Scholars on the symbolic brickwork

The following are excerpted comments by scholars on the brickwork symbol at 211 Pearl Street. They represent the response of scholars from a range of academic disciplines, and are hopefully useful to those arriving at their own assessment of the brickwork. They are in no particular order of chronology or relevance. If any of the scholars included below would like to have their comments removed or revised, please contact me at eastfour@earthlink.net. Once again, thank you for providing these responses, which collectively may bring us closer to the truth of this historical document.

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Paul E. Johnson                                                                                                            

University of South Carolina                                                                                                 

As author of three books (and one on the way) on New York City in the early nineteenth century and as a consultant to the World Port New York Project at South Street Seaport (I am writing the essay on Pearl Street for their permanent exhibit catalogue), I have been running into the importance of Pearl Street wholesale houses for many years. The building at 211 Pearl Street is important for its association with the Colgate family and as one of the few standing examples of the "New Counting House" architectural style, but I will leave others to make those points. I urge you to recognize 211 Pearl Street as a rare surviving relic of the process that made New York into America's great city.

Establishments like that at 211 Pearl Street conducted the trade that linked the commerce of the seaport with the commerce of the American interior. New York didn't just move goods on the ocean. The city sold a very large portion of what commercializing Americans bought. The combination of overseas commerce and burgeoning domestic trade established New York as the commercial capitol (not just the biggest seaport) of the United States after 1815, and Pearl Street was the center of that trade. The building at 211 Pearl Street is about all that remains of that crucial period of New York and American business history. The notion that it should be demolished to make room for a driveway is silly. New York City has more respect for itself than that.

Alfred Willis

Hamilton University

I am an architectural historian, and have consulted with Mr. Solomon on this brickwork.   My own research over the past twenty years has looked into the influence of western esotericism on architectural theory and design of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.   I can say with confidence that the symbolic brickwork at 211 Pearl Street is connected with the western esoteric tradition, and provides concrete evidence of the involvement of at least one prominent nineteenth-century New York architect in building in accordance with its principles.   I know of no other such evidence to be found in any New York City (or, for that matter, American) building.   Its destruction would therefore amount to an irretrievable loss of primary material for the study of architecture in New York City, New York State, the entire country, and indeed the world.

Marty Bax

Art Historian

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

The building is of site-specific value for the history of New York as a whole. It is one of the few remaining buildings representative of the economic boom during the 1830's in New York, in the area that since then has been the centre of economic activity, with Wall Street and the former World Trade Centre virtually around the corner.

The building itself is of national importance, namely to the building history of the United States. Its owner and commissioner was William Colgate, whose products are still in all of our bathrooms today. He cherished this particular building so much that he bequeathed them to his children with the explicit wish that they should not be sold in the next 15 years after his death. The building is of international importance because of the interior symbol. This symbol was the subject of the speech Mr. Solomon has held for the international conference 'Masonic and Esoteric Heritage. New Perspectives for Art and Heritage Policies', which took place at the National Library of the Netherlands on 20-21 October 2005. All experts present were of the opinion that this symbol was unique, and therefore of importance to the history of esotericism on an international level. Its precise meaning has not yet been revealed, unique as it is, and so more research should be done. It does however point towards influences from European esoteric currents, such as freemasonry, which gives this monument intercultural importance. It not only points towards still uncovered connections with the European culture of the first half of the 19th century, when the influx of immigrants with major influence on the future American culture and economy peaked. It also points towards still uncovered territory in the American history of ideas in the mid-19th century, which is therefore in desperate need of study.

 

Mark A. Tabbert

Curator of Masonic and Fraternal Collections

National Heritage Museum

Lexington, MA

I can not add much to your research.   While I believe the brickwork does signify something related to esoteric symbolism and you fully demonstrate Ithiel Town's interest in the subject, I have little expertise in these subjects.   My focus, as you may tell in   "American Freemasons" is simply trying to establish a broad map for future research...but I don't believe the brickwork is directly related to Freemasonry.

Wouter J. Hanegraaff

University of Amsterdam

Director of the center for the History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents

Images such as the one at 211 Pearl Street have always played an important role in Western Esotericism. The connection is not anecdotal, but goes to the heart of what we identify as Western Culture. We do not have to necessarily share the belief that images such as this symbol convey divine truths that go beyond words and reason, to understand how important it is to protect and preserve this dimension of our common heritage. Further research, however, is needed to determine the precise nature of this symbol.

 

Sean Wilentz

Princeton University

Dept. of American History


The facade, including the intriguing Masonic symbol, is beyond value, aesthetically as well as historically. It deserves to live as part of the city's patrimony to later generations -- something that can surely be done without interfering with the revivification of lower Manhattan. Indeed, I'd think its preservation essential to that revival -- adding to the glory
of change by enhancing it with part of the glory of the past.

 

Dr. Andrea Koon

University of Leiden, The Netherlands

211 Pearl Street contains a specific symbolism, which makes the building an important monument of western esotericism and there is sufficient evidence on the background of both the proposed architect, Ithiel Town, and the owner, William Colgate, to conclude that both men had intimate knowledge of a wide range of esoteric iconography on which the symbol in the façade must be based. Further research is necessary to determine the precise nature of this symbolism (alchemical, masonic or other), and to determine the extent of the importance of this building to the religious and cultural history of New York and the USA. If the building were to be demolished now, future generations will regret this uninformed decision.

Giovanna Constantini PhD

University of Michigan

Art Historian

I consider it an important historical marker for it preserves a memory of American opportunity, vision and growth. As set forth clearly, its mortared symbols encode a set of principles linked indissolubly to the bedrock of American ideals and New York's global identity.   Though we have yet to fully penetrate the building's underlying symbolism or the precise details of its architectural history, we see its longevity as emblematic of embattled idealism. The proximity of 211 Pearl Street to the World Trade Center signals the opportunity for spiritual and economic revival today as it did during the period of its inception.

 

 

Andrew Prescott

University of Sheffield

It is clearly a remarkable building, and an extraordinary survival of early American history. As I work on English radical movements of the early nineteenth century, I found its connections with English radicalism of that period particularly intriguing and evocative. This is clearly a building that should be preserved and it saddens me that so much has already been destroyed.

 

 

  Mike Bath

  University of Edinborough, Scotland

  Applied Emblematics          

This is fascinating stuff - not strictly emblematic (it doesn't combine word-and-image, nor use emblematic motifs, in quite the same way the emblem books do). I'll get back to you if I have any suggestions, or Eureka moments.     Meantime, I've forwarded your email to colleague Peter Forshaw...If he doesn't recognize this, no one will.

 

 

Peter Forshaw (reply via M. Bath)

Just had a reply from Peter, who says simply that 'the images are intriguing, but don't immediately call anything to mind'. He's an expert in esoterica (though his own feet are firmly on the ground), so I guess we could say that the Pearl St. symbol is 'very obscure.' But I'm off to the big emblem studies conference at University of Illinois in a couple of weeks, so I'll take a print-out and wave it at delegates. But don't hold your breath meantime; we may not get this one.

 

 

Howard Rock

Historian

I am not sure. I can help only that Masonic Hall was built around this time, a little later, and that the Masonic Society was a very strong influence in America at this time, largely in the sense of reason and enlightenment. This probably is not much help. Have you consulted Charles Lockwood?

 

Charles Lockwood, New York City

Author: Bricks and Brownstone

I'm afraid that I cannot offer you any insights into this mystery.  


Will Moore Phd

University of North Carolina

Dept. of American History

Masonic Historian

I wish that I could say that something immediately jumps out at me but such is
not the case.  I'm afraid that I really don't have any insight to offer you. I'll think about this more, and if something occurs to me I will let you know. Sorry that I can't be of greater help.
 
 

 

Don Karr

Historian

One might force something cabalistic upon these designs--or masonic, or esoteric Christian--but nothing definite leaps forward. If anything occurs to me, I will certainly pass it along. Good luck.

 

Mark A. Tabbert

Curator of Masonic and Fraternal Collections

National Heritage Museum

Lexington, MA

I can not add much to your research.   While I believe the brickwork does signify something related to esoteric symbolism and you fully demonstrate Ithiel Town's interest in the subject, I have little expertise in these subjects.   My focus, as you may tell in   "American Freemasons" is simply trying to establish a broad map for future research...but I don't believe the brickwork is directly related to Freemasonry.

 

Dr. Jeroen J.W. Goudeau

Netherlands

As an architectural historian and policy making official for one of the provincial departments of preservation in the Netherlands, in my opnion this case is of special interest. My (cum laude) PhD. was about the unknown architectural theory of Nicolaus Goldmann and the mathematization of architecture in seventeenth-century Northern-Europe. It dealt with a tendency of which the importance only fully could be grasped by studying some forgotten manuscripts scattered over Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark. What became to speak for itself after I had described and proved by written evidence how to interpret this tendency, was mostly forgotten or misinterpreted before.

The same is the case in the everyday practice of preservation. Even at the so well organised preservation policy and detailed legislation in the Netherlands, I see too often   how historical data are destroyed without even being noticed. Not only by the destruction of historic buildings and sites, but also during restorations! More than once important historical data disappear not because of a lack of money or time, but as a consequence of inattention or a lack of knowledge.

This might also be the case at 211 Pearl Street. The symbols were discovered by chance and the discovery can and will thwart other interests. These signs cannot be explained easily, not even by some specialists. Documentation and further research is needed in the first place. But as in archaeology one can only read the traces once. When destructed you cannot go back any more to reread the material. I only would like to express my interest in this finding and to stress the possible future importance of this and other fastly vanishing material witnesses of economic history in a city that in that time became one of the most important trading places of the world. And here we could get a glimpse of some less known motives of their industrialists.

 

 

Marijo Ariëns-Volker

Art Historian, The Hague, The Netherlands

Demolishing the building would be a great loss and irreparable fault. It is clear that the esoteric iconography of this building is of great importance and needs further examination. Therefore I want to express my support of the preservation campaign in my capacity as art historian, specialized in esotericism.

 

 

S.K. Heninger, Jr.                                                                                                         

University of North Carolina                                                                                   

Distinguished Professor (emeritus) English and Comparative Literature                          

The site is 211 Pearl Street, where a brick wall featuring geometric figures of an obviously symbolic nature still stands in a building that (appears to be designed) by the renowned architect Ithiel Town and commissioned by William Colgate, one of the city's most influential businessmen of the early nineteenth century. I am not an historian of architecture, nor am I very knowledgeable about the history of New York. My research has concentrated on that period of European history commonly known as the Renaissance - in the period when the traditions recalled by the architect of this building became mainstream.

 

 

Thom Savini, PhD                                                                                                          

Director, Livingston Masonic Library                                                                               

New York City                                                                                                                                                 

I have reviewed and researched the triangle symbol found in the first floor brickwork of the south wall of 211 Pearl Street. I am unable conclusively to state that the symbol is Masonic in nature. The triangle is one of the symbols closely associated with Freemasonry. However, traditional Masonic cornerstones are usually identified as such on the brickwork, and usually include stylized and easily-recognized Masonic symbols...I was unable to find verification that William Colgate was a member of the Free and Accepted Masons. I wish that I was able to provide more conclusive information for your research.

 


Alan Wallach, Ph.D.

Art Historian, William and Mary College


All this looks very interesting.  Alas, I cannot make a more specific comment since I lack expertise in architectural history.  I have no doubt that what you have written would be of interest to architectural historians.  It is, however, a bit of a stretch for someone like myself who is principally concerned with the paintings of Thomas Cole and other Hudson River School artists.

Marco Pasi, Phd

University of Amsterdam

I have come to the conclusion that the brickwork inserted in the architectural structure of the building is a symbol related to the interests that its architect, Ithiel Town, had for sacred geometry and Hermeticism. This would make of the building at 211 Pearl Street a unique witness of the influence of these ideas in American architecture in the first half of the 19 th century. Town is one of the most important American architects of this period, and a study of the books in his private library point to a definite interest of his for traditions connecting architecture with ancient traditions of sacred geometry, which were then mostly prominent in freemasonry. However, no evidence remains of Town's membership as a freemason, which makes his private interest for these subjects even more interesting and remarkable. The destruction of such a work, which still needs to be carefully studied, would be an irreparable loss for the cultural and historical legacy of New York City, and indeed for the history of American architecture and the history of Hermetic ideas. It is therefore of the utmost importance that the structure, which has already suffered from previous modifications, is preserved in its actual state.


Leatrice Mendelsohn, Ph.D.

Art Historian, Adelphi University, N.Y.

My field is Renaissance but I sent all the information to Michael Lewis at Williams College via E.J. Johnson who is an architectural historian there as well. Another interested party at Williams (a hotbed of 19th century architectural experts) is S. Sattersthwaite. (all in the art history department). I can write a letter but it will not be backed by any knowledge of the period or style.

 

 

Jocyln Godwin

Professor of Music, Colgate University

While I cannot identify a particular Masonic, Kabbalistic, or Hermetic meaning in this symbol, I know that the proposed architect, Ithiel Town, was interested in such things, and that something significant may have been intended by his planting of the symbol in the building. There is the added dimension of a possible involvement of the building's owner, a deeply religious man whose descendants are celebrated in my own institution. The design is, at the least, highly intriguing and, as far as I know, unique.