“Gentlemen- can I see some ID please?” That moment, at Bronx Community College, I knew we would not be able to see the inside of this week’s destination. As it turns out, a Fordham ID does not hold much clout outside of our own gates. It is hard to blame Bronx Community College for having high security around its beloved Gould Memorial Library given the 1969 arson attempt and general fragility.
Named for Helen Miller Gould, a graduate of NYU Law School in 1895, architect Stanford White designed the library years before his murder. The library is only one small piece of a much bigger puzzle. The story of Gould Memorial Library begins at the outset of the 20th century and with a murder case that rocked the city of New York to its core.
In 1906, Stanford White was a well-respected architect, socialite and womanizer, renowned for his work on such marvels as the original Madison Square Garden, the Washington Square Arch and Tiffany’s. His social life was as varied and extravagant as his professional work, as he was well-known among the bohemian artists of Lower Manhattan and many high-profile Broadway stars. During one of his many trips to the theater, White caught the eye of one Evelyn Nesbit while she was performing in the musical “Florodora.” White became Nesbit’s benefactor, showering her with exorbitant gifts and a healthy allowance. One night, after convincing Nesbit’s mother to take a trip to her hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to catch up with some relatives, White assaulted Nesbit. Accounts differ as to what specific substances were used, but experts agree that White raped Nesbit that night, after which the two began a one-year relationship that ended when Nesbit was sent to an all-girls boarding school in New Jersey. She was 17 years old at the time.
While Nesbit was at school and away from White, another man, Harry Thaw, saw his chance to win her attention. Harry was the son of William Thaw, a self-made Pittsburgh millionaire who used his money and influence to allow his son to enroll in the University of Pittsburgh and later, Harvard Law School. Harry was not at all thankful for his father’s generosity, however, as he largely spent his college years binge drinking, attending cockfights and developing an addiction to cocaine. He was expelled from Harvard after being arrested for chasing a taxi through the streets of Boston, brandishing a loaded firearm. The time after his arrest was spent bouncing between Pennsylvania and New York City, where he was first introduced to Nesbit.
His advances started out innocently (though ineffectively), with gifts of flowers or stockings. At one point, he sent her a brand new piano. Thaw’s real opportunity came, however, when he sent a doctor to Nesbit’s school in New Jersey to perform an emergency appendectomy on the girl. This endeared the Nesbit family to Thaw, who soon after took them on a sprawling tour of Europe. Nesbit ended up marrying Harry Thaw in April of 1905.
After returning from Europe, Nesbit began spending more time with White, who warned her of Thaw’s drug addiction and violent tendencies. Harry Thaw began to suspect that the two were conducting an affair and, after failing to uncover an explanation from Evelyn, whom he beat with a dog whip, he turned his attention to White himself. On June 25, 1906, Harry and Evelyn attended the same performance of Mamzelle Champagne at Madison Square Garden’s Rooftop Garden restaurant and theater (itself a creation of White’s). As the show reached its climax, Thaw rose from his seat and shot White three times in the head, killing the architect instantly. The rest of the audience, meanwhile, continued watching the performance onstage, thinking that the real-life drama they had just witnessed was another staged scene, popular in theater at the time.
The ensuing trial was just as bizarre as the rest of the story, with the American media and public jumping to defend the actions of Thaw, who was seen as a romantic defendant of his wife’s honor. Helping Thaw’s case was a film, paid for by the Thaw family, which depicted Harry as a hero, triumphantly defending American womanhood. In the end, Harry Thaw was found not guilty of the murder of Stanford White by reason of insanity. He spent the majority of his remaining years in insane asylums in both New York and Pennsylvania.
Though that may seem like as good a place as any to end this tragic story, as is the case with many artists, Stanford White lived on in his work, which is where the Bronx’s very own Gould Memorial Library comes into play. Years before his murder, White was put in charge of a very special project by Henry MacCracken, the chancellor of New York University in 1891. MacCracken had a vision of an NYU campus in New York City’s burgeoning and grandiose new borough: the Bronx. The campus would have sweeping views of the Harlem River, the Palisades and, of course, breathtaking architecture. White’s main piece was to be the library, named for Helen Miller Gould. The Gould Memorial Library is based primarily on the Parthenon in Rome, and much is shared with Columbia University’s Low Library. White made use of mosaics, Irish marble and Tiffany glass on the inside of the library, though what can be seen today lies in stark contrast to White’s original design.
In 1969, a Molotov cocktail thrown by an unknown assailant caused extensive damage to the interior of the library, and less than four years later a cash-strapped NYU abandoned the Bronx altogether. In 1973, the campus was purchased for $62 million by the City University of New York. Today it is run by the Bronx Community College, which uses the building’s auditorium. The college’s North Hall now serves as the student’s primary library. Other parts of Gould Memorial Library are off limits due to the building’s continued degradation. There is hope for this storied piece of New York history, however. Under the leadership of Michael Parley and Samuel G. White (Stanford’s great-grandson), Save Gould Memorial Library has emerged. It estimates that a restoration would cost in excess of $50 million which is far from insignificant. That is not to say that the library is beyond saving, though. The city and state have already expressed interest in helping (to the tune of $4 million). Nor is it to say that the library is not worth saving, as the interior dome is inscribed (or so I’m told, because the security guard was unyielding), with an excerpt from the book of Job: “Where shall wisdom be found? Where is the place of understanding?”