Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Elephants and Hotels

Everyone who knows me knows of my interest (obsession?) regarding elephants, an interest that originated during my time living in Kenya. Recently, I've become aware of various connections between elephants and hotels.

"What?" you ask. "Elephants and hotels?"

Well, yes.

Here are a few examples. 

The first involves Somers, a small town in northern Westchester County, about fifty miles north of New York City. There stands a Georgian brick edifice on which are clearly painted the words "ELEPHANT HOTEL." In front of this elegant structure stands a column atop of which is a statue of, yes, an elephant.

When friends in Somers introduced me to the story of the town’s Elephant Hotel (now the town hall, with the Somers Historical Society and Museum on the third floor), I wondered about the connection between the town and elephants. In fact, I discovered that this can be traced to one Hachaliah Bailey, an early 19th-century resident whose family could trace its presence in the area back to colonial times. Perhaps if you're good at solving puzzles you may have already noticed a connection between the name Bailey and the subject of elephants, and you're on the right track. The Bailey of Barnum and Bailey Circus was James Anthony Bailey, a nephew of Hachaliah. At a time when "the circus" is moving definitely into our past with the closing of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in May, it is interesting to look back on the days before formal circuses existed. 

The Elephant Hotel is not named for the species in general but for one very specific elephant, “Old Bet” (originally “Elephant Betty”). Hachaliah Bailey, sometimes referred to as the “first menagerie entrepreneur,” acquired Old Bet sometime in the first decade of the 19th century. In the rather convoluted story of Bailey’s work as a menagerie manager, Old Bet became joint property, with ownership rights shared with others. As told in the Somers history: "Sometime in 1815 or early 1816 Hachaliah leased an interest in his menagerie to Nathan Howes of Southeast. On July 24, 1816, while on tour near Alfred, Maine, enroute to Berwick, Old Bet was shot by an angry farmer named Donald Davis who thought it was sinful for poor people to spend their hard-earned cash to see a wicked beast."

The elephant’s death was a great blow to menagerie followers (apparently a great entertainment business in many parts of the United States). Indeed, Old Bet was eulogized in such papers as the Boston Gazette and the New York Herald, and even an advertisement about a display of her skeleton in New York City appeared in the New York Evening Post.

And Old Bet wasn’t forgotten by Hachaliah Bailey, either, for by 1820 he had begun the construction of his new large hotel (his new business venture), destined to become a popular stopping-off point for travelers. The Elephant Hotel opened in 1825, and Bailey erected the statue (later restored) in front of the hotel.

But Somers wasn't the only site of an elephant hotel. In fact, some chose not simply to name their hotel after the elephant, but to make the hotel in the shape of the eponymous animal. I can’t help but wonder if there wasn’t something about the 19th century imagination that drew hotel operators (and their clients) to the “idea” of the elephant. One of the most famous — as described by Marcia Reiss in Lost New York — was “Coney Island’s Elephantine Colossus,” built in 1885.

How I would have loved to have seen this one! At twelve stories (150 feet to the top of the howdah) and located right on the Atlantic shore, this elephant would have been visible to those traveling by sea to New York, even before they entered New York Harbor. Beginning in 1886 — on entering the harbor — they would have seen the Statue of Liberty, also 150 feet in height without its pedestal. 

From the viewing platform atop the Coney Island Elephant Hotel, visitors could see all the amusements of Coney Island in one direction and the ocean in the other. There were thirty-four rooms (some descriptions say thirty-one rooms) and it became a popular attraction, if only to look at from a distance. And from our 122-year perspective, you can’t help but wonder at the brashness displayed by J. Mason Kirby, the hotel’s builder, when he said, as noted by Reiss, that the building was the “eighth wonder of the world” and could hold 5,000 people (of course he also claimed that from the observation platform, visitors could see the Grand Canyon). 

Another telling of the Elephantine Colossus’s story names the designer and builder as James V. Lafferty, who had earlier built Lucy the Elephant in New Jersey (see below) and then later influenced the building of the now-gone “Light of Asia,” an elephant-shaped building in Cape May, New Jersey. But at Coney Island — whether it was J. Mason Kirby or James V. Lafferty — the Elephantine Colossus was a great sight to see, and attracted many New Yorkers.

Still, despite its great novelty, the structure didn’t last long, and it was gone by 1897. For one thing, pickpockets and prostitutes became an on-going problem, and going into the building became less interesting (for ordinary beach visitors) than just looking at it from a distance. Old Bet may have fallen victim to a crazed farmer with a gun, but the Elephantine Colossus was totally destroyed by fire on September 27, 1896, by which date the building had not been occupied for several years.

As for Lafferty’s Lucy the Elephant (originally called “Elephant Bazaar”) over in Margate, New Jersey, the six-story building wasn’t a hotel — but we can include it here anyway. It was originally built to promote real estate sales, and interested buyers would climb up to the howdah at the top to view parcels of land on offer. The building later was used as a restaurant, business office, and for other purposes and despite some old postcards calling the building “The Elephant Hotel of Atlantic City,” the actual hotel was in another building, nearby.

Lucy is still there, although about 100 yards away from its original location. A civic campaign to save the structure was taken up in the 1960s and considerable repair work was done, to ensure that the building would be safe. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976.

So there is fun to be had thinking about elephants and hotels. And while they are located all over the world, I like to think about these from our local history.

But I mustn't conclude this "connection" between elephants and hotels without returning to my beloved African elephants and sharing the story of how some of them were discovered behaving in a very different way in a particular hotel. I could try to tell the story, but it’s best told in this brief video, shared by another good friend (not the Somers folks this time):
An Entire Herd ofElephants Walks through this Hotel Lobby Every Spring. 
[Historical Notes based on Somers — Its People and Places: 1788  - A 200 Year History – 1988, published by the Somers Historical Society in 1989 and Lost New York, by Marcia Reiss (Pavilion Books Group, 2011.]
Guy St. Clair is the author of Knowledge Services: A Strategic Framework for the 21st Century Organization (Munich and Boston: De Gruyter, 2016). His Amazon author page is amazon.com/author/guystclair.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Neue Synagoge (The New Synagogue), Berlin

Neue Synagoge
Oranienburger Straße 30
Model of the building, showing
the immense space of the main
sanctuary, to the right
We like to speak of the cities we visit as “full of stories” and of course every city — because of its distinctive history, its people, and their values — provides a wealth of experience, education, and entertainment for most of us as tourists. To my way of thinking, Berlin is one of the best. I love Berlin, and I have gone there often (and wouldn’t mind going more often if I could). And when friends ask me what they should do when they come to Berlin, the New Synagogue is at the top of the list.

For one thing, this remarkable building — an architectural gem of the mid-19th century and an historical monument — was designed by Eduard Knoblauch (1801-1865), who had studied under Karl Friederich Schinkel, one of the best-regarded architects of his period. The New Synagogue was completed after Knoblauch’s death by his friend from his student days, Friedrich August Stüler, who himself took on the duties relating to the building’s construction and its interior arrangements.

The location itself is remarkable as well, for the New Synagogue is located in one of the most interesting parts of the city. At Oranienburger Straße 30 and not far from the famous Hackescher Markt, the stately building with its stunning eastern Moorish style stands out on one of Berlin’s most pleasant streets. But the building we see today is not exactly the building that Knoblauch designed and Stüler completed.

That building was constructed between 1859 and 1866. Today’s building dates largely from 1988 to 1995. So what happened? In its original incarnation, the building was one of the major religious and cultural centers of Jewish life in Berlin. With regard to the latter, for example, we find reference to an event held on January 30, 1930, as recorded in the synagogue records:
…the “Jadlowker Synagogue Concert” for the benefit of the welfare institutions of the Berlin Jewish Community. Hermann Jadlowker, appointed in 1912 to the Berlin Opera at the recommendation of the German Kaiser, had been cantor in a Riga synagogue since the 1920s. Now he gave a concert in Berlin, and his name attracted thousands to the New Synagogue. In the course of this concert, Albert Einstein and the physician Alfred Lewandowski, a son of Louis Lewandowski, performed two violin duets by Handel and Bach.
Two internal windows
Such cultural activities became important to German Jews, and two more examples are cited in the history, the Berlin premier of the oratorio by Ferdinand Hiller, “The Destruction of Jerusalem” on November 20, 1935 and the performance of Handel’s “Saul” in early 1938. But such events were soon thrown into the past, for the growing evils of Germany’s regime created new terrors for the synagogue’s members and their families.

On November 9-10, 1938 Berlin’s infamous “Kristallnacht” (also called the “November Pogrom” in some histories) did not spare the New Synagogue. One warmly remembered hero was Wilhelm Krützfeld, the chief of the district police precinct. A fire had been started in the synagogue’s wedding hall and Krützfeld — now remembered as the “courageous chief” — and two of his men, fully armed, came to the scene and chased the arsonists away. Having with him a file containing a letter describing the building’s “significant artistic and cultural value,” he was able to save the building.

For a while, the building continued to be used for limited religious purposes. The final Rosh Hashanah service took place on September 14, 1939, and no services of any kind took place after April, 1940. Ultimately, the New Synagogue was taken over by the army and used as the Military Clothing Office.

Painted ceiling with damage
As the synagogue is located in central Berlin, it suffered heavy damage in Allied bombings of the German capital. The small Jewish population remaining in Berlin after the war faced problems greater than restoring the building, which fell into disuse and decay. In the summer of 1958 — on never-explained or justified orders of the GDR — a large part of what remained of the synagogue was destroyed. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, it would not be until 1988-1995 that the New Synagogue would once again take its place as one of the wonders of Berlin. That it took seven years to reconstruct the building was no accident. The target dates for the reconstruction were carefully chosen to correspond with the original seven-year building period from 1859-1866.

Opening Hours sign
for the New Synagogue
At the re-opening of the building on the evening of May 7, 1995 — the eve of the 50th anniversary of the city’s liberation — in a “solemn ceremony” attended by the Federal President, the Chancellor, and numerous honored guests, the building was given to the people of Berlin. Its purpose, as noted on one of the first placards the visitor reads on entering the building, is to be a “place of learning, remembrance, and exchange.”

One of the goals of the reconstruction is to give visitors a sense of the Jewish life that once flourished in Berlin. It was a splendid structure, considered by some to be the most beautiful and magnificent synagogue in Germany. It was certainly the largest, with a seating capacity for 3,000 worshipers, and it was built to serve the city’s growing mid-19th century Jewish population, which was expanding at this time, largely through immigration from Eastern Europe and Russia.

Empty space outside the building
where the main sanctuary stood
The New Synagogue — now known also as the Centrum Judaicum — has become an important attraction for visitors to the city. So it’s a fascinating story, and a visit to the building, now partially reconstructed, is very satisfying. Even what is still missing from this great building can be of interest, and one of the great pleasures (so to speak) of the visit is to be able to see the space where the great hall stood. A glass and steel wall connects the inside of the building with the outside, and the “footprints” of the now-gone columns can be seen on the ground of the open space. As described on the placard mentioned earlier, the glass and steel wall also links to the synagogue’s historic vestibule with a permanent exhibition “Open Ye Gates — The New Synagogue Berlin 1866-1995” and the building’s former main hall. It is a thrilling space to visit and gives the visitor an awesome sense of all that happened in the New Synagogue. 

[Historical Notes based on The New Synagogue, Berlin Past-Present-Future by Hermann Simon (Berlin: Edition Hentrich Berlin, 1999)
Guy St. Clair is the author of Knowledge Services: A Strategic Framework for the 21st Century Organization (Munich and Boston: De Gruyter, 2016). His Amazon author page is amazon.com/author/guystclair.