I’m back baby! After a summer of daydreaming about the country I realize that my last post signaled I must be ready to dive head first into the city. Though it wasn’t my intention when I started it, my last post seemed to open up a host of possibilities for further exploration, and that got me excited. The fact that it wasn’t my intention is what makes it so exciting and an important reminder of how interconnected most everything in the entire world actually is. I’m not kidding! I mean, even exploring a pretty remote part of New York State yielded (to my mind at least) some impressive layers of overlapitude – which, though not a word yet, might be some day. I like writing about New York because I live here and I like living – here but also just in general (it’s fun to breathe!) – and New York is large and wonderful enough that it can kind of stand in for the world (“I am large, I contain multitudes” says Walt Whitman). Well anyway, no matter what we’re looking at the important thing is that we keep our endless curiosity, because endless curiosity might just be another name for hope.
I feel like the 19th century was kind of about that thing…..endless curiosity and hope. It’s where a lot of their genius and their inspiration came from, both what inspired them and what inspires us (about them) today. Where they erred maybe was in imagining that one could reach some kind of perfection, both in the individual and societal sense. They thought endless curiosity was the means to an end. Well, the end is death, but curiosity is a good way to have some fun until we get there. That’s my take at least. And hey, the 19th century folk know what I’m talking about, cause they’re all dead now, right?
But we’ve got monuments to remind us that they lived once – though most of the time we have no idea who the monuments are even for. That came to my mind the other day with the Josephine Shaw Lowell Memorial Fountain in Bryant Park. I knew the fountain – it’s kind of tough to miss if you enter the park from the Sixth Avenue side – but I had no idea it was a memorial. And I had no idea who Josephine Shaw Lowell was. But guess what? She’s connected to everything! Well to two or three things at least.
Josephine Shaw Lowell was a Progressive and a good example to my mind of what the late-19th century was all about. She was involved, at a high level, in no small number of organizations, apparently founding the New York Charity Organization, the House of Refuge for Women, the Woman’s Municipal League, and the Civil Service Reform Association of New York State, some of those during her 13 year stint as the first woman on the New York State Board of Charities – appointed by Governor Samuel Tilden in 1876. After leaving her position on the board in 1889 she went on to co-found the National Consumers League and to serve as vice-president of the Anti-Imperialist League. She was a busy woman. (I was Commissioner of my wiffle ball league for a number of years so I have a good sense of what she was dealing with.) This was all after losing her husband in the Civil War, just one month before their daughter was born. She’d already lost her brother just a year before that.
Her brother by the way was Robert Gould Shaw, commander of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment immortalized by the movie Glory. The regiment and Robert Gould Shaw himself were also immortalized by the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens (who I mentioned last time around) in what is generally considered one of his finest works. The memorial still stands on Beacon Street, on the edge of Boston Common.
Josephine and her brother were actually from Boston originally, though they moved to Staten Island when she was a child. Her husband, Charles Russell Lowell, was from Boston as well, a member of the famous and storied Lowell family – bastions of the kind of New England brahmanism that would help define the 19th century. I should probably mention too that Josephine’s memorial fountain in Bryant Park was designed by Charles Platt, the architect of The Studio Building on Lexington and 66th and a member of Saint-Gaudens art colony up in Cornish, New Hampshire. Man, the connections are coming hot and heavy ain’t they! The Josephine Shaw Memorial Fountain, finished in 1913, was most likely the first memorial in New York City to be dedicated to a woman. The fountain originally stood on the east side of Bryant Park, just behind the library; it was moved to the west side after the park was remodeled in the 1930s. I think it gets covered up by a big tent during Fashion Week, or whatever other private interest events are happening in this public park throughout the year. Well sure, it’s no longer the 19th Century – we don’t have to aspire to ideals.