Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Happy Birthday, Poe!



Today is Edgar Allan Poe's 202nd birthday; are you doing anything to celebrate?

Here's the story we ran two years ago on the bicentennial of his birth, and here are some photos detailing the progress of restoring Poe Cottage in the Bronx.




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Read more about Edgar Allan Poe in

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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Cleopatra's Needle: Is NYC Pollution to Blame?


As you may have seen reported in the Wall Street Journal, TIME, and many other news outlets, there's a bit of an archaeological dust-up happening in Central Park. Zahi Hawass, the head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, wrote a letter to Mayor Michael Bloomberg complaining about the condition of Cleopatra's Needle, the 71-foot tall obelisk that resides in Central Park directly behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The obelisk, a gift from the Khedive of Egypt, has been in the park since 1881, when William Henry Vanderbilt paid over $100,000 to have it transported from Alexandria to the United States. The needle--one of a pair--was constructed ca. 1475 B.C. and originally stood up the Nile in Heliopolis. Both obelisks were moved to Alexandria ca. 13 B.C., perhaps in honor of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. In antiquity, one of the needles fell in an earthquake, and that one was transported in 1877 to London, where it still stands on the banks of the Thames. Four years later, New York's obelisk arrived; weighing over 220 tons, the needle had to be inched along a special railway from its West Side dock at 96th Street to Central Park--just getting it across the island took 112 days!

For years, visitors to the park have complained about the weathering of the granite and the loss of its hieroglyphics. Many--including Zahi Hawass--have come to the conclusion that New York is to blame. As Hawass wrote in his letter to Mayor Bloomberg, "I am glad that this monument has become such an integral part of New York City, but I am dismayed at the lack of care and attention that it has been given. Recent photographs that I have received show the severe damage that has been done to the obelisk, particularly to the hieroglyphic text, which in places has been completely worn away."

But is that "severe damage" New York's fault? In his insightful archaeological blog, Per Storemyr examines the obelisk in old photos and comes to the conclusion that the obelisk was already weathered by the time it reached America. In particular, his points to the photo (above) from the Library of Congress taken ca. 1856-60, which shows that twenty years before it came to New York, the needle was "only in marginally better condition than today. The weathering continues along part of the south face, whereas other photos taken before the transfer to New York show that the east face is in good repair, just as today."

Will this photographic evidence be enough to convince Egypt that we are good custodians of this monument? Or should objects like Cleopatra's Needle be repatriated for deeper reasons of cultural patrimony?

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Read more about the creation of Central Park in

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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton

Today marks both the feast day and the anniversary of the death (in 1821) of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. Not only is Mother Seton the first American-born Saint,* she is also a born-and-bred New Yorker.

Born Elizabeth Ann Bayley, she married merchant William Seton in 1794; however, her husband soon grew ill, and, in 1803, they sailed to Italy to improve his health. William died in Pisa shortly after their arrival. In Italy, Seton discovered Catholicism--a denomination virtually unknown in New York's wealthy Protestant circles--and upon her return to New York, Seton was received into the Catholic faith, which enraged her friends and relatives.

As we write in Inside the Apple:
"Elizabeth’s family began threatening to have powerful allies in the state legislature kick her out of New York for proselytizing. (Or so the story goes--they never followed through.) Elizabeth didn't give them the satisfaction; instead, she moved to Baltimore in 1808 to open a school and then founded America’s first convent, the Sisters of Charity, the next year. She died at the convent in Emmitsburg, Maryland, in 1821. In 1963, she was beatified by Pope John XXIII, and in 1975, she was elevated to sainthood for her posthumous miracles."
A shrine to St. Seton now occupies the building at 7 State Street. It takes up two lots, the southern portion of which (6 State Street) is the only 18th-century home left in the area. Because the home is a shrine, most people make the obvious assumption that this is where the Setons lived from 1801-03. However, they actually lived next door at number 8. That home, which stood until 1963, the year of Elizabeth Seton’s beatification, was torn down in order that a chapel in her honor could be built in its place.

Mother Seton is the patron saint of widows, people who have lost their parents, those whose children have died, and people having trouble with their in-laws (!).

* This is an important semantic distinction. Seton is not the first American saint--
that honor goes to another New Yorker, Mother Cabrini, who was sainted in 1946.
However, Cabrini was born in Italy
.

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Read more about the life of Elizabeth Ann Seton in


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