The Angels of All Angels

If you wander through the light-filled sculpture court of the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you may come upon angels.

The sculpture court in front of the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

There they are, on the right side of the courtyard. Look up and you’ll see one blowing a trumpet.

Carved angel from all angels church located atop pulpit on display in Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City

Walk forward and you’ll see a line of them surrounding a giant limestone pulpit. They are all rather busy swinging censers, strewing flowers, and playing musical instruments. One holds a scale and a sword. Maybe she’s assigned to mete out justice. Several are talking, or singing perhaps.

Carved angels on the All Angels pulpit created by the sculptor Karl Bitter

The pulpit is the work of the Austrian-born sculptor Karl Bitter who immigrated to the United States as a 21-year old in 1889 after deserting from the Austrian army. The pulpit was completed in 1896 and stood in All Angels Church, which at the time was located on West End Avenue and 80th Street. In addition to the pulpit, the church featured a two-and-a-half story Tiffany window.

Sculptor Karl Bitter as he appeared in the early 1900s

Bitter enjoyed great success in America. He created sculptures for the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. Yes, that’s the one that is the subject of Erik Larson’s book, Devil in the White City. Bitter also did sculptural work on many other buildings including Trinity Church, the Biltmore Estate, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bitter died in 1915 at age 47 when he was struck by a car.

All Angels Church has its own fascinating history. It was founded in the 1830s, well before the pulpit was carved or the building it stood in was built. All Angels’ first church building was a wooden structure constructed in Seneca Village, a nineteenth-century inter-racial community on the west side of Manhattan. Seneca Village was established in 1825, and was the first place in the city that African Americans owned property. In addition to its African American founders, Seneca Village became home to German and Irish immigrants.

Angels sculpted by Karl Bitter on a pulpit used in All Angels Church

What happened to Seneca Village and the original All Angels Church? The land was taken by eminent domain in 1857 when construction began on Central Park, and the whole village was demolished. Demolition was also the fate of the second All Angels building. In 1979 it was torn down, and an apartment building was constructed in its place. Fortunately, the beautiful pulpit found a home in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. All Angels is now in its third location, on West 80th Street.

There are so many threads that connect these carved angels to New York City and the history of art and architecture. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s description of the pulpit can be found at https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/10170. Another interesting note can be found on the website of Evergreene, an architectural arts company that removed, then reinstalled the pulpit during a renovation of the American Wing. https://evergreene.com/projects/karl-bitters-all-angels-church-pulpit-and-choir-rail-disassembly-and-reinstallation-metropolitan-museum-of-art/

A Library’s History

The history of a public library is often the history of a town, its residents, political trends, American culture, and world events.

What do library lovers do on vacation? Visit libraries, of course. Recently I spent a delightful morning exploring the Ilsley Public Library in Middlebury, Vermont. Later, I went on its website and read up on its “colorful history” which touches on a worldwide pandemic, the Depression, World War II, controversial books, access for those with disabilities, and the dawn of the computer age. Here is a short summary culled from the library’s timeline:

Main reading room at the Ilsley Public Library in Middlebury VT
Reading area near the entrance

The Middlebury library began as a reading room in 1848. By 1870 it was housed in a rented room that contained 673 books. In 1924, the current building was completed, thanks to Colonel Silas Augustine Ilsley, a Civil War veteran who gave $25,000 in his will to pay for construction. His widow also gave $25,000.

The website of the Ilsley Library provides a series of timelines that detail some of the institution’s colorful history. For example, the library was closed in October, 1918, “due to the epidemic.” This is a reference to the 1918 Influenza (“Spanish Flu”) pandemic that the CDC estimates killed 50 million people worldwide, 675,000 in the United States. In 1934, the library basement was used by WPA artists. In 1939, it was noted that despite numerous requests for The Grapes of Wrath, the novel was not purchased because it “would cause too much adverse comment.” This decision was reversed by 1940, but the librarian was asked to “keep track of its loan.” In 1942, the Red Cross used a portion of the library basement as a “surgical dressings room.” The early 60s saw some discussion about whether it was appropriate to have Updike’s Rabbit Run on loan. A federal grant in 1977 helped pay for an addition which allowed “handicapped access.” In 1984, an anonymous donor provided the children’s room with the library’s first computer, a Commodore.

Walking into this library gives evidence of its long history and very active present. An easel at the entrance holds dozens of book reviews written by patrons. The children’s room is so engaging I can easily imagine parents having a hard time getting their children to leave. I especially loved the way picture books are displayed—like records used to be at music stores. This allows children to flip through the books and easily see the cover illustrations—so important for attracting interest. And the whole room was filled with stories and story-telling props. There were computers and building toys. And a place to paint moon rocks. And a dragon made from paper plates. And a mural with sea creatures and a pirate ship. And a bathtub filled with stuffed animals. And an inflatable earth and moon hanging from the ceiling. And … so much more.

If you have a chance to visit this wonderful library, be sure to stop in. Here’s a link to the library website. http://www.ilsleypubliclibrary.org/

Our Carnegie Libraries

History is all around us. You can find it in your own city or small town. One place to start is the library. Maybe it’s a library that began with a grant from Andrew Carnegie.

Generally I’m a kitchen table writer. I love working at home and have the house to myself during my most productive hours, about 9 am to 3 pm. But our 1940s-era cape lacks central air, so when the heat and humidity become unbearable I head to one of the Norwalk libraries.

The Tudor-style Carnegie Library in Norwalk, Connecticut.
The main branch of the Norwalk Public Library in Norwalk, Connecticut

Libraries play a huge role in the life of a writer, and not just for AC. It’s wonderful for research, reading groups, author talks, writers’ conferences, and books. Loads and loads of books. And librarians. No matter how odd your question, they treat you like you’re Indiana Jones heading out on an amazing quest.

Carnegie Library in South Norwalk, Connecticut showing lamp post and front entrance steps.
The South Norwalk branch of the Norwalk Public Library

Norwalk, Connecticut, is one of the few cities to have two Carnegie Libraries. The reason is that until 1913, Norwalk and South Norwalk were separate cities. There are over 1,600 Carnegie libraries in the United States. A Carnegie library is one built with the financial support of the wealthy industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919). Carnegie was one of the richest men in the country, and gave away about 90 percent of his fortune. He funded the construction of Carnegie Hall, opened in 1891, and gave donations to advance teaching and world peace. His life was not without controversy, especially when it came to unions and workers’ rights. But such good has come from those libraries.

The South Norwalk Library began in 1878 as a reading room holding 500 donated books. By 1885 sufficient funds had been raised to construct a building at 108 Washington Street. That building is still there—it houses a salon now. Norwalk’s first library was organized in 1879 with about 100 books and a rented room near the intersection of Wall and Main Streets. For both libraries, the reading rooms were open to residents, but to take out a book you had to pay a $2.00 membership fee.

The Carnegie library in Norwalk, CT, as it appeared in the early 1900s

Norwalk applied for a Carnegie grant in 1901 and received $20,000 after promising continued municipal support and a building lot. The lot was donated by a local businessman, the Tudor-style building was completed in 1902, and the new library opened in 1903.

The Carnegie library in South Norwalk, CT

In 1908, South Norwalk also received a $20,000 Carnegie grant and completed construction on its Greek Revival building in 1913. Carnegie libraries were constructed in many architectural styles, but often featured lamp posts representing enlightenment and a set of steps at the entrance representing advancement by learning.

Although the cities of Norwalk and South Norwalk merged in 1913, the libraries were not united under municipal administration until the 1970s. Norwalk also has two smaller independent neighborhood libraries: The East Norwalk Library opened in 1913 and the Rowayton Library in 1915.

Plaque on Norwalk Connecticut library indicating it was presented to the people of Norwalk in 1902 by Andrew Carnegie.
1902 plaque commemorating the opening of Norwalk’s Carnegie library

You can find an article on Norwalk’s library history at http://ct-norwalklibrary.civicplus.com/DocumentCenter/View/65/Norwalk-Public-Library-History?bidId= . A list of all the Carnegie libraries in the U.S. can be found at ttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Carnegie_libraries_in_the_United_States . The PBS American Experience site offers a concise biography of Andrew Carnegie at https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/carnegie-biography/

Bethesda Terrace and The Angel of the Waters

It happened one day in Central Park. I felt as if I had walked into my book …

The magical Angel of the Waters fountain at Bethesda Terrace in New York's Central Park. A scene in The Better Angels takes place at the fountain.

Some of the scenes in The Better Angels are set in New York City. Recently I felt the need to revisit those Big Apple sites to recheck the accuracy of my descriptions. The first place I had to see was Bethesda Terrace.

Aggie May, the main character, is a time traveler, so of course I had her visit the terrace. It was designed by Calvert Vaux who wanted all of time—day and night, all the seasons—represented there. The sculptor Jacob Wrey Mould brought Vaux’s vision to life.

So look at the sculptures lining the stairs, and this is what you’ll find: A rooster and sunrise symbolize the morning. An owl and bat represent the night—along with an open book and a lantern to read by. Tulips and a bird’s nest bring us into spring, roses and an ear of corn into summer. A witch and pumpkin take us into fall. Are the pine cones for winter? What I love about these sculptures is that they are visual puzzles: whimsical and head-scratching and mysterious and beautiful. The Central Park Conservancy says the terrace is “rich with complex iconography,” and they are completely right.

And then there is the statue, the Angel of the Waters, that represents healing. She was created by Emma Stebbins, the first woman commissioned to do a public sculpture in New York City. Vaux wanted the statue to suggest “both earnestly and playfully the idea of that central spirit of ‘Love’ that is forever active, and forever bringing nature, science, art, summer and winter, youth and age, day and night, into harmonious accord.”

The Angel of the Waters statue at Bethesda Terrace in Central Park. In the book The Better Angels, the main character visits the terrace.

I spent hours at the Terrace. I saw a couple getting married, a man singing, and groups of children in matching t-shirts. And all the time I was partly present, and partly in my story. I looked at the carvings on the stairway and knew what my character Aggie felt about them. I knew which stairway she walked down as she approached the fountain, who she would encounter under the archway, and what they would say to each other. I had walked into my own story …

My son Andrew, a writer himself, says when you write about a place, then go there, you discover you have developed a connection—“an intimate relationship”—with the space. That’s what I feel about Bethesda Terrace.

You can read more about Bethesda Terrace by checking out this fine article by the Central Park Conservancy. http://www.centralparknyc.org/about/blog/calvert-vaux-bethesda-terrace.html

Mathew Brady and Civil War Photography

One reason I chose to write a time travel novel was because of my fascination with history. One area I explored was the history of photography.

A lithograph of Civil War photographer Mathew Brady
Mathew Brady as a young man.

This is Mathew Brady, considered the father of photojournalism because he sent photographers out of the studio to the battlefields of the Civil War. In October, 1862, his New York City gallery displayed photographs of the dead at Antietam. The New York Times review of the exhibit stated: “Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”

Photo of dead at the Battle of Antietam. In The Better Angels, the characters attend the exhibit at Mathew Brady's studio.
One of the photos shown at Brady’s exhibit “The Dead of Antietam.”

Brady did not travel to the battlefield himself. The photographs were taken by Alexander Gardner and James Gibson between September 19 and 22, 1862. The photographs were “stereos” and were displayed in boxy stereograph viewers, giving the images a 3-D effect.

Robert Wilson, the author of a terrific biography of Brady, states that the photographs of Antietam “marked a turning point in the portrayal of war.” Sketch artists, whose drawings were featured in the illustrated newspapers of the era, tended to soften and romanticize warfare. Photography, on the other hand, was remorseless.

This vintage photo shows Mathew Brady's photography studio at the corner of Broadway and 10th street in New York City. Grace Church is across the street.
Mathew Brady’s New York Studio at 785 Broadway at 10th Street, New York City. Courtesy The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

The photograph above shows Brady’s studio at the corner of 10th and Broadway in New York City, diagonally across the street from Grace Church. The building that held the studio is long gone (there’s a bank there now) but Grace Church is still there.

One level of the studio served as a gallery, displaying portraits of political and military leaders as well as distinguished writers, artists, and celebrities. Photographs were displayed from floor to ceiling, with the pictures at the top hung at an angle so visitors could see them better.

Drawing showing the interior of Civil War photographer Mathew Brady's studio.
This drawing shows the interior of Brady’s studio. Photographs were displayed on the second floor. The upper floors had skylights to provide lighting for the photographers.

I love it when I find a book that transports me to a different time and place. Can you tell I spent a lot of time with Wilson’s wonderful book?

Are you interested in learning more about Mathew Brady and the history of photography? Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation by Robert Wilson offers a fascinating look at the early years of photography and how this invention shaped and was shaped by the momentous events of the nineteenth century. You can find out more about the book and its author at http://www.mathewbrady.net/author.html

Lincoln, The Better Angels, and Word Choice

The title of my book The Better Angels comes from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address given on March 4, 1861.

At the time of the inauguration, seven southern states had already seceded. Within weeks shots were fired at Fort Sumter beginning the Civil War. The last paragraph of Lincoln’s address, a plea to preserve the union, is as follows:

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

William Seward, who would become secretary of state, had suggested that the last line refer to the “guardian angel of the Union,” but Lincoln decided on “better angels of our nature.” The historian Ronald C. White Jr., in an opinion piece for NPR, says Seward’s term was impersonal. Lincoln’s brilliant revision made the plea “deeply personal.”

White is correct. Lincoln’s appeal is to each individual listener. He pleads for each person to act–to join the chorus of the union. The speech would have had a different, and lesser, impact if it simply referenced hope for aid from a guardian angel. It is a reminder that history is not just a listing of famous people and events. History confronts and envelops all of us. We are all participants.

White’s opinion piece was written in 2011, on the 150th anniversary of the first inaugural address. It can be found at https://www.npr.org/2011/03/04/134162178/150-years-later-lincolns-words-still-resonate

Whispers in Grand Central

There I was …

The whispering gallery in Grand Central Terminal. How surprising to find it completely empty.

One mysterious morning I arrived at Grand Central early. One scene in my book is set in the whispering gallery (right in front of the Oyster Bar), so I had to stop by. It’s part of my Grand Central routine now–visit the whispering gallery. I was shocked to find I was the only one there. For just a moment or two, I was the only person in the whispering gallery, in Grand Central Station, in the middle of New York City, the busiest city in the country. It was magical. I had just enough time alone to take this one picture.

The whispering gallery is one of many wonders in Grand Central Station. (I know, the real name is Grand Central Terminal, but everyone seems to call it Grand Central Station anyway.) The current station opened in 1913 and is the third of three that have been located at that site. The first was constructed in 1871, just six years after the end of the Civil War.

So how—and why—does a whispering gallery work? If you stand facing the wall in any of the four corners, and whisper, your words will be carried to the corner diagonally across from you and can be heard by someone in that corner. It doesn’t matter if there are crowds of very noisy people in the gallery. Your whispered words will come through. Also, two conversations can go on at once when people are standing in all four corners. The signals won’t get crossed. The science of a whispering gallery has to do with the way sound waves (called whispering gallery waves) are carried along the surface of a circular wall or overhead in a gallery shaped like an ellipse (a regular oval).

Crowds of people in Grand Central Terminal's Whispering Gallery located just outside the Oyster Bar.

The curved ceiling in the Grand Central whispering gallery is constructed of Guastavino tile, named after the Spanish building engineer Rafael Guastavino who invented this type of interlocking terracotta tile for use in arches and architectural vaults.

Most sources I’ve looked at say the space was not designed to be a whispering gallery. It was simply a “happy accident.” I love the fact that there is no big plaque or poster explaining what happens there. You just have to learn about it by watching, or reading, or being told by someone else. Maybe in a whisper.