Friday, May 20, 2011
II. The Central Park Obelisk
At 71 feet tall and weighing 244 tons, the Central Park obelisk, commonly known as Cleopatra's Needle, was one of a pair carved from pink Aswan granite and originally erected before the temple of the sun in the sacred city of Heliopsis (the city of the sun, known as On to ancient Egyptians), for Pharaoh Thutmosis III in 1443 B.C. Some two centuries later Ramesses II ordered its flanks carved with hieroglyphs commemorating his military victories. With the collapse of dynastic Egypt and the abandonment of Heliopsis, the obelisks, long toppled, were re-erected by the Romans at Alexandria before the Caesarium during the reign of the Emperor Augustus in 12 B.C. Already worn by time, the obelisk's base was stabilized by bronze rods, dissimulated by sculptures of crabs at each corner and engraved with the date of the obelisk's erection and the name of the Roman engineer who supervised the work.
With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, a group of influential New Yorkers led by William H. Hurlbert, editor of the New York World, and backed by the rail magnate William H. Vanderbilt, openly began to militate that the United States be offered the "gift" of an Egyptian obelisk. Their case of European obelisk-envy only intensified in 1877, when the English engineer John Dixon undertook the removal of the fallen Alexandrian obelisk—a gift to England dating from 1819 to commemorate Lord Nelson's victory in the Battle of the Nile. (After a near-disastrous sea voyage, the fallen obelisk was erected at Victoria Embankment, London in 1878.) Dixon, sensing profit to be made from the New York clique, informed Hurlbert that he could demount and ship the remaining obelisk from Alexandria to New York for the sum of £15,000.
Vanderbilt quickly agreed to the sum but the deal soon hit a fatal snag when the Khedive Ismail Pasha indicated that the obelisk in question was not Dixon's to sell and that any negotiations were to be undertaken by the government of the United States and not private parties. Nonplussed, Hurlbert contacted William Evarts, the US Secretary of State, and Henry G. Stebbins, former Congressman, President of the New York Stock Exchange and the then Parks Commissioner for the City of New York, and arranged with them to begin negotiations with the Khedive through the offices of the State Department. The negotiations, headed by Judge Elbert Farman, US Counsel General to Egypt, dragged on through the winter but the Khedive eventually relented to the removal of the Alexandrian obelisk in May 1878.
After a year's planning, the obelisk's arduous year-long transport was supervised by Lieutenant Commander Henry Gorringe, a U.S. Navy engineer. Gorringe began the delicate task of lowering the obelisk in early August of 1879 but suspended the operation for two months due to local protests and legal challenges—no doubt in large part incited by the large American flag that had been raised atop the crated monolith—which required Consular intervention to quell. Once lowered by fulcrum—with an uncontrolled drop that thankfully did no damage—the obelisk was slid into the hold of the drydocked steamer Dessoug through an opening in its hull. The ship set sail June 12, 1880, arriving in New York July 20th. Another seven months were required to transport the obelisk across Manhattan to Graywacke Knoll behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art where, with great pomp, ceremony and speechifying, it was re-erected upon its original base on January 22, 1881 in the presence of Secretary of State Evarts and a crowd of 10,000 extremely chilled spectators.
The obelisk's saga created a press frenzy in New York, and as noted in an earlier post, over 9,000 freemasons paraded up Fifth Avenue in a celebration simply to mark the laying of the cornerstone of the obelisk's foundation by the Grand Master of Masons of the State of New York. However, before any heated editorializing about the relative merits of Madison, Union or Herald Squares, Columbus Circle or elsewhere could be mounted, the self-appointed site selection committee—Hurlbert, Gorringe and the artist Frederick Church, who was enlisted in an effort to paper over the fait accompli rubberstamping Vanderbilt's wishes—announced its decision to little joy but that expressed by the trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to which the Vanderbilt family were major donors. Vanderbilt, owner of the New York Central Railroad (with its notoriously murderous Manhattan tunnel) and the world's richest man, would gain lasting infamy for saying, "The public be damned!" the following year.
The obscure site, an open greensward some yards behind the Museum, was a truly spectacular misplacement of this outstanding ancient monument and ranks as the greatest wasted opportunity for civic embellishment in the city's entire architectural history. With breathtaking hubris and offering appallingly flimsy justifications for the choice, Gorringe wrote, "In order to avoid needless discussion of the subject, it was decided to maintain the strictest secrecy as to the location determined on." He noted that the prime advantage of the Knoll was its "isolation" and that it was the best site to be found inside the park, as it was quite elevated and the foundation could be firmly anchored in bedrock, lest Manhattan suffer "some violent convulsion of nature." Indeed.