The Hidden Historical Monuments in New York City
New York is a city of immigrants. It is also a magnet for cultural treasures, some of which end up largely forgotten in the most random of public places.
I was taking my son to judo class at 105th street and Riverside Drive when I saw a bronze statue of a man carrying a staff and clad in robe, sandals and a broad-brimmed hat in front of the New York Buddhist Church.
I thought the statue was amazing when I saw it. It is fifteen feet tall and much more impressive than the building it guards. It makes you wonder how it got there and why it was put in that place.
When I read the plaque I was stunned by its historical significance: The statue had somehow survived the atomic blast in Hiroshima even though it was located just 1.5 miles from ground zero.
The statue of Shinran Shonin, who founded the Jodo Shinshu school of Buddhism in the early 13th century, was one of the few artifacts to survive in a city where 90% of the buildings were destroyed.
At the time it was considered a miracle.
It was brought to New York City by a Japanese businessman as a symbol of peace in 1955. Ironically, it was dedicated on Sept. 11th. Originally destined for the United Nations, it was put in front of the church when the U.N. couldn’t find an appropriate space.
Every Aug. 5 there is a bell ringing ceremony at the statue at 7:15 p.m. New York time, the same moment the bomb dropped in Japan.
Anywhere else a massive bronze statue that survived Hiroshima would be a major a tourist attraction, a place people would seek out for reflection and meditation. In New York City it is one of many such monuments. It is now largely forgotten, located on a side street with few passersby.
I was going to meet a client in midtown when I entered the lobby of an office building on 53rd street and came face to face with a huge section of the Berlin Wall. I was astonished. It is twelve feet high, twenty feet long and, for someone of my generation, instantly recognizable.
All around me people came and went about their business showing no signs they were in any way aware of brushing up against history. There was no crowd, no one else snapping photos. I wondered if the younger people would mistake it for some sort of installation art project.
The wall came to New York because of a random act of preservation by real estate magnate Jerry I. Speyer, head of the Tishman Speyer company. Speyer had been an exchange student in Berlin.
He returned when the wall came down in 1989. Hearing that sections of the wall were being sold by an entrepreneur, he and another executive went to see. He paid $50,000 for five contiguous pieces.
Speyer told the New York Times that he bought the wall because he thought it was “historically interesting.” He had it installed in a public courtyard next to 520 Madison Avenue. When the wall began to deteriorate because it was exposed to the elements, he had it restored and moved inside.
I didn’t realize the importance of that decision until I visited Berlin and saw how little of the wall remains.
Most days I commute by bike through Central Park. Next to the Metropolitan Museum of Art at 83rd street I pass the oldest immigrant monument in New York City, a 3,500-year-old obelisk from Egypt.
The obelisk sits up on a knoll, partially obscured by a grove of trees.
There is almost never anyone there.
Nicknamed Cleopatra’s Needle, it was one of a pair commissioned in 1450 BC by the pharaoh Thutmosis III to commenorate the 30th year of his reign.
The pharaoh ordered the obelisks to be constructed to sit aside the entrance to the sun temple in Heliopolis. Each obelisk was cut from a single piece of red granite in the quarry at Aswan.
The story behind the journey is incredible. The two obelisks stood overlooking the Nile for more than 1,000 years until they were toppled when Persians raided the city. They then spent hundreds of years buried in the sand.
Around 12 BC they were dug up by the Romans and moved to Alexandria to be placed at a temple honoring Julius Caesar. And there they stood for almost two thousand years until a mania for Egyptian artifacts prompted a British businessman to fund the transportation of one to London. It now stands near the Embankment Underground station.
As soon as England got an obelsik in 1878, America had to have one.
William Henry Hulbert, editor of The New York World newspaper, started a public relations campaign to bring the other to New York.
It took two years and was accompanied by enormous fanfare: 9,000 Freemasons marched up Fifth Avenue to celebrate its arrival.
One hundred and thirty five years later the crowds are gone but it is still standing. In all likelihood, it will be here long after we depart.
**Published by Ted Merz Apr 3, 2016**