Kalustyan's, a market at 123 Lexington Avenue, is the only building still standing where a president was sworn in: Chester A. Arthur.
June 30, 2009
A Historian Is on a Quest to Locate Lost Events
By SAM ROBERTS
Forlornly unidentified and altogether forgotten, these sites have been literally lost to history.
On Avenue of the Americas, there is a block where the first cellphone call was completed in 1973; on West 125th Street, where the old Blumstein’s department store stood, nothing marks the place where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was stabbed in 1958.
Then there is the spot on Fifth Avenue where Winston Churchill, crossing against the light, was struck by a car in 1931 and nearly killed.
And what about the old Winter Garden Theater at 671 Broadway? In 1864, on the very night that Confederate sympathizers singled out the Lafarge Hotel next door in their plot to burn down New York, the Booth brothers — John Wilkes, Junius Brutus Jr. and Edwin — starred in “Julius Caesar.” The benefit performance, which was billed as the brothers’ sole joint engagement, raised $3,500 for the Shakespeare statue that still stands in Central Park.
Andrew Carroll, 39, an amateur historian, is embarking this week on a 50-state journey to uncover, memorialize and preserve these and other sites where history happened serendipitously, and which, for one reason or another, have been relegated to anonymity.
“It’s sort of a reverse scavenger hunt,” he said. “Trying to find things that aren’t there.”
His Here Is Where campaign, in collaboration with National Geographic Traveler, might seem quixotic, but so did two of his earlier efforts that proved to be immensely popular.
In 1993, when he was an English major at Columbia, he founded the American Poetry and Literacy Project with Joseph Brodsky, the nation’s poet laureate. They distributed free poetry books across the country. Five years later, he launched the Legacy Project (warletters.com), a repository for soldiers’ wartime letters and e-mail messages home.
Mr. Carroll’s latest crusade (www.HereIsWhere.org) was inspired by a story he read 15 years ago about a dramatic rescue that occurred during Abraham Lincoln’s first term as president. The president’s son Robert Todd Lincoln was about to board a sleeping car at Exchange Place in Jersey City one night when he fell between the platform and the train as it started to pull out of the station.
“My coat collar was vigorously seized and I was quickly pulled up and out to a secure footing on the platform,” Lincoln recalled years later. “Upon turning to thank my rescuer I saw it was Edwin Booth, whose face was of course well known to me, and I expressed my gratitude to him, and in doing so, called him by name.”
Mr. Carroll hopes to install a marker at the site, now a PATH station.
“We’re all attracted to great stories, and in that way history sells itself,” he said. If history is taught by rote, though, students will tune out, he said. “The more we make history about memorizing names and places and dates we’re going to lose the next generation.”
Those great stories, he said, reveal some of the eternal truths about human nature, humanity’s brutality, heroism, resilience.
“For every John Wilkes Booth,” he said, “there was an Edwin.”
New York is rich in historic sites that have escaped the lore of the city.
Kalustyan’s, the Middle Eastern and Indian food market at 123 Lexington Avenue, at 28th Street, is the only building in the city still standing where a president of the United States was sworn in. (On Sept. 20, 1881, Vice President Chester A. Arthur took the oath at his home there after President James A. Garfield died of gunshot wounds.) A small plaque in the locked vestibule for the apartments upstairs is the only hint of anything historic.
In 1908, baseball’s greatest hit, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” was published by the composer’s company on West 28th Street and made its debut with a performance at the Amphion, an opera house on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn. No marker identifies either site.
Mr. Carroll’s exploration will take him to Fairfield, Conn., the home of Ely Parker, an American Indian lawyer who worked with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and was credited with drafting the articles of surrender that Robert E. Lee signed at Appomattox. In Baltimore, he plans to visit the site of the shop where Mary Katherine Goddard printed the first copy of the Declaration of Independence that includes all of the signatories.
Mr. Carroll discovered that hotels often have rich histories. He learned, for example, that Ho Chi Minh and Malcolm X once worked at the Parker House in Boston.
The Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, Mr. Carroll’s hometown, has agreed to install a marker that commemorates a moment on Nov. 27, 1925, when the poet Vachel Lindsay was timidly approached at dinner by a busboy who placed three poems he had written next to Lindsay’s plate. Lindsay was so impressed that he shared them with his audience at a poetry reading that night, prompting journalists to report on the “busboy poet.” His name was Langston Hughes.
“What Andy’s doing is sensational,” said Keith Bellows, the editor of National Geographic Traveler, “in that he’s peeling back a layer of history to expose Americans where they live and where they travel to things they otherwise might not have been aware of.” Mr. Carroll begins his 50-state expedition with a trip to Maine to explore the sites of the 1855 Portland Rum Riot against Neal S. Dow, the prohibitionist mayor.
“This trip is just the kickoff,” said Mr. Carroll, who is paying for his tour with a book advance. “I’m going to be doing this for life.”