient development, to do what colleges must do: make money. One faction believed the property was too valuable to use for education; the opposing view found its expression in the complaint of trustee Samuel B. Ruggles, who in 1854 wondered "at what point in the coming half century our speculating, land-loving, avaricious propensities are to cease, and our legitimate educational duties are to commence."
Land-loving avarice pinned educational duties to the mat. One chunk of the property, sixteen lots at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 48th Street, had already been sold to the Dutch Reformed Church. A few years later the remaining frontage along Fifth Avenue between 48th and 49th Streets went to the Goelet family, landowners whose substantial Manhattan holdings-fifty-five acres in all-derived from the two Goelet brothers who had inherited the land from the man whose two daughters they had wisely married. Proceeds from the sales covered taxes, made a contribution to Columbia's operating costs, and built, at last, the new campus on a two-acre plot down the road, east of Madison Avenue at 49th Street. Continuing income was expected to come, someday, from long-term ground leases on all that land in the Upper Estate.
But in the late 1850s, ambitions flowering within the Roman Catholic archdiocese of New York-hardly a Columbia ally-suddenly spiked the land's value. Brownstone houses rose in what Edith Wharton called a "chocolate-coloured coating of the most hideous stone ever quarried," but which nonetheless produced perfectly lovely rents. Hosack's land became the virtual guarantor of Columbia's future solvency, not the last time, it would play so noble a role.
The man who decreed a new St. Patrick's Cathedral on the plot facing the northernmost block of the Upper Estate was John J. "Dagger John" Hughes, the first archbishop of New York. Hughes was part cleric, part politician (antecedent of the Tammany bosses, he successfully ran slates of his own candidates for public office), and all Irishman. The city's established German Catholics had made way for the wave upon wave of Irish immigrants who had flowed into New York in the previous two decades, and the Vatican had provided them with one of their own as a leader. Hughes almost instantly made the church the center of Irish life in New York, both the symbol of his people's aspirations and the instrument by which they would achieve them.
The trustees and officers of Columbia may have been, every one of them, Protestant members of the city's commercial and genealogical elite, and may have included among their number, ex officio, the city's Episcopal bishop, but they could hardly have objected to the grand plans that Hughes revealed on August 15, 1858. The Irish place in the city virtually certified by Hughes's action, a crowd of 100,000 deliriously happy Catholics watched as the archbishop presided over the laying of the cornerstone for a building which, he said at the time, would cost more than $1.5 million. Never mind that the final cost, after more than two decades of construction, would exceed $4 million; never mind that, at the time of the cornerstone ceremony, Hughes had in hand pledges amounting to all of $73,000. Wrote one historian, "Hughes believed that if you took on a challenge, you would perforce rise to meet it."
Once met, Hughes's challenge transformed New York. By the Civil War, Fifth Avenue had already begun to evolve into the city's grandest thoroughfare, even if the grandeur largely resided below 23rd Street. But with the declarative punctuation of a lavish Gothic cathedral (even a Catholic one) inscribed at 50th Street, the northward rush accelerated. Almost as an ironic comment on the great gray cathedral, in a handsome residence one block north, with a staff of seven servants, lived Madame Restell, whose eminence as New York's leading abortionist had made her as wealthy as she was infamous. But just south of St. Patrick's rose a more congenial neighbor, the Buckingham Hotel. The Buckingham boasted in its advertising that "there is no noise, no confusion of porters or waiters, no loungers or patrons of the bar who are not guests of the house." This was exactly the sort of reassurance that a thirty-eight-year-old oilman from Cleveland might have sought before moving his young family into the hotel in 1877.
Excerpted from GREAT FORTUNE by DANIEL OKRENT Copyright © 2003 by Last Laugh, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
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