8 Million Stories: Who the Hell Is Luther Burbank?

Written by James Greene Jr. on . Posted in 8 Million Stories, Posts.

THE PLAN, IF the security guard manning the entrance to Bronx Community College dared to stop our non-registered asses from marching on campus, was to say we were paranormal investigators. Indeed, it seems your institution of higher learning is quite haunted, so the dean called us. The best paranormal investigators this side of TAPS. Never mind this Piggly Wiggly shirt I’m wearing. Just let us in or risk being tortured by spirits for the rest of your natural life.

Such a lie proved to be unnecessary—the firm but polite officer allowed us entry once it was clear we were not hiding thermonuclear explosives under our coats. In a way, though, my friend John and I were on a ghost hunt. We had ridden the 4 train all the way from Canal Street to visit the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, this nation’s all-but-forgotten very first hall of fame, a silent shrine to 102 notable countrymen and women that’s now tucked away in a college best known as MIT’s pinch-hitter in the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind.

HOFFGA founder Henry Mitchell MacCracken drew inspiration for his creation from Munich’s similar Bavarian Hall of Fame, although aesthetic design played a part as well. In 1900, what is now BCC was originally constructed as a New York University satellite campus. A 630-foot open-air colonnade was conceived and designed by Stanford White for the school’s northwest side to mask the exposed basement walls of the main buildings. Within that neoclassical colonnade, Henry MacCracken envisioned tribute busts to all the astounding thinkers and statesmen who had previously sprung from America’s loins.

“By wealth or thought, or else by mighty deed, they served mankind in noble character. In worldwide good they live forever more.”

So go the words chiseled in stone on the Hall’s pediments. A nomination process was put in place (criteria: each nom must have made a major contribution to our economic, political or cultural well-being), and the HOFFGA’s founding year of 1900 saw 29 great Americans immortalized for all eternity. George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Eli Whitney and Asa Gray were among those original inductees. MacCracken’s committee wisely decided to only nominate figures that had been dead for at least 25 years, avoiding the kind of messy acceptance speeches that plague our modern day awards systems.

Every five years, the Hall would induct a new round of Great Americans, forging busts over the decades for such big-timers as Harriet Beecher Stowe,

Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver and Clara Barton. Of course, not every HOFFGA honoree is a household name. Luther Burbank? He was a botanist who developed the spineless cactus. Edwin Booth was the 19th-century’s premiere Shakespearian actor. He would be remembered as such had his brother, John Wilkes, not murdered Abraham Lincoln.

The HOFFGA was already a deteriorating historical footnote when NYU exited its Bronx campus in 1973. The state purchased the land and created Bronx Community College, occasionally throwing a few bones the Hall’s way to keep it from turning to jagged rubble. In 2001, BCC threw together a $1 million fundraiser to rebuild and expand its curious attraction. The efforts have paid off; visiting the HOFFGA today, it seems much like it may have been when it first opened in 1900. Clean, polished, crack- and graffiti-free. The reverence is back, even if the average BCC student couldn’t give a pigeon’s taint about the lazy walkway full of bronze dead guys they mostly couldn’t pick out of a police lineup.

Keeping the HOFFGA open air and allowing nature to pour in was a great idea. This is one museum that doesn’t feel musty or dusty or trapped in its own bubble of self-importance. Historians Art and Susan Zuckerman work as consultants for the HOFFGA and offer personal tours of the Hall and neighboring Gould Memorial Library, but it seems just as pleasurable to stroll Stanford White’s peaceful colonnade without guided help. The Hall is a serene slice of an already rather sedate area; going alone allows you plenty of space to reflect when looking upon the blocky visage of Franklin D. Roosevelt (for some reason, they didn’t give FDR a full bust; the New Deal author’s ginormous head rests atop a big unsightly block, shoulders nowhere to be seen).

What’s next for the HOFFGA? The Zuckermans told the New York Times last year they wish to revive the hall and hold the first nominee election since the late ’70s. They’d love to see “distinguished” folk like Bill Clinton nominate inspiring Americans who have yet to make the cut (MLK, Eleanor Roosevelt, presumably Ronnie Reagan). Alas, all this would cost serious ducats, which nobody has right now. It seems Henry Mitchell MacCracken’s monument to those who served our country in noble character will remain as is for the foreseeable future, a distinct time capsule proudly overlooking the Hudson River waiting for another rush of inductees.

Here’s looking at you, Luther Burbank.