Echoes of the American Revolution

Washington Memorial Arch at Valley Forge, one of the locations suggested for the headquarters of the United Nations in 1945.

Washington Memorial Arch at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, one of the locations suggested for the headquarters of the United Nations in 1945.

Americans in 1945 often turned to their role in the nation’s history to argue that their hometowns offered the best possible location for the Capital of the World. For this week of celebration of the Fourth of July, here are some of the world capital contenders that heralded their American Revolution heritage:

Boston, Massachusetts: Led by Governor Maurice Tobin, Boston initiated its campaign in July 1945, and carried its proposal directly to the UN in London. The efforts succeeded in attracting repeated visits to the Boston area by UN site inspection teams, but the diplomats opted instead for the suburbs of New York and ultimately New York City.

Concord and Lexington, Massachusetts: On November 9, 1945, Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers received this suggestion from a constituent and then forwarded it to Adlai Stevenson. Rogers cited the historic character of the towns, but the UN’s interest prompted resistance among residents who feared that the presence of the world organization would destroy that character. UN site inspectors visited in January 1946 but later opted for sites in the area of New York rather than Boston.

Morristown, New Jersey: Mayor Clyde Potts pursued the UN site selection group touring the New York City area in January 1946 but did not succeed in diverting attention from Princeton and Atlantic City. Potts promoted Morristown’s heritage as a headquarters site for George Washington during the American Revolution, and residents voted their support during a town meeting.

Saratoga Springs, New York: Starting with an invitation from the Saratoga Springs Chamber of Commerce in September 1945, efforts grew by November into a “Committee on Advocation of Saratoga Spring for the Permanent Headquarters of the United Nations Organization.” The Chamber of Commerce promoted Saratoga as the “Birthplace of Freedom” for its role in the American Revolution as well as “the world’s largest spa.” The booster committee, distancing itself from more aggressive competitors, pledged to provide the UN with the basic facts but “nothing in technicolor, no elaborate brochures, no fanfare of publicity.” Writing to the UN on November 8, 1945, they called attention to Saratoga’s transportation facilities, healthful climate, and the availability of federally-owned land.

Ticonderoga, New York: After reading news reports that the UN might desire a small town in upstate New York, State Assemblyman A. Judson Moorhouse wrote on December 29, 1945, to recommend the town’s Revolutionary-era significance. “Here, at Fort Ticonderoga, England, France, and the United States, three of the key powers and permanent members of the [UN] Security Council fought over the same territory,” he wrote, also noting the congenial climate and beauty of Lake George. “This region is, of course, as accessible as any place in the United States to Russia, England, France and Canada,” he concluded.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Among the earliest and most persistent campaigners for the UN’s attention, Philadelphia’s interest began with a newspaper editorial published in the Philadelphia Record on March 5, 1945. A coalition of boosters including the President of Temple University traveled to San Francisco and London to present their proposal to the UN. Although initially ruled out as being too close to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia nearly succeeded in its efforts in the fall of 1946, after a UN site inspection group visited the city’s proposed site in Fairmount Park. But John D. Rockefeller’s gift of $8.5 million for a Manhattan location ended Philadelphia’s chances.

Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: John Robbins Hart, rector of Washington Memorial Chapel and President of the Valley Forge Historical Society, wrote to boosters promoting Philadelphia on November 19, 1945, to suggest this historic site of the American Revolution. “Bostonians naturally prefer Boston, New Yorkers New York, etc., but all people have a special devotion to Valley Forge and would come to a harmonious agreement in its selection,” he argued. Failing to persuade the Philadelphians to change their focus on a site in the city, Hart sent the same letter directly to the UN on December 29. Another private citizen, James H. Johnston of Narberth, Pa., also submitted the suggestion of Valley Forge.


A Man, a Monument, and a Cause

Photographed June 10, 2013, Chicago.

George Washington flanked by Robert Morris (left) and Haym Salomon (right). Photographed June 10, 2013, Chicago.

The Great Triumvarite monument at Wabash Avenue and Wacker Drive in Chicago stands prominently in the landscape, but at the same time it fades from public attention. Traffic whizzes by on Wacker. Passersby today are drawn more toward the nearby memorial to veterans of the Vietnam War, and the life-size sculpture of three Revolutionary-era figures is a bit lost as it overlooks above the hubbub. Still, I sought it out during my recent visit to Chicago because this monument represents some of the key motivations behind American enthusiasm in the competition to become host city for the United Nations at the end of World War II. Continue reading


Northerly Island: Echoes of 1945

At times, in some places, lost histories echo in surprising ways. This has been on my mind this week in Chicago, where I had the opportunity to visit the location that the Windy City proposed as Capital of the World: Northerly Island.

From Northerly Island, the view of the Chicago skyline.

From Northerly Island, the view of the Chicago skyline.

As Chicagoans know, Northerly Island today is not an island at all, but a man-made peninsula that juts out into Lake Michigan near the Field Museum and then runs parallel to the shoreline. Created in the 1920s as part of Daniel Burnham’s vision for chain of lakefront islands, it connected to Chicago at first with a bridge and then with the causeway that remains. In 1933-34, Northerly Island was the site of the Century of Progress Exposition; beginning in the 1940s it served as an airport. Although managed by the Chicago Park District, a magazine writer noted in 1966, it “is not now and never has been beautiful.”

Largely deserted on the cool weekday of my walk, Northerly Island remains a work in progress, with a beach, a concert venue, a yacht club, and crews at work on the landscape. Among its great assets are the spectacular view of the skyline of the city, which seems a place apart despite being within walking distance. On the island, there is no explicit evidence of the world’s fair, and no sign that Chicago once offered Northerly Island to the United Nations as a site for its permanent headquarters.

The Meigs Field terminal building, now a visitor center. In the foreground, "Action is the Answer," by Carla Winterbottom.

The Meigs Field terminal building, now a visitor center. In the foreground, “Action is the Answer,” by Carla Winterbottom.

And yet …

At the farthest accessible point of my walk stands the 1961 terminal building for the former Meigs Field, reminding me of the visions for commercial aviation that helped Chicago and other world capital hopefuls argue that they could become the central gathering place for the world. More startling are the two artworks in front of the terminal building.  Recent installations, both are renditions of planet earth. One is a colorful display promoting environmental activism.  The other is a dark earth in chains, imploring the viewer to “unlock creative energy” to combat climate change.

In these ways, the global aspirations of Chicago in 1945-46 echo on Northerly Island still.


Comedy and Tragedy

Lobby of the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco (see Chapter 2 of Capital of the World)

Lobby of the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco (see Chapter 2 of Capital of the World)

In the theater of the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, where diplomats convened in April 1945 to draft a Charter for the United Nations, the masks of Comedy and Tragedy flank the stage. As I was reminded during a visit this week, the Opera House was a suitably impressive venue for the enormous and somber task of creating a new world organization to secure a peaceful future. But those masks also seem symbolic of the difficulties the UN encountered with such a mundane task as selecting a place for its permanent home. With the tragedy of war still unfolding in 1945, civic boosters from Philadelphia and the Black Hills of South Dakota showed up in San Francisco to push their interests in becoming the Capital of the World even before the United Nations officially existed. And San Francisco’s boosters aimed to show how suitable their city could be.

United Nations Plaza, San Francisco

United Nations Plaza, San Francisco

I thought of the masks of Comedy and Tragedy, too, as I walked through United Nations Plaza, the commemorative space near the San Francisco Public Library. The flag of the United Nations flag flies there, and pillars topped by symbolic globes bear the names of all of the member nations. Amid inscriptions of human rights and dignity, the plaza on this day was populated by apparently homeless people, bundled against the cold whipping wind, sleeping, and safeguarding shopping carts of belonging.  One had a boom box tuned to a radio station blaring a commercial for easy credit. At one end of the plaza, vendors offered a miscellany of goods for sale: sunglasses, jewelry, colorful scarves.  As offices began to empty in the late afternoon, commuters dashed through all of this for the Civic Center transit station and seemed unaware–or numbed–to it all. For those who notice, United Nations Plaza is far from the hopes and dreams of the boosters of 1945 who sought to make San Francisco the Capital of the World.