Thursday, February 14, 2013

"The Immigrants" -- Battery Park

The end of the Revolutionary War did not mean the end of tensions between Great Britain and the fledgling United States.   In 1806 the British blockaded New York Harbor and fired on American ships, killing a helmsman.  

Two years later construction began on the West Battery—a circular stone fort that would double the protection provided by Castle Williams on Governors Island, then known as the East Battery.  Designed by Jonathan Williams and John McComb Jr., the new battery would sit on a man-made island off the tip of Manhattan.  
Although the fort was completed in 1811, just in time for the outbreak of the War of 1812, it saw no military action.  A decade later the Army withdrew from the fort and it was leased to the city as a pleasure garden, “Castle Garden.”   A room was eventually added and the old, renovated fort saw headline making events like Jenny Lind’s first American concerts and, in 1851 Lola Montez performing her shocking tarantula dance.
The renovated fort became a refreshment and entertainment center -- NYPL Collection
By the middle of the century thousands of European immigrants were swarming into the harbor.  To establish an orderly, formalized means of processing them, the State used the building as the nation’s first immigrant reception facility, now called the Emigrant Landing Depot.  Opened on August 1, 1855, the former fort received between 8 and 12 million immigrants before Ellis Island took over the task in 1892.
The newcomers, mostly impoverished who spoke no or little English, arrived after weeks-long voyages in cramped, unsanitary conditions.  Dropped into a sometimes unfriendly city, with no job nor place to live, the immigrants were no doubt at once terrified and excited.   As they stepped onto foreign soil for the first time, they each shared one thing:  hope.
Immigrants disembark into a new land exhibiting a variety of emotions and costumes -- Gleason's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion 1851 (copyright expired)

Among those who arrived through the Emigrant Landing Depot in 1883 was a young Jewish couple who, like every other immigrant who arrived here, sought a better life.   In 1896 the Rudins had a son, Samuel, who would fulfill every dream his parents brought with them.

In the meantime, in 1892, the Emigrant Landing Depot was closed as the new Ellis Island complex opened to receive and process immigrants.  The old fort would be renamed Castle Clinton.
In 1902 Samuel purchased his first piece of Manhattan real estate.  In 1923 he married May Cohen, whose parents had also arrived through the former immigrant center.    Within the next few decades the Rudin Management firm owned dozens of skyscrapers valued in the millions of dollars.  But with success and fortune, the Rudins never forgot their humble roots at Castle Clinton.
In 1973 Rudin commissioned Spanish sculptor Louis Sanguino to create a statue to memorialize not only his parents, but the throngs of immigrants who arrived through Castle Clinton.  Rudin envisioned the memorial standing near the stone fort that where his parents had been processed nearly a century earlier.
Two years later Samuel Rudin died.   His will established the Samuel and May Rudin Foundation which would disburse millions of dollars in grants supporting education, hospitals and health organizations, social and religious welfare agencies, museums and performing arts.  The Rudins were the first corporate sponsors of the New York City Marathon.  Family members, including May, were determined that his vision of the immigrant memorial would be realized.
Sanguino’s sculpture took a decade to complete.    The powerful, heroic-sized group encapsulated the emotions of the wide variety of immigrants landing on New York’s shores.   Cast in the Modern Art Foundry, it was first dedicated on May 4, 1983.  Entitled “The Immigrants,” it depicts a spectrum of feelings—anxiety, relief, joy, and uncertainty.  Each figure is obviously unrelated to the others; yet they are all connected by the common experience of the tortuous voyage to a place of hope.
Sanguino included a freed African slave, an Eastern European Jew, a priest, a mother clutching her baby to her breast, and a common worker.   Etched onto the red granite base is “Dedicated to the people of all nations who entered America through Castle Garden.  In memory of Samuel Rudin 1896-1975 whose parents arrived in America in 1883.”
As Rudin intended, the commanding bronze sculpture sits near the entrance to Castle Clinton in Battery Park—a powerful reminder of the struggles and hardships of the millions of immigrants who entered New York’s harbor in the 19th century.

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