David Hosack (1769-1835)
The Elgin Botanic Garden
When researching the history of our location, we came across the story of The Elgin Botanic Garden and its visionary creator, David Hosack (1769-1835). Because our bar sits on the site of the former botanic garden we decided it was a fitting name. And we included a bit of it and David Hosack’s history, courtesy of author and professor of urban policy and planning at Hunter College in New York City, Victoria Johnson.
In the summer of 1804, as Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr prepared to take their bitter political differences to the dueling ground, there was one thing they could agree on. The doctor in attendance at the duel would be David Hosack, family physician to both the Hamiltons and the Burrs.
Hosack, then thirty-four years old, was the most innovative doctor in New York and already on his way to national fame for his tireless work building the young country’s cultural and scientific institutions.
In September 1797, Hosack had earned his place as the Hamiltons’ doctor—and Alexander’s and Eliza’s profound gratitude—when he saved the life of their fifteen-year-old son Philip using powerful medicinal plants. That same night, Alexander Hamilton, hero of the Revolutionary War and former Secretary of the Treasury, kneeled before Hosack with tears in his eyes and thanked him for rescuing their son.
But there was little Hosack could do when bullets were fired. In 1801, at the age of nineteen, Philip fought a duel to defend his father’s honor. Hosack was at Philip’s bedside with Eliza and Alexander when Philip died of his injuries.
Three years later, when Burr shot Hamilton on a New Jersey dueling ground, Hosack tried desperately to keep Hamilton alive as they were rowed back across the river to New York City. Hamilton died the next day, July 12, 1804. Hosack was asked to conduct the autopsy to determine the path of Burr’s bullet.
For the rest of his life, Hosack grieved the loss of the man he admired most in the world. But he lived by a principle of political neutrality regarding his patients, and he managed to stay close with Aaron Burr. Hosack took care of Burr’s beloved only child, Theodosia, during a terrible illness while Burr was in exile in Europe.
Hosack’s success in saving Philip Hamilton’s life in 1797 with medicinal plants moved him one step closer to his life’s greatest dream. He decided to found the first public botanical garden in the young United States. In an era when most of the medicines known to doctors came from plants, a botanical garden had more in common with today’s research laboratories than with our city parks. Hosack knew that medical progress depended on the study of the medicinal properties of plants. He also wanted to experiment with agricultural crops and other edible plants to help feed the nation.
In 1801, he began work on that garden by buying twenty acres of rolling Manhattan farmland three and half miles north of New York City. Hosack was a native New Yorker, but he named it the Elgin Botanic Garden, in honor of his father’s hometown of Elgin, Scotland.
Within a decade, he had collected over three thousand species of plants from across the North American continent and around the world. Fields of barley, cotton, oats, sunflowers, and wheat blanketed his land. Winding paths led through colorful flowers and thickets of trees to a huge greenhouse. Inside it, Hosack was raising mangos, figs, coffee trees, avocados, and hundreds of other exotic species. Visitors were enveloped in a swirl of colors and aromas.
Hosack used his botanical garden to conduct some of the first systematic pharmaceutical research in the United States and to train the next generation of American doctors and botanists. Among the many New Yorkers who visited the garden was Hosack’s friend Hamilton, who stopped to get plant cuttings and horticultural advice at the Elgin Botanic Garden on his way up the island to his country house, The Grange.
Hosack’s work at the garden, together with his role in founding or co-founding more than a dozen other civic institutions, earned him the acclaim of the greatest figures of his age in the United States and Europe—not just his friends Hamilton and Burr, but also Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and many more.
Hosack began with his botanical garden, and by the end of his life, he had helped make New York the nation’s greatest city for the arts, sciences, and philanthropy.
Today, Hosack’s former garden is bounded by 47th Street to the south and 51st Street to the north. The old country lane he used to ride up from New York City is now called Fifth Avenue. Radio City Music Hall was built over the footprint of his greenhouse.
The Elgin NYC stands at the southwest corner of Hosack’s land, where fields of grain once waved in the wind.
—Victoria Johnson, author of American Eden:
David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic
(Liveright/W. W. Norton, 2018)
For more on DavidHosack: americaneden.org
THE ELGIN MARBLES
Visitors from Europe may ask what connection The Elgin has to the famous story behind the Elgin Marbles. It’s a fairly easy answer: None. But we thought you might find the history interesting nevertheless.
The Elgin Marbles are a collection of classical Greek marble sculptures created by the sculptor, Phidias, which adorned the temple of the Parthenon and various other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens.
The Parthenon suffered damage during the Great Turkish War between Venice and the Ottomans as well as plunder and destruction in the mid-18th century. Under the guise of saving the sculptures and various other antiquities from such destruction, western travelers and collectors would acquire pieces of the Parthenon on the black market, often with the complicity of Ottoman authorities.
After receiving authorization to not only survey and take casts of the marble sculptures, but to remove whatever pieces interested him, the most famous and significant pieces were brought to London in 1803 by the former British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, nobleman and aristocrat is otherwise known as Lord Elgin. The matter of whether Elgin actually received authorization to remove the sculptures turns on language in a decree issued by Sultan Selim III to Elgin which contained a clause permitting the removal of “…some pieces of stone with old inscriptions and figures...” Historians have concluded the authorization probably referred to items found in the site excavations, not the artworks which adorned the temples. Later, Elgin before a parliamentary committee recognized that the removal was most likely illegal, but justified the act as a way to save the pieces from further damage and looting under Ottoman rule.
In all, Elgin removed 15 metopes (a rectangular architectural element that fills the space between two triglyphs in a Doric frieze), half (247 feet) of the total frieze (a horizontal band of sculpted or painted decoration, especially on a wall near the ceiling), another temple’s caryatid (a stone carving of a draped female figure, used as a support pillar), and four fragments from the frieze of the temple to Athena Nike.
Elgin paid the costs of shipping the marbles himself (an amount in excess of the equivalent of a million dollars in today’s money) and displayed them in a house that he leased in Park Lane, near Piccadilly in London. After suffering a crippling divorce settlement, he pressured the British government to buy the collection a request which resulted in a huge stir in the London press, dividing the country into those who considered them a waste of money, those who believed they should be purchased for the nation, and others, like the poet Byron, who criticized Elgin as a vandal for taking them in the first place. Parliament eventually approved the purchase by a margin of 82-80 for half the amount of Elgin’s expenses. The marbles were installed and first exhibited in the Elgin Room at the British Museum in 1832 and were later moved to the Duveen Gallery and opened to public viewing in 1962.
After regaining independence in 1832 the Greek government has petitioned for the return of the Parthenon marbles a number of times. The new Acropolis Museum of Athens has a specially designed space reserved for the sculptures once they are returned in which copies are currently displayed. The British Museum has refused all requests to give up one of its most popular exhibits.
Although there is no evidence to support the claim, it has been suggested that the phrase, “lost your marbles” as slang for losing one’s mind, is derived from the loss of the famous collection of Elgin Marbles.
THE SIDEWALK SUPERINTENDENTS’ CLUB
Our private room is named in tribute to the Sidewalk Superintendents’ Club, so we figured you might enjoy reading a bit of the history behind its origin.
Rockefeller Center, the 22 acre complex which sits between 48th and 51st streets and stretches from Fifth Avenue to Sixth Avenue currently consists of 19 commercial buildings. When it was first financed by John D. Rockefeller Jr., only 14 Art Deco buildings were commissioned. Columbia University owned the land in 1928 and leased it to Rockefeller who began construction in 1931. It is considered the greatest project of the Great Depression era, employing 40,000 and 60,000, razing almost 230 buildings, and relocating thousands of tenants to accommodate the project.
As the story goes, Rockefeller stopped by the site on his way to work to observe the progress from the entrance to a truck ramp. Apparently a watchman failed to recognize him and ordered him off the building site with a discourteous, “Keep moving, buddy.” After gaining the perspective of the many construction enthusiasts who spent their time viewing the work, he decided to give the public a better opportunity to marvel at the construction of the vast midtown complex, Rockefeller invented the Sidewalk Superintendents’ Club. The idea was to involve those interested in construction—“curbstone kibitzers”—by making them members of the club.
A 100-foot-long, screen-enclosed shed was built between 48th and 49th streets to give members the opportunity to participate by watching over (and often critiquing) the work from a safe distance. The clubhouse was home to an organized group of dedicated fans, complete with membership cards and tongue-in-cheek rules, and so the Sidewalk Superintendents’ Club was born. It opened November 7, 1938 and more than 10,000 membership cards were made up, each bearing the Dutch motto De Beste Stuurlui Staan Aan Wal, a phrase that translates to “The best pilots stand on the shore,” and the following fun list of rules:
1. Ladies in front row positions are requested to remove their hats.
2. Gentlemen in top hats are requested to stand on them in the rear of the club.
3. Children are not to be dropped over the fence.
4. Any comments, complaints or suggestions are to be put in writing and placed in the box provided for this purpose at Club headquarters.
5. Autographed copies of photographs of your favorite steam-shovel operator may be secured upon written request to the SSC, 50 Rockefeller Plaza.
The Club continued for many years and moved on to other projects and even other cities. In 1947, a Toronto newspaper, the Globe and Mail, clarified an important difference between sidewalk superintendents and mere “kibitzers” when columnist Billy Rose wrote that a superintendent “watches a gang of men digging a hole in the ground and is satisfied,” while a kibitzer, “waves his hand at the gent behind the crane and advises: ‘A little to the right, buddy. Let her down easy now.’” And, “[m]ost sidewalk superintendents rate a kibitzer two notches lower than the peeping tom.”
One iteration of the Club’s membership card from 1957 offered the following as their credo:
“I pledge, whether asked or not, to give freely of construction criticism; to commend unusually deft crane and steam-shovel maneuvers; to refrain from disturbing the solemn contemplation of my fellow members; to share, not hog, the viewing windows; to acknowledge engineering authority, but to maintain an insouciant air of skepticism; to dedicate myself to the serious and satisfying service of watching other people work; and, above all, to keep constantly in mind the Club’s watchword: Have Fun.”
In 1957, when construction began on the then-new TIME & LIFE Building, the Sidewalk Superintendents’ Club was reborn with Marilyn Monroe presiding over the ribbon-cutting festivities. (According to those reporting on the ceremony, she was two hours late.)