Down a Silent Alleyway

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins studio

I once wrote a book called The Stone War, about New York City, which is (as you know, Bob) my hometown, and about which I am a little crazy. Not the least of the fun I had writing the book was doing the research. If you tell people you’re writing a book they’ll tell you all sorts of things. They’ll let you in places you’d otherwise have no chance of entering (even if you don’t speak the language! I charmed myself into Malmaison outside Paris on a day when the museum wasn’t open because I said, in my execrable French, that I was a novelist doing research). Research is like wandering in a city you don’t know, finding yourself in alleys and back streets, wondering how the hell you get back to the main square, and yet unwilling to turn around because there might be something cool around the next corner.

And this, my friends, is how I came upon Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. Waterhouse was a British sculptor and naturalist who became a popularizer of dinosaurs in Victorian England and then the US. His dinosaurs–complete with period-appropriate frills and decorative ogees and such, are wonderful. I was immediately fascinated. The problem was that I saw Hawkins’s name and the information that interested me about him in an exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History–but it was a traveling exhibit, and after it left, and I wanted to get confirmation of my memory and some more information, if could find nothing. It was as if I’d imagined the whole thing. Now, why, without prompting, would I imagine pieces of smashed up dinosaur under Central Park?

Following his success with the Crystal Palace Exhibition, Hawkins came to New York City with the intent of recreating on one side of the Atlantic what had been so successful on the other. In the years following the Civil War, he set up a studio on what is now the site of the American Museum of Natural History on the upper West Side of Manhattan, and began to assemble a new menagerie of sculptured dinosaurs. The plan was to set them up in a “Paleozoic Museum” in Central Park, which was then being landscaped under the direction of Frederick Law Olmstead, an ex-engineer officer in the Union army.

However, in 1871, before either the park or the dinosaurs were finished, New York City politics intervened. The corrupt Tammany Hall-Boss Tweed machine took control of city politics, and Hawkins and his dinosaurs were out. Those models that had been made were broken up and buried in the south end of the park, and Hawkins left New York a greatly embittered man. Although Central Park has been modified in the years since its inception, including the construction of the 8th Ave subway line which runs up the west side of the park, the remains of Hawkins’ dinosaurs have never been found. They still rest somewhere under the sod of Central Park, probably not far from Umpire Rock and the Heckscher ballfields.

In the far off days when I was doing all this research, the internet was not the very cool and sometimes useful tool it now is; much of what you found, doing web-based research, was stuff put up by, um, enthusiasts with more enthusiasm than strict regard for the truth (for further elaboration on this point, find a copy of Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s excellent “What Woo-Woo Means to Me” in Making Book) . I combed through all the books I could find, went to the Museum of the City of New-York (always include the hyphen; they get finicky about it) and the AMNH itself. Nothin’. I really began to think I’d hallucinated it.And then one day at the St. Agnes branch of the NYPL, while Sarcasm Girl was looking at books, I found a kids’ picture book which had the whole damned story in it. And while that might seem like a slender reed on which to place my faith, at least it proved that I hadn’t dreamed it all up.

Two of the dinosaurs were all but finished; the other four which had been comissioned were in various stages of construction. All of them were broken up, and the pieces sewn into the ground somewhere around 60th Street, on the east side. I used Mr. Hawkins’s dinosaurs–they have a good-sized role in the denouement of The Stone War. And on those occasions when I’m in the city and wandering through Central Park, I like to walk around at 60th and 5th Avenue near the Plaza Hotel and imagine Eloise leaving the building one day to be confronted by a life-size granite Iguanadon. It’s the sentimentalist in me.


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