In honor of the location of this year’s RWA National Conference, I’m making a departure from my usual topic area to celebrate some of the people who built New York. Some of contributed to the actual structure of the city. Others have built its stature and reputation.
Apart from the usual suspects of Dylan Thomas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Burton, Bryn Terfel, John Cale, Anthony Hopkins, Hillary Clinton (to name a few of the Welsh who’ve made their mark on New York City) there are surprises here.
Frank Lloyd Wright, famous for his iconic architecture throughout the United States, designed the Guggenheim Museum. He used the three-pronged bardic symbol and the words “Y Gwir yn Erbyn y Byd” (Truth against the World) as his motto. According to his sister, Maginel, the symbol and this motto are hidden in all the buildings he designed.
Wright is not the only Welshman to change the New York skyline. Cardiff-born John Belle, founding member of the firm Beyer Blinder Belle, added his fair share through his Art-Deco designs for the Chrysler Building, Grand Central Terminal and the revitalized Rockefeller Center. Belle also designed the Ford Centre, in Times Square, retaining architectural and design elements of the Lyric and Apollo Theatres, demolished to make way for the new center.
Ellis Island was named for itsWelsh owner, Samuel Ellis, who, in the1700s providedweary mariners with refreshments of the intoxicating kind from his tavern on the mound of rock in New York Harbor. Some of Samuel’s seafaring customers may have been the Welshmen known as Black Bart (Bartholomew Roberts) and Captain Morgan – pirates bound for Jamaica and global infamy. The historic Main Hall of this first stop for the tired and hungry was redesigned by John Belle as a monument to the immigrants who passed through it in the 1800-1900s.
The Pierpont Morgan Library, founded by J.P. Morgan whose ancestors were among the first Welsh immigrants from Neath to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1600s, was another of John Belle’s redesigned buildings.
The Yale Club gets its name from the founder of the Collegiate College of Connecticut, later changed to Yale University in honor of its generous benefactor, Elihu Yale. Although born in the American Colonies to immigrant Welsh parents, Yale spent his final years in Wrexham. Yale is the Anglicized name of the ancient Welsh kingdom of Ial.
Another collegiate benefactor and Welshman, Morgan Edwards, co-founded Brown University.
The Greater File Baptist Church is one of three Welsh chapels in Harlem. The words “Gwnewch hyn er cof amadanf” (do this in remembrance of me) is carved into the chapel’s pulpit. “Welsh Chapel” is carved on the marble steps.
Sculptor, Mac Adams, who was born in Bryn Mawr (south Wales not Pennsylvania) designed the Korean War Memorial as wellas the five mosaic and ceramic wall murals of PS 120 Junior School in Queens and two 30ft mosaics (Wetlands) over the escalatorsin the Lautenberg Transfer Station, Secausus, NJ.
Three of the six Welsh signatories of the Declaration of Independence were from New York: Lewis Morris, Francis Lewis and William Floyd. Two of these have streets name for them: Francis Lewis Blvd and William Floyd Parkway.
Other Welsh American immigrants who influenced the shape and flavor of Manhattan came from all walks of life. Mabel Mercer, the child of a Welsh mother and American father grew up in north Wales.Frank Sinatra claimed she was responsible for his style. The Town Hall is the home of the annual Cabaret Convention hosted by the Mabel Mercer Foundation. Mercer made her American home in Chatham because it reminded her of her homeland.
George L. Jones, the son of a Montgomeryshire weaver, immigrated with his family in the early 1900s to Poultney, VT. In 1851, he inaugurated the first issue of the New York Daily Times (The New York Times in future). The newspaper was groundbreaking and published a series of exposés that brought down the Tammany Hall Tweed Ring and its control of New York politics.
From my own town, Carmarthen, Joshua Thomas Owen, emigrated to New York in 1830 as a boy. By 1852, he was admitted to the bar, During the American Civil War, he served as a distinguished soldier and was promoted to Brigadier General for “gallant and meritorious conduct at the battle of Glendale.” In 1871, founded the New York Daily Register which became the official organ of the New York courts in 1873. Owen continued on its editorial staff until his death.
At 520 Madison Avenue, Welsh designer, Mary Quant, one of the most innovative and influential fashion designers of the 20th Century, established her shop in Manhattan. She was known as “the hippest designer from the hippest part of the world” — I cannot agree more!
Enjoy your stay in this very Welsh city.