As a young child, my parents brought me to the Hall of Fame and Gould Library a few times. I remember the Hall of Fame as being one of the first “tourist” attractions I ever visited since it was only a few blocks from our home in the Bronx. But I remember a much more interesting visit to the same location a bit later in my life.
I was about 14 or 15 years old and my good friend Peter and I decided to go out one evening and walk to the tennis courts at NYU to have an evening game. The courts were on the campus of NYU in the Bronx which also encompassed the Gould Library and Hall of Fame. These great monuments are still there today but are part of Bronx Community College. These tennis courts were one of the few in the Bronx that had lights for night play. It was also just a couple of years before the advent of indoor tennis in “bubbles” or pressurized domes that became prevalent around the city.
After playing we started walking back, but as we did, we passed the Gould Library and saw that is was still open. It was impressive to look at from the outside with spotlights illuminating the columns and walls. We walked inside and it was mostly empty. Someone sat at a desk in the rotunda. It reminded me of a smaller version of the Capital rotunda in Washington, DC. It was no less impressive with marble interior columns, marble floors and wrought-iron spiral staircases that led to the multiple stacks above. Nobody stopped us as we walked around the rotunda, then climbed a spiral staircase. The stacks circled the library just below the dome itself and had many doors that led to many small “reading rooms”. The stack floors that led to the rooms circled the interior of the library and were also wrought-iron but with thick glass tiles that were translucent. The glass tiles below our feet provided an interesting perspective of the stacks below and the lower rotunda. As we walked around the stacks, we felt an eerie sensation. There was a musty smell and the light was dim. Many of the rooms looked like they hadn’t been entered in decades. There were some desks and tables, but they were covered with dust.
We walked into one room and there was a table with a number of books laid out as if they had been removed from the stacks years ago and were still sitting there. I picked one up and blew off the dust. Inside the front cover were some very old papers. I don’t remember the name of the book. All I remember is that I opened the folded papers and saw some very old writing and then a signature- James Madison. Peter looked at it and confirmed that is what it was. I remembered I had a replica Constitution at home and that James Madison’s signature was on it. It looked exactly the same, but this did not look like a replica. Suddenly we got very nervous and we heard someone ascending the stairs. I quickly folded the papers, closed the book and placed it back on the table. We grabbed our tennis rackets and ran down the opposite spiral staircase to the base of the rotunda and out the back door which was the closest exit out of the building. Somehow we thought “they” were after us for fiddling with US history.
The rear exit of Gould Library takes you to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. James Madison was the first bust we saw as we walked down the colonnade of heroes. Was he trying to tell us something? We both continued to run all the way home. We didn’t sleep well that night.