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Fort Chadwijk

by Torrent Chadwick & Chadwick Dalton, preface by Lytle Shaw & Jimbo Blachly

Dutch Manhattan in the 17th century
Dutch Manhattan in the 17th century


Since 2004 Jimbo Blachly and I have served as editors of the Chadwick Family Archive. Recently our labors there have put us in contact with some rather remarkable materials relating to the Anglo/Dutch branch of the family, whose contributions to New Amsterdam have been largely ignored or misunderstood. This situation was to have been at least partially remedied by a monument, commissioned by the city, to Cornelius Van der Chadwijk, architect of New Amsterdam’s first fort, which its critics dismissed because its ramparts wobbled slightly and its masses of leaning timbers lent the work an unfinished appearance. Far from accidents or oversights, however, these aspects of Chadwijk’s design were in fact based on his inquiry into “nature’s pelted builder”—the phrase he used to refer to the beaver. That Manhattan’s first large-scale public building should have been a revolutionary site-specific interpretation of the animal that gave rise to the settlement was, the Chadwicks have long felt, worthy of public recognition.

In any case, this monument would have been formally installed on May 5th, 2007 on Hanover Square in the heart of Dutch New York. The fact that the vitrine was not installed that day (apparently because its materials did not meet the standards only vaguely outlined in the contract) was extremely embarrassing for the Chadwicks, since Torrent Chadwick and Chadwick Dalton (two living members of the family) had themselves led a large public tour of their ancestor’s architectural sites that was to have culminated at the vitrine location. The following text is a rough transcription of the tour, along with a few descriptive notes. We begin on Broad Street, near the southern tip of the Island of Manhattan in the 1620s. (Fig. 1)

Donald Judd, Ceremonial Roadblock Sculptures.
Donald Judd, Ceremonial Roadblock Sculptures.

As those among you with solid elementary school educations know, the Dutch were a water-oriented culture—inclined to reclaim land from the sea and ship goods by canals. When they arrived on this 12-mile island surrounded by readily navigable rivers, their first thought was to reticulate the mainland with a complex network of canals that moved from the tip of the island to Broad Street, which was throughout the seventeenth century a canal known as Heer Gracht.

As in old Amsterdam, these Canals served several simultaneous functions: barge highways, open public toilets, skiff and barge parking lots, drinking water sources, and sadly mistaken substitutes for bed at the end of less lucky evenings at the Gracht-side taverns. Despite Washington Irving’s impertinent suggestion that this ambitious project was undertaken solely so that the Dutch might, “snuff up the fragrant effluvia of mud and mire,” the canals in fact allowed new Amsterdam citizens to raise water from the Hudson to just below street-level—enabling the frictionless passage of goods not only horizontally, but vertically down to the river as well, through an ingenious lock system.

The Chadwijk Lock.
The Chadwijk Lock.

Over the last several years, through a great deal of lobbying designed to turn often shockingly ungrateful contemporary minds back to the technological triumphs of our earliest New Amsterdam forefathers, rather novel sculptural features have been developed in this neighborhood to recall the bygone era of the New Amsterdam lock system. As in all successful urban public works, this has involved a partnership among historic preservationists, public minded independent scholars like ourselves, city planners, volunteers, and, yes, artists. (Fig. 2) First, the moving Chevrolet Lock, in which one truck rolls out from its site, closing the street between the two trucks, and then, eventually opening on the other side. Next to these are ceremonial roadblock sculptures donated by the Donald Judd estate in Marfa. (Fig. 3)

Though we prefer to call this inventive public art piece by its proposed name—The Chadwijk Lock System, the city refers to it instead as the Governor Stuyvesant Lock. Several other examples have been placed near Wall Street—though this is an area beyond the original scope of the canal system, as we objected to the city. Nonetheless, we feel that the monument is a distinct success. With even greater economy than the Chevrolet Lock, the metal doors of this lock system, designed by the sculptor Richard Serra, vanish through a thin slot in the asphalt, allowing us to imagine the change in water level that would lower or raise the crafts inside. Though a number of ignorant populists on the city council have bemoaned this turn toward abstraction in public monuments, we feel, on the contrary, that the seventeenth century’s power is best honored by forward looking, contemporary, not nostalgic, public art.

Site of Fort Chadwijk, currently The Native American Museum and Bankruptcy Court
Site of Fort Chadwijk, currently The Native American Museum and Bankruptcy Court

The beaver, as many of you know, was the animal most responsible for the settlement of New Amsterdam. Long before its pelt was a prime commodity, secretions of its scent gland were believed to have medicinal properties. For both of these reasons the beaver was hunted to extinction by the 16th century in Great Britain, and to near extinction soon after throughout Europe. In New Amsterdam, where beavers in the surrounding forests were almost miraculously plentiful, the Dutch fastened on both the beaver’s main attributes. No less a learned lawyer than Adrian Van der Donck, trained as he was in Leiden before emigration, believed that beaver oil cured rheumatism, toothaches, stomachaches, poor vision, and dizziness and that beaver testicles, rubbed on the forehead or dried and dissolved in water, made an effective antidote to drowsiness and idiocy. While rheumatism is not the problem it once was, Torrent took the liberty, on the tour, of preparing a small vile of crushed beaver testicles to combat these last maladies—drowsiness and idiocy—among the members of the curious gathering.

We now come to the site of Fort Amsterdam, designed to present the Native Americans and British with an insurmountable physical barrier, behind which the central organs of government and finance could wait out a siege. We will not even nibble at the easy irony of its transformation now into the bankruptcy court and the Native American Museum. The conjunction itself is cruel enough. (Fig. 4) We will merely remark that though there was some kind of structure in this spot since the early 1620s, it was enlarged in the 1630s after an influx of cash from the capturing of a Spanish fleet in Havana made its way to the colony. The fort, however, has remained an enigma from the moment of its expansion.

Listen now to a description of the fort from a book published recently by a popular historian.

Proposed monument to Fort Chadwijk, as yet uninstalled.
Proposed monument to Fort Chadwijk, as yet uninstalled.

The original plan was for a vast structure in which all the colonists would live, safe from the savages of the country. But the savages didn’t seem so savage, and anyway it was clearly impossible, given the manpower, to do anything very grand. [The Governor] ordered a redesign. The man who had been sent over to build the fort was apparently uniquely unskilled for a Dutch engineer: the original structure was comprised mostly of heaped earth; it began to crumble even before it was finished. It would be torn down and rebuilt over the next several years; indeed, the ramshackle state of Fort Amsterdam would be an issue right up until the moment when Peter Stuyvesant, standing on one of its unsteady ramparts, would agree to surrender it to the English.

It is passages like this, still streaming forth from the presses as late as 2004, that continue to malign the Chadwick family, as they did in the seventeenth century, when critics began to dismiss the fort for not coinciding with received wisdom about seats of government. Such philistines have been unable, for almost 400 years now, to recognize its radical approach to enclosure. For this “uniquely unskilled … Dutch engineer” (here unnamed) was none other than our relative, Cornelius van der Chadwijk, a gentleman raised and educated in Rotterdam, first a hydraulic engineer on the Zuider Zee, and later, after some unfortunate dyke accidents, an immigrant to New Amsterdam.

Beaver study.
Beaver study.

This fort may well have been unnecessary, as our simpleton chronicler suggests, but its entropic effect, as Manhattan’s first earthscraper, was surely no accident. Nor is this generation of Chadwicks the first to raise their pens in ire against our relative’s slander. Nearly 200 years ago Cornelius’ archive was in the possession of Walter Chadwick, (an amateur historian and expert model ship builder who went by the Ducthified name, Wouter). Wouter shot back against Washington Irving’s attacks both on his relative and on the Dutch more generally in A Fluid Fortress of Verse: An Epic Poem upon the Remarkable Life of Cornelius van der Chadwick:

Woe befell Cornelius with the breaking of his dyke

For Dutch soldiers now chased him with halberds and pikes

His native lands became to him but barren wastes

And he was forced to stow-away post haste

Fastened obsequiously to an architect for the navigation

He was a credentialed builder on the man’s expiration

But lacking commissions upon the lad’s arrival

He was forced to trap beavers for his survival

Where follow demented passages in Cornelius’ private book

Staring, perhaps, too closely at the pelted builder’s work

So close his countrymen’s aqueous manipulation

Neat feeding ponds to their draining of inundation

Dutchmen beavers; beavers Dutch

Killing a furry countryman now rankled him such

That upon his mind a monument swum

Like logs floating among pond scum

There’s a great deal more to say about Cornelius’ monument, but we’ll approach it gradually, breaking Wouter’s verse just as he’s picking up steam.

(F10 Brick Wall) It was in a small shanty at this address—which, according to neighbors, had the jagged appearance of a beaver dam—that Cornelius settled with his wife Hetty Wessels after his trapping period. Here, he worked as a bargeman on the canal in front, moving pelts between the collection station at the end of the fort and the harbor at the end of the canal, while practicing his novel nautical songs. As Holland began its Tulip Mania in 1634—in which, eventually, one rare bulb would be sold for more than the value of a house—so Cornelius began what we may term his beaver mania. (Fig. 5) Interested not only in their status as architects, but in the fact that, like productive colonies, beavers continue to grow throughout their lives, Cornelius filled several sketchbooks with then current natural historical knowledge about the animal, as well as sketches of beaver dams and beaver memorials, the ink for these drawings itself mixed with beaver gland secretions, creating certain archival problems for later Chadwicks.

Cornelius van der Chadwijk
Cornelius van der Chadwijk

We now move to the Pearl Street archaeological site, which remains, until the installation of our vitrine, Lower Manhattan’s central monument to its Dutch golden-age architectural heritage. Here, partly visible underneath the condensation-lined viewing portals, two period buildings, the Stadt Huis and Lovelace Tavern, are represented by at least 47 mostly-complete stones, nearly identical to the kind of stones out of which these buildings would have been constructed. These monuments were established in 1979-80 when this excavation of this postmodern plaza ran across extensive archaeological remains from New Amsterdam. (Fig. 6)

Indeed, it was the problem of disposing of the Dutch archaeological material that ultimately led workers to seek the cheaper solution of working it into the plaza: 10,000 pipe fragments; 11,000 pieces of glass and 23,000 shards of ceramic and pottery were ultimately recovered, and then covered again. As important as it was to count all of these items before they were re-interred, we feel, nonetheless, that the money spent in this process might better have been directed to other ends. More, as fine as these two building fragments are, we feel that the close relation between them, since the function of the Stadt Huis in fact moved to the tavern once the former was declared unsafe, has rather confirmed later audiences in their view of the Dutch as drunken trenchermen incapable of legislation than revised this clearly inadequate historical understanding. But we jump ahead to Wouter’s poem:

Van Twiller, Kieft, and Stuyvesant eat up our precious trees

with yawning tales of yawning fools inept in all degrees.

But were the Dutch surveyed aright atop of Chadwijk’s fort

their contributions to New York would rest beyond retort.

We grant indeed the fort did slope, its lumber did decay.

But if its ramparts swayed a bit, they were designed to sway.

How better monumentalize the pelted builder’s plan

than see the seat of government itself as but a dam—

provisional, imperfect, but built by human beings

who might in turn revise their seat within the frame of things?

For one thing is for certain, and this Cornelius knew:

governments that timeless seem aren’t governments that grow.

As the tricentenial of the founding of New Amsterdam approached in 1909, a number of historians began to grow curious about the Dutch origins of the Island and, indeed, a period of Holland Mania seized not merely the city, but the country as well. (Fig. 7) It is to this period that we date these theme-park reconstructions of Dutch seventeenth-century houses. At the height of this Holland Mania, in 1904, long lost-Manhattanite Henry James returned to his birthplace after 30 years in Europe. Obsessed, too, about commemorative cultural monuments (though of a different scale), James promptly visited the site of the house where he was born, discovering that, as he put it, “whereas the inner sense had positively erected there for its private contemplation a commemorative mural tablet, the very wall that should have borne this inscription had been smashed as for demonstration that tablets, in New York, are unthinkable.” This little parable has provided a haunting backdrop for our efforts. Afraid that James was still right, and thinking it safer to sink our tablet into the ground, in the form of a commemorative vitrine, we have, after considerable administrative haggling, happily discovered that indeed New York can think tablets.

Early 20th century neo-Golden-age Dutch architecture in lower Manhattan
Early 20th century neo-Golden-age Dutch architecture in lower Manhattan

Our first proposal had been a full-scale reconstruction of the fort at the currently unused section of the city at the base of Rector Street, but when this was pooh-poohed by some sentimental members of the city council, we turned to the design of the smaller monument, whose installation site, the Park at Hanover Square, was undergoing reconstruction and would thus be a perfect site for the new monuments. (Fig. 8)

Well, as we’ve suggested already, The Chadwicks were more than a little surprised to find out that—on this auspicious day, with their group of eager onlookers following them to this triumphant moment—their monument remained uninstalled because of some bureaucratic stalls. I quote here from the exchange. (Fig. 9)

Dalton: “What, our monument isn’t installed! What kind of vicious insult is this—with our flock eager to see Cornelius finally enshrined! How dare you stand idly by—park and rec man—bend your back over a shovel!”

A heated discussion between the Chadwijks and the Park and Recreation Director
A heated discussion between the Chadwijks and the Park and Recreation Director

Park and Rec. Director: “Don’t use that haughty tone with me, Dalton, you know as well as I do that it’s your fault this piece of excrement can’t pass as a public memorial. The monument, as per our contract, was supposed to be, and I quote, “finely sculpted in bronze, and securely housed in a concrete frame topped with bullet proof glass.” What is this, anyway—paper, felt, a little plexi-glass … who sprung for that? We gave you over 30,000 dollars of municipal money. Where is it? It’s in Atlantic City, isn’t it Torrent; we have reports of you there shouting at porters, half naked, waving our bills around.”

At this point the Chadwicks, somewhat flustered, retired with the group to their family’s longstanding downtown haunt, The India Club.

Torrent: “Hello Smithson, we’ll be taking our thirsty tour to one of the private nautical suites upstairs. Be good enough to have the steward send up a case of brandy to go with the usual two cases of claret.”

Smithson: “I’m sorry sir, but your membership has been revoked.”

Torrent: “There must be some mistake—our ancestors have been attending this club since it opened as an offshoot of the West India Company in the seventeenth century.”

Smithson: “Well, your ancestors paid their bills … perhaps you should try the Ulysses pub around the corner. They cater to the rabble that wanders in from the street … but they do require cash.”

At this point the tour came to a sudden and unceremonious close.

The Chevrolet Lock System.
The Chevrolet Lock System.


Chadwick Dalton

Jimbo Blachly

Jimbo Blachly is an artist. He was awarded the 2002 SculptureCenter Prize.

Lytle Shaw


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 07-JAN 08

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