- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 6, 2004

NEW YORK - Tucked away in the Bronx, just a short stroll from the No. 4 subway line, some of the greatest Americans in history assemble in obscurity: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Mark Twain.

A bust of each sits in a magnificent colonnade at the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, a tourist attraction from an era when prominence didn’t come from getting voted off the island.

Few guests visit anymore. The collection remains unknown and unappreciated even as dozens of other halls of fame sprout nationwide: the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, the Celebrity Lingerie Hall of Fame, even the Cockroach Hall of Fame.

Despite the competition, the new director of the Bronx hall — the first of its kind in the United States — hopes to resurrect its past glory.

“It does seem like the time is right for a Hall of Fame renaissance,” said Dennis McEvoy, sitting in his office near the Beaux Arts hall designed by architect Stanford White.

When New York University Chancellor Henry MacCracken proposed honoring America’s greatest citizens at the turn of the 20th century, fame meant something different than it does today.

The hall debuted on May 29, 1901, igniting a debate over candidates’ worthiness that raged across editorial pages, barrooms and street corners. Induction ceremonies, with the unveiling of the bronze busts, drew attendees such as Edison himself, President Hoover and movie star Mary Pickford.

A committee of 100 prominent Americans selected the Hall of Famers. Over the years, voters would include former Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, singer Marion Anderson and scientist Dr. Jonas Salk.

And who qualified for the hall?

Its initial class numbered just 29, with members including Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson. Big names. For the next 35 years, it remained the nation’s lone Hall of Fame.

These days, it’s just the oldest tree in an overgrown forest of celebrity. From coast to coast, halls of fame are inducting rock stars and real estate agents, your neighbors and even, well, Jim Nabors. (Alabama Music Hall of Fame, Class of 2001.)

At the International Clown Hall of Fame in downtown Milwaukee, this year’s gala induction was held under a cloud: a squabble over who created the immortal Bozo.

The National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron is one of several halls of fame in Ohio, including the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall in Cleveland and the Ohio Accountants Hall of Fame in Columbus.

There’s the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, housed inside a 140-foot-long, 4-story high replica of a leaping muskie in Hayward, Wis. And the International Game Fish Association’s Fishing Hall of Fame in Dania Beach, Fla., where the inductees include the late baseball great Ted Williams, who launched his own hall: the Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame in Hernando, Fla. He is an inductee there, too.

The Cockroach Hall of Fame in Plano, Texas, was the brainchild of pest-control specialist Michael Bohdan. In a rare twist, the honorees are actually present, although they are dead: cockroaches dressed in bizarre outfits.

And yet tourists are not battering down the Bronx hall’s gate for a look at the great Americans inside. Mr. McEvoy won’t hazard a guess at the meager annual attendance, which peaked at 50,000 in the 1920s and ‘30s. The attraction’s post-World War II slide mirrored the decline of the surrounding neighborhood.

When it opened, the hall’s home was as impressive as its roster: a 630-foot colonnade on the verdant New York University campus. It rose behind the Gould Memorial Library, offering a panoramic view of Manhattan from the highest natural point in New York City.

Back then, fame was not a synonym for notoriety: Monica Lewinsky would not be nominated.

But fame can be fleeting, even for a hall itself. NYU abandoned the campus in 1973, with the Bronx Community College moving in.

The busts, part of the nation’s best collection of portrait sculpture, began deteriorating. One wag noted that the sculpture of James Whistler became so disfigured that the painter’s mother wouldn’t recognize him.

Four inductees never even received a bust when money ran out: industrialist Andrew Carnegie, Red Cross founder Clara Barton, horticulturist Luther Burbank and Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.

The last election for new inductees was held in 1976. The last bust, of former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was installed in 1992 — nearly two decades after his selection.

Now, Mr. McEvoy pledges to foster a small revival that began with a $1.3 million face lift in the late 1990s, when the busts were restored.

The comeback won’t be complete, though, until the hall begins inducting new members, said Lloyd Ultan, the Bronx borough historian and an unabashed fan of the site.

“If that was revived, it would stimulate interest,” Mr. Ultan said.

Mr. McEvoy would love to resume elections, though there’s no timetable. (There has been no committee of electors for the last quarter-century). In the meantime, he plans a “Friends of the Hall of Fame” group that could raise money for the four missing busts and other projects.

He endlessly spouts facts about the hall’s figures — as comfortable discussing poet Walt Whitman as the famously forgotten William Thomas Green Morton, the first dentist to use ether as an anesthetic.

The new director particularly enjoys the inductees’ historical connections: Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson opposite the Union’s Ulysses S. Grant; Abraham Lincoln near his assassin’s brother, Edwin Booth; archrival inventors Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse.

“There are so many ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ moments in here,” Mr. McEvoy said. “My big goal is to promote it and popularize it again.”

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