Thursday, April 8, 2010

Pro Aris et Pro Focis

In an effort to revive this blog, and put something up in between long posts that take me days upon days to research, I present a new little series:

What used to be there?/!.

Living, for the moment, in New York City, I am surrounded by constant change. The block I live on looks different than it did when I moved in. The block I work on even more so. It fascinates me to return to a neighborhood I last haunted only 2 or 3 years ago, and find it completely changed.

Some of the changes in my work neighborhood, Murray Hill in Manhattan, have already been nicely documented by the CUNY project “The Digital Murray Hill”, at Take, for instance, the southeast corner of the intersection of 34th Street and Park Avenue.

“The 71st Regiment Armory; Built: 1892-1894, Architect: John R. Thomas ; Rebuilt: 1904, Architects: Clinton and Russell; Razed: 1970's. The original Romanesque Revival building burned down in 1902 and was replaced in 1904 by a red brick structure in the style of a medieval castle.

“Caption reads: Armory of the Seventy-First Regiment, N. G. N. Y., Park Avenue, New York, N.Y. ; Clinton & Russell, Architects. The 71st Regiment Armory; Built: 1892-1894, Architect: John R. Russell; Rebuilt: 1904, Architects: Clinton and Russell; Razed: 1970's. The original Romanesque Revival building burned down in 1902 and was replaced in 1904 by a red brick structure in the style of a medieval castle. The 250 foot tower was modeled after the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena, Italy.”

3 Park Avenue, 111 East 33rd Street; Built: 1977; Architects: Shreve, Lamb & Harmon. The Norman Thomas High School occupies the first 11 floors. The school's address is on 33rd Street . The remaining 31 stories are used as offices. This site was previously home to the 71st Regiment Armory.

Those who know me well, or at least know me recently, know I have a bit of an architecture fetish. And they know that pretty much all “modern” styles of architecture appeal to me very little. Leaky, cheap boxes, all straight lines and practical impracticality, pfffffah. And the international style particularly bores me to tears. That said, I don’t mind the current inhabitant of the “3 Park Avenue” address, as the exterior takes on a pleasant, dusky hue in the early morning light, and in the spring the moon sits above it just so around 7am, giving it an otherworldly quality.

And besides, can you imagine attending a high school that takes up 11 stories of a skyscraper? I have to say, considering the size of the school, the students of Norman Thomas have been nothing but well behaved. Not a peep from the youth, all day long. It saddens me that the school could be closing in the near future. It occupies, after all, some extremely valuable Manhattan real estate. You wouldn’t think so walking past it, however, as the sizable third commercial space on the street level has been vacant for over a year now. The Starbucks remains, but the Hallmark store folded months before the current recession hit its stride.

I root for Norman Thomas High as well, because it’s the named after one of my very favorite socialists and pacifists. I try not to get too political in this space, so I won’t gush too much over the civil rights activist, minister, anti-war activist and pretty radical leftist. I can’t really go much deeper than that without feeling compelled to delve into my own at times unpopular stance, so I’ll leave it be. But woe for the days when New York was a true center of strong political and social activism, on both sides of the coin. Sure, it occasionally sparked some riots and corruption, but it was a hell of a lot more interesting than the collective bow toward the offices south of 10th St that we seem to do these days.

Oops, I’m slipping. ALL HAIL BLOOMBERG! King of kings. Look at his works, ye mighty, and despair. Etc, etc. That should cover it.

Funnily enough, the previous tenants of 3 Park Avenue seemingly could not be more opposite the philosophy of Norman Thomas.

The 71st Infantry Regiment is best known as a New York National Guard Regiment, although it was created in a way that nowadays would be considered suspect, to say the least. Members of the “Know Nothing” party (cum “American Party”) formed the company as an “American Regiment,” with all that implies. The “Know Nothing” party was built on a platform of xenophobic dislike for the growing northern European Catholic (particularly Irish Catholic) population in the U.S., and distaste for the Democratic party’s popularity with and inclusion of Irish Catholics. The party was most successful in northern cities like Boston and Chicago, whose staunch protestant populations were resistant to the sizable influx of Irish and German Catholic immigrants. Boston, with it’s now proud identity as a strongly Irish city, struggled for the better part of a century with tensions between old New England protestant stock and the swell of Irish Catholics in its working class.

The sentiment of reluctance to accept the Irish and German immigrants didn’t come just from a xenophobic upper middle class, unhappy to see the streets suddenly crowded with hungry and heavily accented strangers, but from the unhappy working class that already toiled in cities like New York. You’ve heard it before, you’ll here it again. Those foreigners took our jobs!

Too many men, not enough jobs, wages sinking as desperate and hungry immigrants were willing to work for a pittance and live in squalor (and robber barons more than happy to oblige them)—these things are as American as apple pie. But ah! There’s politics again.

In 1919, the Veterans Association of the 71st Regiment published a short book on its history, describing its establishment as follows (first quoting some source it does not name):
“’Up to 1840 the American workman was as independent, manly, and well situated a citizen as there was at that time in any land; he had work in plenty and he did it well, and never dreamed of ‘striking,’ for he and his employer were friends and neighbors. He lived comfortably, but without ostentation, ‘feared god and spoke the truth,’ was a patriotic citizen and a useful, manly man. But during that decade of 1840-1850, his good fortune came to an end; hordes of foreign immigrants, fleeing from the distress and famine of their native country, came to the land of promise; and the consequent lowering of wages, causing strong competition for situations, as well as the entry of the ‘foreign element’ into politics, filled the native American with alarm and indignation; as well might they have swept back the ocean from our shores with a broom, as to turn from New York the flood of immigration, or prevent the worthy foreigner from obtaining wealth and office.’ But they made an attempt, and organized the ‘Order of the United Americans.’ It was at a convention of this order, held in the Broadway Tabernacle, 340 Broadway, in the fall of 1849, that William B. Ferguson, who became a member of Company C, and subsequently of the Veteran Association until his death, offered a resolution that a committee be appointed for the purposed of raising a regiment of militia, to be composed of native Americans only.” (History of the 71st Regiment, NGNY: American Guard-“Pro Aris et Pro Focis”, page 1).

I could get into the various ironies of that quote, but I think they’re self evident.

Oddly enough, the 1919 history notes that members of the guard wore black felt “Kossuth”s, a hat popularized by a famous Hungarian patriot.

And with that an independent, non-government political interest group set about starting it’s own militia, in service, of course, of the “true” American people. In October of 1850, the “American Rifles,” as they were first known, set up shop. In 1853, they became the “American Guard,” trading their long rifles for muskets. By 1857, they had switched to smaller rifles.

The 71st was officially homeless until about 1868, when it moved into its first Armory on 32nd street, according to the 1919 history. The regiment took up residence in the armory at 34th and Park in 1894, escorted, according to the New York Times, by "it's old time friend, the Seventh Regiment."

The 71st infantry participated in many national and international conflicts, particularly during the Spanish American war (some interesting bits, but I'll be up all night if I get into it), and served occassionally as fill in prison guards and riot police. On July 4, 1857, the 71st served as riot control during the street war between the Irish "Dead Rabbits" gang and the anti-Irish "Bowery Boys" gang, a far less sophisticated and official "All American militia".

The 71st was more or less disbanded in 1993, by which time it was a mostly African American regiment of the National Guard. It had moved down to 125 West 14th St, and the second, towered Amory was demolished in the 1970s to make way for a tower of office space.

So that's what used to be there.

Photo by Walter How.