UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS — For the first time in 39 years, the long-dormant Hall of Fame for Great Americans could be electing new luminaries to grace its open-air sculpture garden in The Bronx.
The country's original Hall of Fame, located on the grounds of Bronx Community College, has not had an election for new "Great Americans" since 1976. But officials at the college are hoping to change that as part of a campaign to more aggressively promote the site that honors leaders like Thomas Edison, Abraham Lincoln and many others who helped shape American history.
"What we want to do is to go back to the beginning and really refocus the attention of our community to such a great thing we have in our community here," said Bronx Community College President Thomas Isekenegbe.
"I'm sure there are people that live in The Bronx that don't even know anything about it."
The Hall of Fame launched around the turn of the 20th century, when it was built as part of New York University's expansion into The Bronx, according to the book "The Bronx: The Ultimate Guide to New York City's Beautiful Borough."
NYU Chancellor Henry Mitchell MacCracken encouraged any American or American organization to nominate members for the Hall of Fame. For a time, elections were held every three years, according to the book. Each inductee was honored with a bronze portrait bust that was unveiled with great fanfare near where the person had worked or lived.
NYU was facing serious financial difficulties at the time and sold its Bronx campus to the State Dormitory Authority, which gave it to CUNY. The last induction to the Hall took place in 1976, after which a dispute between the two colleges prevented any further elections, Ultan said.
"When NYU gave up the campus, they wanted to take the busts in the Hall of Fame with them and display them Downtown," he said. "Everybody... who knew about this at the Bronx Community College was up in arms.
"NYU said, 'OK, the heck with the expense. We’re through,'" Ultan continued.
The Hall remains open to the public, and although BCC has continually used it for history and sociology classes, the school has started ramping up its efforts to highlight the Hall of Fame.
The first major event celebrating the Hall of Fame will take place when BCC participates in Open House New York Weekend, an Oct. 17-18 event that will include tours and talks at selected sites throughout the city.
The college will have a preservationist on hand that weekend to discuss the Hall of Fame, according to BCC Director of Campus Planning Robin Auchincloss.
BCC is also working on a $25-$50 million campaign to renovate Gould Memorial Library, which the neo-classical Hall of Fame colonnade surrounds. A portion of the money would go toward developing space in the library where new members to the Hall could be added.
The college would ideally start holding elections again in a few years, although officials acknowledged that restarting the balloting could be a delicate process and would involve discussions with NYU.
"We want to make sure that we don't step on any toes," said Karla Renee Williams, executive legal counsel for BCC. "Knowing that our campus has a history, their campus has a history, and we never want to be disrespectful of anyone's legacy."
NYU spokesman John Beckman said in an email that discussion of the Hall of Fame has not come up in years, and no one has talked to the school recently about new plans for it.
"But given NYU's historical connection to the Hall of Fame," he continued, "we'd certainly be open to hearing what our colleagues at BCC have to say."
Restarting elections could also bring some valuable diversity to the Hall, which is currently dominated by white males, according to Auchincloss.
"That's always an issue: Who does it represent?" she said. "And that would certainly be part of what Bronx Community College could bring to the Hall of Fame."
Isekenegbe said he believes it's the perfect time to restart elections and ramp up interest in the Hall of Fame, given ongoing renovations at the campus and the educational opportunities it would offer for the growing immigrant community in The Bronx.
"We’ve got to let them know why the country is what it is today," he said.