ETCHINGS OF BETHESDA Scratchiti from long ago at a Central park icon.

photo: Rachelle Bowden

The Bethesda Fountain and Terrace, at the north end of Central Park’s Mall at about 72nd Street, has long been a focal point and a favorite meeting place in the park. Emma Stebbins’ statue, Angel of the Waters, is named for an angel in the Gospel of John who touched the waters at Bethesda in the Holy Land, giving it recuperative powers.

Central Park’s creators, Frederick Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, with the assistance of sculptor and architect Jacob Wrey Mould, made the Terrace a spectacular complement and perfect prospect for the fountain and lake behind it.

Bethesda Fountain and Terrace are hardly “Forgotten.” A close look at the Terrace balustrades, however, will reveal something quite Forgotten indeed.

The railings are exactly the same as they were when built around 1864. But by the 1970s the Terrace and Fountain were greatly damaged by general neglect, and were scarred with graffiti; the fountain was turned off and filled with beer cans, hot dog wrappers, prophylactics and whatever else didn’t get cleaned up. Between 1983 and 1987 much of the Terrace was closed, with the balustrades and railings shipped off for restoration work. Fully 8 million dollars was spent restoring the Terrace and Fountain to what they looked like when originally designed.

But there are some things they missed in the renovation.

Grafffiti and scratchiti, for better or worse, mostly worse, are a part of daily existence in NYC and around the world, because people will always have a need to make their mark in the world, so to speak, a way, perhaps, to prove they were alive.

A close look at the Terrace balustrade will reveal some interesting things.

Graffiti and scratchiti,however, do very poorly as permanent markers. Subway cars are painted over or discarded after awhile; walls are knocked down; sidewalks are repaved eventually.

But at Bethesda, the scratchitists have enjoyed an unusual, and rare, victory…as we’ll show on this page. You’ll see the work of people who, most likely on a whim, decided to make a mark on their surroundings, and though most of them have most assuredly disappeared from the world, their work is still here, at Bethesda Terrace, and just might be here for the next few hundreds of years, if Central Park, and NYC, are lucky enough.

A person whose name appears to be Hilyaw, from Chillicothe, Illinois, made his mark here in March 1944.

In 1944 World War II was still raging, as Britain bombed Berlin, the Allies began an assault at Anzio, Italy, the siege of Leningrad ended, Rome fell to the Allies, the invasion of Normandy on D-Day began and later, the Battle of the Bulge, and Field Commander Rommel killed himself. The gas chambers at Auschwitz were destroyed. Bing starred in Going My Way and Diana Ross, Roger Daltrey and Rudy Giuliani were born.

Al & Marty checked in at the Terrace on June 1, 1945, the same year Walt “Clyde” Frazier, Steve Martin and Neil Young would check in. The Cubs appeared in their last World Series to date.1945 is the year Germany and Japan surrenedered to the Allies, but not before upwards of 100,000 were killed by atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Al was here in 1929, the year of one of the New York Stock Exchange’s worst crashes, of course, but also the year that “seeing-eye” dogs started helping the blind, Al Capone wiped out his rivals in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the first Academy Award for Best Picturewas awarded (to “The Broadway Melody”). Yasser Arafat and Audrey Hepburn showed up and Wyatt Earp shipped out.

Bob Stevens was at Bethesda, but preferred to keep the date to himself.

On July 15, 1932 E.A. Jr. was putting the finishing touches on his masterpiece, a few weeks after Charles Lindbergh’s son was found dead; in 1932, Amelia Earhart flew to Ireland, Mahatma Gandhi began a hunger strike in prison, Dabney Coleman, Teddy Kennedy and Johnny Cash were born and the immortal Babe Ruth “called his shot” at Wrigley Field as the Yanks won yet another World Series, this time against the Cubs.

March 27, 1937…the year Howard Hughes flew from LA to NYC in 7 hours, 28 minutes…the Spanish Civil War raged…the Golden Gate Bridge opened…the Japanese committed the “rape of Nanking” and invaded Manchuria…Disney’s Snow White hits theatres…Dyan Cannon, George Carlin, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford check in and H.P. Lovecraft, Bessie Smith and Guglielmo Marconi check out, and George Kable makes his mark at Bethesda.

The look of love. Actually you see this kind of thing all over town, but you have to be ‘crazy in love’ to profess it with a dagger like this. Kind of like Angelina carrying a vial of Billy Bob‘s blood around, until, of course, the inevitable parting.

Guys went around calling themselves Skippy in decades past. And in 1931, the year The Star-Spangled Banner was adopted as the national anthem of the United States (and may it forever remain thus, despite what the musicologists say), the Empire State Building was finished, Karloff shambled onscreen as Frankenstein’s monster, the first television wedding took place, James Dean, Mikhail Gorbachev and Leonard Nimoy lit their lamps and Thomas Edison’s lightbulb was turned off, an unknown suitor professed undying devotion to Val IVth. Val the IVth?

1941…the Axis continued its war in Europe as Germany invaded Greece and Yugoslavia, the Luftwaffe continued its bombing campaign in Britain, the Siege of Leningrad begins, the Germans attacked Moscow, the Japanese attacked the U.S. Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, destroying the battleship USS Arizona and 1100 of her crew; Japan inflicted severe damage on nineteen other ships, sinking or damaging them… however, since Japan sunk no aircraft carriers, it proved a strategic blunder as America’s carriers and submarines ultimately halted Japan’s advances in the Pacific and Asia, with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki adminstering the coup de grace.

Would either R.G or T.M. go to war in Europe or the Pacific? Did they come back?

The etchings of Bethesda are insignificant in the long term, perhaps, but to the people involved, they meant a great deal.

1934…Bonnie & Clyde, later to be eulogized by Georgie Fame, died in a hail of Texas Rangers’ bullets, Harlem’s Apollo Theater opened for business, the FBI killed John Dillinger, Hitler becomes Führer, Clark takes off his shirt and Claudette stops traffic with her leg in It Happened One Night, the Gas House Gang Cards defeat the Tigers in the World Series; Harlan Ellison, Sophia Loren, and Hammerin’ Hank Aaron are on their way in, while G. Lawless, heedless of these world events and the law, takes a knife to the Bethesda Terrace railing.

T.S.E had a big year in 1919, at least, we hope he or she did. It wasn’t a great year in Boston, though, when an explosion flooded the North End with over 2 million gallons of molasses, killing 21 people, many from asphyxiation. It wasn’t that great for the Cincinnati Reds: they won the World Series because the Chicago White Sox let them. The first Miss America was crowned, leading to glory for Bess Myerson and temporary infamy for Vanessa Williams. Albert Einstein had a great year as his Theory of Relativity was confirmed. Drinkers everywhere had a very bad year as the Volstead Act was passed by Congress, banning liquor. Liberace swished in and L. Frank Baum followed the yellow brick road to a better place.

photo: Rachelle Bowden

A Bethesda mystery. The date 1887, with a Maltese cross (more specifically, a variant known as the Croix Pattée) appears in two places on the Bethesda railing. A swastika was carved above one of them, though I won’t show that here. The cross is a symbol of the Masonic Knights Templar. I’d have to believe that these carvings do not date to 1887, but a Mason may have carved them, with 1887, perhaps, being a key date in Masonry or a year the carver may hold dear for some reason. I say that because the second oldest carving I can clearly recognize is from 1919; apparently, carvings older than that have eroded over time and have been smoothed over. Any “carvicologists” out there who can help me with this one?

May 2005: Forgotten Fan Karren Johnson reports: “I wanted to let you know that the Maltese cross found on the Bethesda section of Forgotten NY is also the symbol of the Sigma Chi fraternity. Sigma Chi was founded in 1855.”

1959 was the year the no-hit-good-pitch Chicago White Sox made the World Series for the last time to date [they returned in 2005]; Fidel Castro took over in Cuba; China invaded Tibet; Alaska and Hawaii became the 49th and 50th States; Your Webmaster turned two; Frank Lloyd Wright‘s only prominent NYC building, the Guggenheim Museum, opened on 5th Avenue and 89th Street; Lloyd Price took a 40-year-old tragedic folksong, Stagger Lee, to Number One; Linda Blair, Morrissey and John McEnroe were coming in while Billie Holiday, Lou Costello and Cecil B. DeMille left the building; Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Richie Valens were killed in a plane crash on The Day The Music Died. Waylon Jennings missed the flight.

J.P made his markthe same year as George Kable (see above)

It goes without saying that Forgotten NY doesn’t recommend, encourage or participate, for that matter, in any scratching, defacing, or marking of NYC’s great monuments, buildings, subway cars, or anything else. With that said, we can take note of some of what went on decades ago, because it lasted so long. There are other ways to do it better, though, and we should all remember that.

Thanks to Rachelle Bowden for some of the photos on this page.

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