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Behind the Scenes At Federal Hall

October 18, 2019

It’s been almost a year since “Abraham Lincoln in New York”, the Rail Splitter’s bicentennial exhibit at Federal Hall in Manhattan closed. Besides a sense of RELIEF, there continues to be an ongoing sense of DISBELIEF. I still can’t believe we pulled it off. We should have known better. The obstacles were daunting. Yet, this was the bicentennial year, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to share our passion with the general public. So, contrary to common sense, we accepted the challenge. After a five-month run and approximately 150,000 visitors, we can look back with satisfaction on a job well done, evidenced by the glowing comments inscribed in our guest book.

Individual collectors sometimes display portions of their collections at local libraries or schools, typically during an election year. This usually involves “slapping together” a few frames of items with some caption cards. Collectors attending national hobby conventions may also participate in exhibits which tend to highlight their specialized fields of interest. Rarely are hobby organizations called upon to mount such displays. In our inaugural year of operation, 1995, The Rail Splitter did just that, in conjunction with “Lincoln in New York”. The scheduled events included a live auction, a guided tour of Lincoln-related sites in Manhattan, a roundtable discussion by noted scholars, and an exhibit of the entire Dr. John D. Lattimer Collection. The task entailed placement of objects in glass showcases (provided by the proprietors of the venue) and the mounting of a series of Lincoln canvases by a local artist. The amount of work involved was not overwhelming. Making sure that everything ran smoothly and on-time did prove both challenging and stressful. “Lincoln in New York” was a big success. Once completed, our satisfaction was fortified with the conviction that it was a “one shot deal” we had no plans to revisit.

Then, in 1997, we were contacted by Charles Markis of the National Park Service with a request. Grant’s Tomb at Riverside Drive was closed for a much-needed cleanup and restoration. With the repair work completed, the National Park Service planned a rededication ceremony and grand reopening to coincide with the Tomb’s centennial. They wanted us to produce an exhibit on U. S. Grant to be shown on opening day. The exhibit, modest as it was, was popular with the viewing public. Our days of staging exhibits had come to an end … or so we thought!

Ten years later, disappointed no plans to celebrate the Lincoln Bicentennial in New York City were scheduled, we decided once again to “throw our hats in the ring.” ([he only other event in New York wasn’t scheduled to open until October, eight months after Lincoln’s birthday! Something had to be done!) So, in 2008, we put out the call: let’s put on another show! And, once again, let’s call it “Lincoln in New York.” (Not to be catty … we were actually accused of “stealing” the title … the same one we used more than a decade earlier.)

This was no rinky-dink display involving a few showcases. Besides the logistics, there was the issue of financing. Exhibits of this scope and magnitude typically require a two-year lead-time to line up sponsors. Six months wasn’t going to cut it. Plus, as we pondered the proposal, the financial foundation was giving-way beneath our feet. The economic meltdown would rear its ugly head two months later, unbeknownst to us and the so-called experts. That would transform the task from “fugeddaboutit” to “no way!”

Undaunted, Jonathan Mann made an executive decision … the exhibit would proceed no matter what. Calling upon a network of colleagues that included dealers, collectors, computer geeks, general contractors and carpenters, “Abraham Lincoln in New York” got the green light and became priority number one. Everyone that could make a contribution was expected to do so, under the unrelenting purview of that hard taskmaster, the “Mann”. Charles Markis, who had installed decoration and lighting at a previous Theodore Roosevelt exhibit at Federal Hall, promised to reprise his role for the Lincoln show (great job, Chucky!)
Federal Hall is an imposing stone & marble structure located at 26 Wall Street (corner of Wall & Nassau), catty-corner from the New York Stock Exchange. Fraunces Tavern is a few blocks’ walk and Trinity Church (burial site of Alexander Hamilton and Captain James Lawrence) is one block away. The site was originally occupied by a two-story building where George Washington took the oath of office on April 30, 1789. That building burned down around 1812. The present edifice was built in 1841 and served as the New York Custom House and later a sub-treasury. A large bronze statue of George Washington by noted sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward, standing on the front steps, was dedicated in 1889, marking the centennial of Washington’s first inauguration. The first floor rotunda houses an exhibit on that historic event that includes the Bible used by Washington in taking the oath of office, and a large marble slab that he stood on during the swearing-in ceremony. The building has three main levels: a lower rotunda, the first floor rotunda, and a mezzanine level comprised of four rooms, connecting walkways, conference rooms and offices. There are additonal private offices on the fourth level, unaccessible to the public. The stairway leading up to the second floor, and the walkways, have the original decorative cast-iron railings with caryatids and eagles.

An initial step was “casing the joint” for possible exhibit space. We were offered and accepted the mezzanine area. The space was huge making the lighting problematic. Park Ranger Markis assured us that this issue would be resolved.

Since Federal Hall had no showcases, we thought we’d have to rent them, or, in the true “The Great Escape” tradition, “scrounge” some up. To gain exhibition inspiration, a group of us visited the Museum of the City of New York which was hosting an exhibit of presidential campaign items from the collection of the late Jordan Wright. The show, which cost $300,000 to stage, was slated to close shortly after Election Day 2008. One of our group, master home builder Jimmy Olinkiewicz, had the good sense to ask what they were planning to do with the showcases and standing display walls after the show. “We’ll be throwing those out.” “Don’t trouble yourself any. We’ll be glad to taken them off your hands,” Jimmy replied. A stroke of brilliance! We were also fortunate to be able to borrow a few additional showcases. Rail Splitter Wynn Kintz, a plastics manufacturer, donated some lucite showcase tops which he had trucked to the city. Prior to the installation, we secured the donation of 10,000 square feet of empty office space from G.S.A. to begin staging the exhibit. There, with an army of volunteer interns, kids from area high schools and universities, we painted the showcases, stapled dark blue velvet to the inner shelves, built platforms, and decided the placement both of items and showcases. The exhibit would take form in this area and see its first incarnation prior to the actual setup at Federal Hall.

All throughout the venue, we built entire walls to exhibit the material. Here I am (left) working with master carpenter Frank Curran to install a display on the role of the New York Press in the elections. With help from Charles Markis, we added spotlights (meeting with L.O.C. requirements to be under 15-candles in brightness) and bunting.
Attendees to the exhibit were also treated to speakers and presentations over the course of the show. These included: Dr. Ed Sullivan (above) discussing the full spectrum of Lincoln collectibles; James McPherson and Michael Burlingame summarizing and fielding questions on their latest books; and Dr. Blaine Houmes, a medical examiner who flew in from Iowa, enlightening the public with insight on medical aspects of Lincoln and the assassination.

All during this time, we were working intensively on numerous aspects of the project, juggling a “million” balls in the air. The most central of these was obtaining “loan” artifacts for the display. Contrary to many museum exhibits, we wanted original objects only. No facsimiles, if you please! Since the Rail Splitter is primarily an organization for collectors, we felt that the vast majority of items should come from that segment of our readership. In that respect, we succeeded admirably. Some collectors loaned a single, “key” item, others a handful, still others a hundred pieces or more. We were especially blessed in the offer from our dear friend, Dr. John Sellers at the Library of Congress, of access to items in their collection. Amazingly, we were able to obtain 30 priceless objects from L.O.C. for the display. These included a report and map signed by Lincoln and fellow surveyors assigned to survey a road in Sangamon County, the letter Lincoln wrote to his “second”, Dr. Merryman, in the James Shield’s “Rebecca Letters” duel affair the letter Lincoln wrote to Mary Speed in 1841 describing his trip down the Mississippi seeing a group of Negro slaves strung together “like so many trout upon a line”, the invitation Lincoln received to speak for the Young Men’s Republican Union in February 1860, the letter transmitting his $200 fee for the Cooper Union speech, a letter (with tousled hair photo attached) commenting on campaign photographs and the Leonard Yolk bust (Lincoln claiming that his opinion on the photograph meant nothing since his wife didn’t like it), Greeley’s letter to Lincoln commenting that he should let the Southern states secede even though secession was like a “stave seceding from a barrel”, a letter from Jefferson Davis to Lincoln on the trial of Southern privateers charged as pirates in New York City (the only letter known between the two rival presidents), a letter transmitting the original copy of the Emancipation Proclamation showing it to the ladies of the Northwestern Sanitary Fair to be auctioned off, and a letter to the Governor of reconstructed Louisiana commenting on the proposed state constitution and advising that black soldiers and “educated” Negroes be allowed to vote … just to name a few!!

In the run-up to the show, we had to decide on themes, storylines, etc. Being staged in New York, we wanted to highlight Lincoln’s interaction in that city (the Cooper Union Address, the pre-inaugural tour, the Draft Riots of 1863 and the funeral obsequies). As New York was the publishing and financial center of the country, we thought it appropriate to cover the newspapers, editors and financiers that influenced events. The development of Lincoln’s image through photography (Mathew Brady’s gallery at Broadway & Bleeker) and his marketing as a presidential candidate through books, Currier & Ives cartoons, pamphlets and periodicals, was also covered. Interspersed throughout the exhibit were prime examples of Lincoln’s enduring words. Hopefully, visitors came to realize the profound effect that Lincoln, as well as other notable contemporaries, had on American history. While Lincoln was the central focus of the exhibit, as befits a bicentennial presentation, other key players were featured. These people, who did much to bring about the Civil War, included Harriet Beecher Stowe, Roger Taney, Dred Scott, Stephen Douglas, and John Brown. Once the general outline of the show was conceived, text had to be written for the story boards and captions. In all, seventy pages were written … later edited down to a more concise forty.

Editor Martin Carlino (a.k.a. “the Sauceman”) and Martin, Jr. loved the colorful jugate broadside that greeted visitors to the upper gallery. It is the only three-sheet known listing coat-tail candidates for New York State. What makes the poster really special is the provenance: it adorned NYC’s Republican headquarters in 1864! Frank Curran custom-built the ten-foot frame that houses the piece just for the exhibit.

The team effort involved in this undertaking cannot be stressed enough. A large group of volunteers were recruited from local schools. They helped with writing and printing captions, painting, errands, and miscellaneous tasks during the installation. Peter Klarnet was our resident computer, internet, editing, design, etc. expert, doing a myriad of tasks, including designing banners, story boards and other promotional material. Jimmy Olinkiewicz was our general contractor who made numerous trips from the far end of Long Island, supervising all aspects of the display elements, hanging story boards, securing backboards and plexiglas. Our good friend Frank Curran – a master woodworker, carpenter, and artist – likewise effected numerous trips from the Albany area, making a crucial contribution. Jonathan’s friends Patty Rout and Eleanor Flach were “roped” into giving up many weekends to sand and paint display cases. Shortly before opening day, three 3D-foot trucks were rented to transport the showcases to Federal Hall. As luck would have it, it was the coldest day of the year … 6 degrees! (Yes, it turns out plexi will shatter when it gets that cold!) Curtis Lindner volunteered to act as one of the drivers, but he hadn’t driven a truck since college, and you can probably guess the outcome. In trying to negotiate a sharp turn in the narrow streets of lower Manhattan, with an unsecured heavy showcase shifting around in the back of the truck, he cut it tight and wound up on top of a little, parked sports car. No contact was made, but he was unable to extricate himself. The car following him was occupied by two undercover policemen, who got out and stopped traffic. Fortunately, Jimmy Olinkiewicz came along and took control of the wheel, easily completing the turn and proceeding on. Hey, you get what you pay for! During the installation, all hands were on deck … it was organized chaos for five days. People did whatever was necessary: sweeping, cleaning plexiglas covers, removing lint from the velvet, vacuuming, caption placement, some last minute proofreading (one story board had to be hastily redone when a major mistake was spotted), etc. Autograph dealer Seth Kaller sent two of his employees, Will Steere and Rob Dorfman, to help – both proved invaluable demonstrating a talent for displaying artifacts in a creative and easy-to-view manner.

We borrowed material from eighty (80!) collections around the country for this once-in-a-lifetime display. Rail Splitter Bob Melton loaned us a treasure: the program for the dedication of the Gettysburg Cemetery where Lincoln delivered his famous oration. It was fun showing it to groups of school children who then proudly recited the Address they had memorized.

For those unable to view the exhibit in person, a brief outline is in order. The first floor rotunda housed a large, plate glass showcase that had Civil War artifacts, a photo of Lincoln with McClellan at Antietam, and the Fort Pillow Massacre letter that Lincoln wrote, but never sent to Secretary of War Stanton (one Southern visitor to the show commented that the events at Fort Pillow did not constitute a massacre). Since the Civil War has been documented at great depth and was not the central theme of the exhibit, we covered it in this manner. Proceeding to the mezzanine level, visitors were greeted (or, shall I say, overwhelmed) by a seven-foot tall Lincoln and Johnson poster printed at a shop on William Street in Manhattan (one block from Federal Hall) and a copy of the official program for the consecration ceremonies at the National Cemetery at Gettysburg. As visitors proceeded around the walkways and exhibit rooms, they could view the panorama of Lincoln’s life chronologically in close to fifty showcases. These included: objects related to Lincoln’s pre-presidential careers as surveyor and lawyer, Lincoln’s early attempts to win political office, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the trip to New York to speak at the Cooper Institute, the role of photography in marketing Lincoln, the election of 1860, the pre-inaugural tour, the Secession Crisis, the formation of the Confederate States of America and Jefferson Davis, the Lincoln family homes in Springfield and Washington, Lincoln family members, Cabinet members (the so-called “Team of Rivals”) and personal secretaries, Lincoln as shown in decorative objects and works of art, the Draft Riots of 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation and the call for black soldiers to be used in the war effort, the election of 1864, the soldiers’ vote in 1864, Lincoln’s love of the theater, the Booth Family, the assassination, the pursuit of the conspirators, and funeral observances. After viewing a magnificent Leland-Boker signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, visitors passed by the show’s “coda”, an exhibit showing how Lincoln and Washington were canonized after the assassination as the Savior and Father of the Country. Included were two significant, period objects related to Washington’s swearing-in at Federal Hall, appropriate of the venue, bringing things full circle. As can be expected, the show contained a high concentration of political memorabilia, including the finest and most extensive collection of·campaign ribbons, torches and lanterns ever seen in one place.

To celebrate the exhibit, we were invited to have Mr. Lincoln ring the closing bell at the NY Stock Exchange. (The market closed up that day!)
A VERY special guest at the exhibit was Abraham Lincoln himself, in the form of Lincoln impersonator Robert Costello of New Jersey. The soft-spoken Costello was the “splitting” image of Honest Abe, of the correct height (“legs long enough to reach the ground,” as Old Abe once quipped), and dressed for the part. He graciously made time from his work schedule to travel frequently to Wall Street attending our special events, appearing in and lending voice-over narration to our documentary, and, most important, accompanying groups of school children on tours. He certainly made a lasting “impression” on all who met him – including the adorable children of exhibit co-host Seth Kaller.

Prior to the show’s opening, The Rail Splitter hosted a view party for workers and for collectors who loaned items. Bill Panagopolous of Alexander Autographs was most generous in sponsoring this event which included an abundance of champagne. New York “co-op sales specialist” Catherine (a.k.a. Bunny) Harding picked up the edibles and arranged them with great flair.

During the course of the show, both myself and Jonathan conducted private tours for various groups, including school children and seniors. Several college interns volunteered as docents all through the run. As a matter of fact, the show was extended to the end of June to accommodate more area visitors. We also had several presentations. Dr. Blaine Houmes came from Iowa to discuss medical aspects of the Lincoln assassination. Dr. Edmund Sullivan, noted author and museum curator, gave a slide show on Lincoln collectibles. Finally, authors James McPherson and Michael Burlingame gave talks and did book signings. Near the show’s end, collector and real estate investor Robert Benenson hosted a private cocktail party for show participants and guests.

The show was advertised in the “Museum Exhibition” section of the Sunday New York Times. It also made the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric. Jonathan Mann appeared as a guest in a show-and-tell segment of the Martha Stewart Show. (Unlike every member of the audience that day, Jonathan was unable to obtain a food processor. He will have to recuse himself from the jury pool the next time Martha is on trial!)

It took two full days to dismantle the exhibit, clean up and truck everything away. A special courier from the L.O.c. came up from D.C., verified that all items were present and accounted for, none the worse for wear, and took them back to Washington for safe keeping. All other loaned items were returned to their owners. Nothing was damaged or “went missing” (fortunately, a baseless concern!) “Abraham Lincoln in New York” is a fond memory. To “memorialize” the event, I assembled a photo album of 125 images (yes, an old-fashioned album, not viewable, at the present, on a laptop). We also commissioned a video documentary to memorialize the show, made by friends at BBQ Productions. (DVD copies remain available through The Rail Splitter for $24.95.)

Abraham Lincoln In New York: A Rail Splitter Bicentennial Celebration could never have taken place without help from so many – including Patty Rout and Dr. Dean Rudoy. When our funding was withdrawn with the demise of our only corporate sponsor (a certain Wall Street bank that failed… leaving us hanging in the wind!), these two championed the cause and donated their time, labor, council, resources, and support. Commitment to non-profit efforts is far from new for them; here they are pictured at the White House celebrating the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.

We were able to mount the largest exhibition of Lincoln memorabilia in the nation’s history through the combined efforts of the collecting community, idealistic students, friends who “humor” our eccentric behavior, Dr. John Sellers and the L.O.C., and fellow Lincoln buffs who did all within their means to make this dream happen. We couldn’t have realized this ambition if it weren’t for these individual contributions, each a critical component. Taken as a whole, with each link in the chain holding firm, success was assured. Still, to my dying day, I will marvel that we were able to pull it off. And, if the National Park Service calls, tell them I’m out and take their number!!