Hall of Records: Where Brilliancy Is Necessary

Decorative ceiling mosaic, vestibule, 31 Chambers Street. Photo: Matthew Minor.

IT'S A FAIRLY REGULAR OCCURRENCE for me to walk out of our Municipal Archives offices on the first floor and see a group of people standing in the vestibule of the building, craning their necks as they point to the ceiling, mouths agape.  I’m not surprised when this happens; after over five years of working at 31 Chambers Street, I still find myself doing exactly the same thing.  These visitors are entranced by the largest—and perhaps most impressive—of the artworks in our building: the mosaic ceiling.  The Hall of Records (also known as the Surrogate’s Court) features many pieces of art.  The exterior is covered with sculptures, the courtrooms feature rich wood carvings.  However, the mosaic ceiling in the vestibule truly stands out.

Mosaic vestibule. Photo: Matthew Minor.

The artist behind the work was William de Leftwich Dodge (1867-1935).  Dodge was an American who studied art in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Colarossi, and later in Germany.  Returning to New York, he taught classes at the Art Students League and Cooper Union, keeping a studio at 61 West 10th St.  During this time Dodge was becoming increasingly known for his public art, his expertise being in mosaics and murals.  As an American-born, Paris-educated artist, Dodge was the perfect choice to create a large public artwork at a time when New York City was struggling to establish itself as a major cultural center on par with Paris and other European cities.

Fury. Photo: Matthew Minor.

However, the Hall of Records was a particular challenge for artists.  The building had been controversial from the moment construction began in 1899.  Mayor Anderson Van Wyck, a Tammany Hall insider, was particularly opposed to the project from the outset, often citing the considerable expense as the primary reason for scaling it back or scrapping it altogether.  Architects Arthur Horgan and Vincent Slattery, however, had different plans.  The mayor appointed Horgan and Slattery to the project after the death of the original architect, John Rochester Thomas, in 1901.  Van Wyck chose them because he believed the pair would make drastic cuts to Thomas’s grand design.  Instead, Horgan and Slattery not only embraced the design, but decided to make it even more richly decorated.  They began hiring notable artists and submitting proposals.  In an effort to curtail this, Mayor Van Wyck used the newly formed Art Commission (now the Public Design Commission) to ensure that nearly every artwork and decorative proposal was rejected.  Most proposed artworks for the building were rejected multiple times before approval.

Dodge’s work, however, was a different case.  While other artists submitted sketch after sketch, model after model, Dodge submitted only one set of sketches.  His simple application form, submitted in 1906, describes the work as a “marble mosaic with the introduction of a small portion of glass mosaic, where brilliancy is necessary.”  The proposal was approved on its first submission.

Sagittarius. Photo: Matthew Minor.

The mosaic Dodge produced is truly impressive.  Around twenty feet above the floor, the mosaic covers the entire vaulted ceiling of the vestibule (over 2,200 square feet).  It is composed of millions of colored marble and glass tiles.  The style of the work is a mixture of Greek and Egyptian motifs.  This was probably meant as a reference to the library of Alexander the Great—supposedly the largest repository of knowledge in the ancient world.  The mosaic shows the signs of the zodiac interspersed with what appear to be Egyptian ushabti figures.  At the corners are four primordial Greek gods: Erinye (Fury), Themis (Justice), Ponos (Toil), and Penthos (Lamentation).  Filling out the composition are small sphinxes, sea horses, and even turtles, along with garlands of fruits and vegetables.  When the afternoon sun streams into the vestibule, the brilliant color and luster of the mosaic is striking.

Yet several things about the work are strange.  First of all, a few of the names are misspelled.  Most obvious of these is Virgo—the Greek name should be Parthenos, but the mosaic renders it Paroenos.  Second, only eight of the signs of the zodiac are shown.  Cancer, Libra, Scorpio, and Pisces are missing.  Finally, Fury, Justice, Toil, and Lamentation are strangely dark choices for such a bright, exuberant mosaic.  I was intrigued by this and spent quite a while puzzling over the choices Dodge made.  Then it occurred to me to check birth dates.  There were five major artists hired to create works for the building.  In addition to Dodge (Aquarius) there were Albert Weinert (Gemini), Philip Martiny (Taurus), Henry Kirke Bush-Brown (Taurus), and Bruno Louis Zimm (Capricorn).  John Rochester Thomas, the original architect, was a Gemini.  Perhaps Dodge meant to commemorate these artists and the fury, toil, and lamentation they went through before finding justice in the acceptance of their work.  Ushabti figures—which were buried with the dead in ancient Egypt—may here represent John R. Thomas, the architect who did not live to see his building completed.

Virgo, ushabti, Capricorn. Photo: Matthew Minor.

Whether or not this is true we may never know.  While some of the other artists explained their work in detail (Albert Weinert, for example, wrote thorough descriptions of his work in letters to the Art Commission), Dodge did not.  The whereabouts of his sketches are unknown.  Perhaps further research will cast more light on this important work of art.