The Hall of Fame for Great Americans in the Bronx
May 16, 2012

The Hall of Fame for Great Americans

Want to inject a dose of history into your next outdoor excursion? Try the Hall of Fame of Great Americans in the Bronx.

“Who are Horace Mann and John James Audubon?” “Why are there so few girls?” “Why was Asa Gray famous?”  These are among the perplexing questions Halina and Riley have posed on our numerous visits to this site, a scenic outdoor Who’s Who perched on a rocky outcropping overlooking the Harlem River. In between answering history questions, we often took inspiration from the college students who also roam the area and tossed a ball on the campus lawns.

When the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in the Bronx was inaugurated on May 30, 1901, the world—not to mention the borough—was a very different place than it is today. May 30 was still called “Decoration Day” rather than “Memorial Day,” the Civil War was still a recent event, the Bronx—which had only become part of New York City three years before—was still relatively rural, and the Hall of Fame was the only hall of fame that existed in the United States. In the century that followed, the Hall of Fame would inspire countless imitators, including halls of fame devoted to baseball, rock and roll, croquet, Barbie Dolls, and even cockroaches. Meanwhile, the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, like the borough surrounding it, fell into decline and suffered from neglect. The memorial—often acknowledged today as one of the most important tourist destinations in New York City—was forgotten.


Your Visit

Luckily, the Hall of Fame’s fortunes have recently revived. The site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, and is on the verge of being listed as a National Historic Landmark. Tourists returning to the Bronx are drawn to the Hall of Fame not just as a site for learning more about American history, but also because its location could not be more scenic. The campus of Bronx Community College, CUNY, where it is located was designed by renowned architect Stanford White, and provides the same sense of airy outdoors expansiveness as White’s other creations throughout the city. (These include the Washington Square Arch and the campus of Columbia University.) The site is also among the highest points of natural elevation in New York City, and with the mighty Hudson River coursing in the valley below, visitors are bound to feel as though they have been teleported upstate into the environs that inspired painters like Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School.

The Hall of Fame consists of an outdoor colonnade lined with busts depicting “great Americans” who were elected in a process so competitive that, in its heyday, admission to the Hall of Fame was considered comparable to winning a Nobel Prize. The busts are organized according to profession (artists, educators, scientists, etc.).

As you enter from the south and wind your way around, you and your children will likely be surprised by the eclectic combination of those selected as “famous”—a term meaning something entirely different today than it did in the early 20th century. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin: Not surprising. Emma Willard and John Lothrop Motley? Halina and Riley aren’t likely the only ones confused. Aside from being a great destination in a lovely outdoor setting, the memorial is also a healthy reminder that the definition of celebrity changes, and fame is fleeting.

Getting There

Take the 1 train to 207th street. From the exit platform (among the few elevated platforms remaining in the system) you’ll be able to see the Hall of Fame below the top of Gould Memorial Library up the hill across the river. Walk directly east across the University Heights Bridge and past the Major Deegan Expressway to Cedar Avenue. Take a right and head south along Cedar Avenue until you reach 179th Street. As you follow the sidewalk along Cedar Avenue up and around you will see the Hall of Fame looming above you to the east. When you follow 179th Street around the bend it becomes Sedgwick Avenue. Continue to the stoplight and take a right onto Hall of Fame Terrace. The entrance to the college is at the top of the hill.

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