Saturday, January 07, 2012

State Regains Houdon Bust of Washington.

"In politics, nothing happens by accident. If it happens, you can bet it was planned that way." ---Franklin Delano Roosevelt

You may want to start reading at the bottom of this blog, with a New York Times article published on a Thursday preceding the Monday in 1929 when the Binghamton Press broke a story about the "recovery" of a missing bronze bust of George Washington, which had vanished from New York State's possession 18 years before, looted in 1911 following an apparent incendiary act which destroyed much of the historical and legislative record housed in the State Capitol at Albany. In the Times' article, the newly-elected Governor, Franklin Roosevelt announces a proposed $100 million bond initiative to build a campus of state office buildings in downtown Albany. A tactic to sweeten the plan appears to be his inclusion of a $3,500,000 public amenity, a structure to house a public art museum, as part of the multi-block redevelopment. Then in what can only be described as very odd timing and synchronicity, four days later Roosevelt is again in the press depicted on the receiving end of a proffer of the prodigal artwork's return at the hands of a retired legislative reporter from another newspaper, the New York Evening World, who acts as both the agent of the object's return, and as an intermediary with a condition--that whoever had expropriated the bronze, their identity must remain a secret---from the press, public and law enforcement, in any event---even should this public-spirited volunteer face criminal sanction for his effort.

The man, Irwin Thomas, worked as a legislative reporter in the Capitol at the time of the fire 18 years earlier, where Roosevelt also was present as a newly elected 28-year-old State Senator leading an insurgent charge against the entrenched Tammany machine's choice of a hand-picked U.S. Senator. That implausible dynamic went on for over 70 days, and some observers speculated that on the morning of the fire a "boozy" Democratic caucus in the Assembly Chamber lasting well past midnight might have played an accidental role in starting the conflagration. The New York Times article covering that evening's caucus is datelined March 29, 1911, 1:30 A. M. and says the legislators "adjourned at 12:50 o'clock this morning until 10 o'clock to-day." The fire took lite about half an hour after the Times' correspondent had filed his story and presumably left home for bed.

The Binghamton Press has Roosevelt responding to the art work's return by saying, "'I shall place [the bust] in my office at the capitol until we get a state museum, where it will have a proper place. I was here during the capital fire and remember the loss of the bust. The state appreciates its return.' The Governor expressed his thanks and said he would have it placed in the Executive Chamber in the Capitol until a State Museum should be erected." The Times writing the following day, carried a verbatim message: "the Governor expressed his thanks and said he would have it placed in the Executive Chamber in the Capitol until a State Museum should be erected."

Roosevelt was ignoring the fact that there already was a publicly accessible State Museum occupying a full floor in the State Education Building next door to the Capitol. And both the Binghamton Press, which said the piece "had not been destroyed as supposed," and the Times' summation that the "general opinion leaned to the more charitable view that the valuable bust had been melted to a lump by the heat," ignore a crucial piece of evidence contained in a news photograph that the iconic bronze had indeed survived the fire unscathed. Although many news reports mention the extensive looting of valuables from the Capitol in the aftermath of the blaze, no paper mentioned a word in print about the disposition of this famous bust.

Perhaps that was because it had to have been an inside job---lifted by either a fireman, a National Guardsman, or a pertinent government employee, who were the only people having access to the scene of the actual destruction. Its representation in a news photograph in the first place seemed calculated to serve as a coded talismanic signal, and both that miscue, and the resulting silence, point to an enmeshment of the news media with the political establishment they cover. Not a single newspaper dared hint at what would appear to be obvious questions concerning a possible case of arson, which taken together adds up to a vast conspiracy to defraud the taxpayers of millions of dollars, but more importantly, a manipulation of the authentic historical record, and hence, the very nature of reality.

None of these players could fall into the category of a "useful idiot" where a dense denial might force an unwilled participation into the intricacies of a deceptive plot. But this exposure of one of the biggest names in our national history as being a prime player in a very crooked game leads directly to other examples of similar crimes, and inextricably to the unaddressed arsons that took place on September 11th, 2001. What comes next, pray tell? More Jewish or Dutch lightning?

February 4, 1929, Binghamton Press, State Regains Houdon Bust of Washington.
Famed Sculpture, Stolen at Capital Fire, Found Near Binghamton. HIDDEN ON A FARM
Irwin Thomas of Evening World Restores Rare Work to Gov. Roosevelt.
After being buried in a farmyard near Binghamton for a decade and a half, a valuable Houdon bust of George Washington, stolen during the state capitol fire, March 29, 1911, was brought to Govenor Roosevelt today by Irwin Thomas, Legislative correspondant of the New York Evening World.
Mr. Thomas learned three years ago that the bust, said to be worth more than $10,000 had not been destroyed as supposed but had been carried out of the blazing building during the excitement.
He questioned relatives of the supposed "collector" and learned the bronze had been given into the custody of a farmer about 18 miles from Binghamton. He went there and persuaded the custodian he should return the "white elephant" into the keeping of the state.

The name of the man who held the bust during all those years is kept secret by Mr. Thomas, who said to the Governor when he turned the art treasure over at the mansion today:

"If I am charged with receiving stolen property, I shall expect executive clemency."

The bust was identified today by Dwight Gooway, Legislative Librarian, [the Legislative reference section was headed by William E. Hannan during this period.] as the one which stood in the old library prior to the fire. He was greatly interested in this find, as was Governor Roosevelt.

"I am mighty happy to get this back," said the later, "I shall place it in my office at the capitol until we get we get a state museum, where it will have a proper place. I was here during the capital fire and remember the loss of the bust. The state appreciates its return."

A bust of Lafayette by Houdon was sold in New York City last week for more than $9,000. It is believed the Washington bust is worth more than $10,000 and that its desirability has been enhanced by its queer recent history.

Jean Antoine Houdon came to the United States with Benjamin Franklin in 1775, especially to make the Wahington bust. The one returned by Mr. Thomas is made from life and is one of a handful extant. t was made at Mount Vernon.

The man who took the bust from the capitol, it is understood, tried unsuccessfully to dispose of it with New York City art collectors, but they refused to take the stolen piece.

If you study these two images closely you'll see that when the firemen's faces are turned away from the camera so is the face of Washington. Likewise, when the firemen face the camera the bust has been turned to face as well, which indicates a self-conscious art direction not in keeping with spontaneous news photography at the epicenter of disaster.

And for the historical record--the Houdon bust of George Washington sat on top of the telephone booth near the main entrance to the Central Reading room. It looks as though it were brought down and set on the table in preparation for heisting it if nothing else.

Finally, Mercer and Weiss have been of some use to the truth. This development could easily have slipped down the memory hole, coming as it did in a coda eighteen years after the Fire That Dared Not Speak Its Name. Nobody could confuse such abject thievery with souvenir or relic hunting. That such a prominent and symbolic object went quietly missing is evidence that the state capitol was open to be stripped of anything of value in the aftermath of the higher-level arson with its painfully obvious agenda. No trespasser took a fall for this systematic looting of the treasures therein, but at least someone had to give something back nearly two decades later.

The yellowed images are from 'Sparks! From the New York State Capital Fire, a two-bit pack of misspelled "Sovenir Views" which came out shortly after the fire, and which, say Mercer and Weiss, with their high-level academic positions and utter lack of irony, "remains one of the chief sources for research on the fire." I might have preferred the official findings resulting from a promised full-scale investigation, which didn't happen.

Adding insult to injury, Mercer and Weiss report that "In 1941, [the bust] was returned to the state library, [where it] is now prominently displayed in the Manuscripts and Special Collections research room."

February 5, 1929, New York Times, ROOSEVELT ACCEPTS WASHINGTON BUST,
He Thanks Newspaper Man for Recovering Houdon Life Cast Stolen in 1911 Fire. IT WAS IN STATE LIBRARY. Statue, Traced to Binghamton Barn, Will Be Kept in Executive Chamber of the Capitol. RECEIVES LONG-LOST BUST.
ALBANY, Feb. 4.--Missing for eighteen years and long ago given up as destroyed in the Capitol fire of 1911, the famous life cast Houdon bust of George Washington was returned to the possession of the State today.

It was put into the hands of Governor Roosevelt at the Executive Mansion by Irwin Thomas, legislative correspondent for The New York Evening World at the time of the fire. He traced its possessor and compelled its return.

The bust formerly stood on a pedestal in the State Library, which was located on the third floor of the Capitol. One night in the Winter of 1911 fire broke out inthe library and many articles of value disappeared in the resulting confusion. Governor Roosevelt was a State Senator at that time.

General opinion leaned to the more charitable view that the valuable bust had been melted to a lump by the heat. Even those associated with activities at the Capitol had long since forgotten the incident, however, when Mr. Thomas three years ago was informed that a man had carried away the bust in his arms.

On one vacation the newspaper man retraced the thief's course. He learned that after the unlawful possessor had unsuccessfully sought to sell the bust, he had become afraid and had caused it to be hidden in a barn near Binghamton, N. Y.

Mr. Thomas forced the surrender of the bust to him in Albany last week. When he brought it to the Executive Mansion today and related the story of its recovery, the Governor expressed his thanks and said he would have it placed in the Executive Chamber in the Capitol until a State Museum should be erected.

The Washington bust is stamped with the words, "Houdon life cast." It is supposed to be an exact resemblance of the first President and noticeably differs from the more idealized portraits of him which are commonly seen.

The sculptor, Jean Antoine Houdon, came to the United States from France in 1788 and was the President's guest at Mount Vernon. A marble statue of Washington, which he also fashioned, is in the Virginia State Capitol at Richmond.
January 31, 1925, New York Times, $10,000,000 PLAN STATE OFFICES,
Commission Recommends to Governor Group of Buildings Crowning Capitol Hill. INCLUDE NEW MUSEUM. Five-Story Structure. Cost $6,500,000 Would Be Principal Unit. $100,000,000 IS INVOLVED. Program Calls for $10,000,000 Bond Issue Every Year for Ten Years If Voters Approve.
ALBANY, Jan. 30.—The expenditure by the State of $10,000,000 for a group of buildings on, which with the Capitol as their center, would dominate the city and crown Capitol Hill with a display worthy of the Empire State, in addition to furnishing needed office facilities for expanding activities and checking the encroachments of business, is recommended to Governor Smith in a report, made public today, by a special commission which has been considering such a project for a year.

A five-story office building of classical design to match the Educational Building and to cost, with land, $6,500,000, and a structure to house the State Museum, now located in the State Library section of the Department of Education Building, are included in the project which would involve the purchase by the State of an entire residential block to the south of the Capitol building and the better part of two blocks to the north and west. The proposed museum would cost, with the site included, $3,500,000, according to an estimate furnished by the commission.

$100,000,000 Bond Issue Involved.

Ability of the State to carry out this proposal without delay is contingent on the willingness of the present Republican Legislature to lend its approval to the $100,000,000 bond issue for permanent improvements which had been urgently recommended by Governor Smith. The Republican Assembly of last year fell in with the Governor.

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