Sunday, 20 June 2021

Antique Paleoart: The Lost Paleozoic Museum

The Crystal Palace Park from the last post should be something well-known to most of you. What is less well-known is that the park was supposed to have a follow-up by the same modeller, constructed in the Central Park of New York no less. In 1868, seventeen years after the first opening of the Crystal Palace exhibit, the managers of the then newly created Central Park commissioned Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins to build new sculptures of prehistoric animals for their own park, which would be housed in an exhibit called the Paleozoic Museum. Why exactly it was going to be called that I am not sure, because by the looks of it none of the planned animals to be featured actually came from the Paleozoic. Unfortunately, this park never came into existence and all that exists now is concept art and sketches. Why? Read until the end to find out.

Before we take down the mood with a depressing story, let us simply appreciate what still exists. Here we see one of the earliest concepts, probably drawn in 1868 (Davidson 2018). Presumably the actual size of the museum and other details were still unknown. As you can see, unlike its British counterpart, all the sculptures were supposed to be housed in the same building, a glass palace (maybe intentionally) very similar to the one that existed in Hyde Park. As a consequence, the animals were not separated by their time period anymore but shown in one menagerie, though it seems Hawkins wanted to make at least some attempt to separate the mammals and dinosaurs through islands or pedestals. The science in here, while still goofy-looking, had greatly advanced since the Crystal Palace days. Ten years prior in 1858 William Parker Foulke discovered the remains of Hadrosaurus in Illinois, which were more complete than any other dinosaur-material in Europe and showed that instead of the rhinoceros-like creatures they were previously depicted as they were actually more kangaroo-like animals which walked on two bird-like legs. In the short time between this discovery and until the first description of Camarasaurus in 1877 it actually became common thought that all dinosaurs were bipedal (leading to pretty funny Stegosaurus-reconstructions). The same year as Hawkins was put to task for the Paleozoic Museum he also made the first full-scale skeletal reconstruction of Hadrosaurus, the first mounted skeleton of any dinosaur, for the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences. Obviously, he wanted to (and did) use this model as a base for his sculptures and Hadrosaurus seems to have been the center-piece of the Paleozoic Museum, towering over the theropods and even the mastodons. The theropods here are meant to be Laelaps (Dryptosaurus), described two years prior from incomplete remains. They look pretty weird, considering that Hawkins could have just made them “Megalosaurus but bipedal”, like he did in later murals. There is something gargoylean about them, especially the ones fighting over the carcass resemble naked vultures. They actually remind me of early fan-art of the fellbeasts of Mordor (before the Peter Jackson movies). Another oddity is the eel-like creature on the bottom right. That is not meant to be a mosasaur, no, that is actually supposed to be Elasmosaurus platyurus (Davidson 2018). Remember, Edward Cope had just described this animal in 1868 and, infamously, misplaced the head on the tail, mistaking the ridiculously long neck for the tail. Even considering Cope’s error, this reconstruction is odd, because the hindlimbs are missing, the ones on the front look like articulated arms instead of flippers and the head looks like that of an iguana instead of the already known skull of Elasmosaurus. It is for reasons like this that Jane Davidson speculates that this concept art was drawn before Cope had even published his description and Hawkins was working on only the vaguest information (Davidson 2008, p. 72).

Here we see the same concept one year later and more detailed. Elasmosaurus has now already been dramatically overworked (looking closer to the plesiosaurs in Crystal Palace), in part because Cope had actually sent Hawkins the animal’s pelvic bones as reference material. Another major change is the exhibit itself. The building has shrunk down but also been decorated livelier with various ferns and other scenery-plants. It actually reminds me a lot of the main hall of the Sauriermusem Aathal, which I recently revisited again (hint, hint). The back-wall was apparently also supposed to have had a mural at this point and the menagerie was separated from the viewers by a wall or ditch. The hallway behind the balcony was likely meant to further house fossils and miniature models. The dinosaurs still look remarkably active and lively and unlike in the Crystal Palace Park actually engage in conflict. Hawkins also employs his tried and tested method of depicting at least two individuals of the same species doing different stuff to give the animals a believable range of behaviour.

Here is an engraving of Hawkins’ Central Park Studio. The reclining Hadrosaurus and Megaloceros were apparently already finished for the exhibit. Some sort of crocodilian was also planned. There are also two smaller figurines in the center. I believe these were not meant for the grand exhibit but rather were miniatures of Hadrosaurus and Laelaps, likely to be exhibited in vitrines in the back-halls of the balcony. According to Davidson, the rocks on the lower left right to the large bones might be the aforementioned Elasmosaurus-concretions that Hawkins was allowed to borrow (Davidson 2018).

Here we see another depiction of the scene, though with slightly wonkier details. Maybe it was based on the above drawing or was drawn from life when the workshop was tidied up a bit. Interestingly the skeletal mount of Hadrosaurus now bears its trademark tree that the model was usually reclining on.

And finally, here are actual surviving photographs of the workshop, proving that the above drawings were not just some fancy concepts. The second photograph is especially interesting due to the second skeleton being assembled. Mark Witton speculates that this may have been the model for Laelaps, which records indicate was finished up shortly after the photo was taken. We can also see in the background many skeletons of modern birds which Hawkins used as reference. Now, you probably want to know what happened to all of this. By the late 1860s New York City was in the iron grip of one man named William Magear Tweed, who is widely considered to have been one of the most corrupt politicians in American history. Working his early youth through various bands and gangs, he eventually became the boss of the Tammany Hall Society, which had large control over the Democratic Party of New York. In 1852 this led to him becoming the councillor of the city, as well as a member of the United States House of Representatives. Tweed used his position for exorbitant amounts of personal gain, by bleeding the city’s funds dry, putting his own men in important positions and granting them contracts, which they used to sell products to the state for ridiculously inflated prices. Almost all critics or adversaries were bribed to stay quiet or were bullied into submission. During the zenith of his power he had become the third-largest owner of real-estate in the city. The Paleozoic Museum and the Central Park in general were a great nuisance to him, as he thought they were a waste of money. In an 1870 legislature he removed Andrew Green from the park’s administration and replaced him with his own man, Peter Sweeny, to gain direct control of it and exploit it for all that it was worth. Shortly after, work on the museum was halted under the pre-text that it costed the taxpayers too much money. The foundations that were already laid were filled up with dirt and concrete. The next year something truly heinous happened. Vandals, paid by Sweeny and Tweed, broke into Hawkins’ workshop and destroyed the already finished models of Hadrosaurus, Laelaps and various other animals with sledgehammers and buried the shards in the park. Not only the finished models, but also the moulds and concept models were destroyed in the process, as well as the Elasmosaurus-remains Cope had lent out, for no other reason than wanton vandalism. Why exactly Tweed resorted to these actions is unclear, as he could have easily sold the models to institutions like the Smithsonian for easy money. According to some sources, Hawkins publicly spoke out against Tweed’s corruption, likely making this an act of revenge. Tweed’s personal comments however also indicate that he was very doubtful of the science of paleontology and he referred to the modelled animals as “alleged to be of the pre-Adamite period.” (Desmond 1975), indicating that he was sceptical of the creatures actually coming from a time before humanity existed. It therefore seems plausible that Tweed was what we would today call a young-earth-creationist and that he held a personal grudge against the models because they offended his religious beliefs. This might further explain why such a greedy man wanted to squash a project that would have otherwise brought many visitors to the Central Park, potentially increasing his revenue: He did not want people to be educated about prehistoric life. Disturbingly there still are people with such attitudes in American politics, though they now tend to come from the Republican party. Then again, this was before the 1960s, when the two parties completely switched their voter-bases.

Hawkins, devastated with the loss, went to Princeton University to draw murals (which thankfully still exist) and build one more dinosaur model, before he went back home to England. A few months after the destruction of the museum, county sheriff James O’Brien, upset about not being paid enough bribes by Tweed, decided to talk to the press and leak the large amounts of embezzlement that the Tammany Society was involved in. After national and international investors became shocked at how badly the city’s finances were managed and how it might not be able to repay its debts, the Society’s funds were cut, making Tweed unable to pay the workers he relied on, thus eroding away his voterbase. After further investigation under Andrew Green, Tweed was finally arrested, bailed out for 1 million dollars, later got arrested again, served one year in prison, got sued for embezzlement again, got jailed again and on an allowed home visit escaped to Spain. There he was recognized by a policeman as a fugitive, thanks to detailed caricatures made by Thomas Nast (which you can see above) that were used as wanted posters, and brought back to America, where in 1878 he finally died in jail from pneumonia. A slightly funny anecdote to end this story is that the policeman, presumably due to not speaking English, interpreted the caricature as Tweed being wanted for kidnapping, not corruption.

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  1. Sigh, if only Tweed put the thought of cash over his own personal beliefs. Then we could have had perhaps a brilliant attraction viewed as the Crystal Palace park of the west. As of now, the closet we got are tacky roadside models with no regards for accuracy (to my knowledge at least).

    Just imagine if things went so that Paleozoic Museum did open. The fact that the American Museum of Natural History had opened under a decade earlier, could have meant we'd get a partnership between alliances. To say nothing of the impact of the models in the public eye.

    On a personal note, I created a what if? scenario where the museum was built, albeit in Philadelphia instead.

  2. Presumably "Paleozoic" in this case refers not to the time period but is meant to be a general term referring to "old animals".