Shortly before the City of New Rochelle recently became nationally famous (or infamous ) as an epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, a controversy was developing over the threatened destruction of the Thomas Paine Museum Memorial Building on North Avenue.
The Thomas Paine National Historic Association, which owns the Paine Museum, has proposed to sell the now vacant building to raise funds for national projects promoting Paine’s legacy. Opposing this are a group of New Rochelle residents who have objected to the sale of one of New Rochelle’s most important historic places. City Councilwoman Sarah Kaye (whose district encompassed the Museum Memorial ) proposed that the City of New Rochelle designate it as a local landmark to prevent its destruction, a proposal which has generated some controversy.
Thomas Paine was rewarded with a farm in New Rochelle in 1784 for his service to the American Revolution. Thereafter he had a turbulent life in Europe, in which he was indicted for sedition in England, was a leading figure in the French Revolution (he narrowly escaped a death sentence during in the Reign of Terror), and was vilified as anti-religion.
He returned to New Rochelle in 1801, but left for New York City after being denied the right to vote in the 1806 New Rochelle elections. He died in 1809 and, after having been denied a a burial in the Quaker Cemetery at New Rochelle, was buried on his farm there at a small funeral. In 1839, the first statue in the country to Paine was erected on New Rochelle’s North Avenue.
Like many of his fellow Englishmen – but unlike many of this country’s founding leaders – Paine was a militant opponent of slavery: “So monstrous is the making and keeping them slaves at all, abstracted from the barbarous usage they suffer, and the many evils attending the practice; as selling husbands away from wives, children from parents, and from each other, in violation of sacred and natural ties; and opening the way for adulteries, incests, and many shocking consequences, for all of which the guilty Masters must answer to the final Judge.”
After the Civil War, with the failure of Reconstruction, interest in Paine rose. With the withdrawal of federal troops from the South in 1876, the political and legal rights promised to freed slaves by the 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution were effectively abrogated.
African Americans throughout the South were first disenfranchised, and then ultimately, after the Supreme Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, forced into segregation. Then the “lost cause” concept took hold, not just across the South, but across the nation. Numerous Confederate monuments were erected, and by the 1880s even communities in the North accepted blatant racism and denial of civil rights to African Americans and other people of color.
One group that didn’t, was the Thomas Paine National Historical Association. Formed in New York City in the 1880s, primarily by former unreconstructed abolitionists. Led by Moncure Conway, the author of the first full-length biography of Paine, the Paine Society made annual pilgrimages to the Paine Cottage (next door to the Museum) and the Paine Monument to call for the implementation of Paine’s ideas nationally. As conditions for African Americans went from bad to worse, the Paine Society would gain supporters, particularly in New Rochelle. (A number of Paine Society officers were also leaders of the NAACP.)
In 1905, (which Henry Louis Gates Jr. has called the low point in American race relations) the Paine Monument on North Avenue was renovated and rededicated. New Rochelle Mayor Henry Clark and 1,000 participants took part in a ceremony. At that time the New Rochelle City Council purchased the Paine Monument from the Paine Association for the City. They promised to protect and maintain it in perpetuity, as a monument to “this great man and the ideals of the equality of all men and democracy for which he stood.” Given the prevailing views in the country at the time, New Rochelle was called “progressive.”
In 1909, at the 100th anniversary of Paine’s death, Paine’s cottage was renovated and a small museum in his honor opened inside. The cottage became a regular destination for school children in New Rochelle and a tourist attraction visited by Paine enthusiasts from around the country. So many visitors came in fact, that it became necessary to build a larger facility. On Memorial Day in 1925, ground was broken on the Paine Museum, adjacent to the Paine Cottage. Three thousand people at the Museum’s ground breaking saw Thomas Edison, the First Vice President of the Paine Association, turn the first spade of earth on the new facility.
The new museum featured an auditorium that could hold much larger audiences, and served as a repository of artifacts and manuscripts relating to Paine, as well as an exhibition space. Later the Paine Association would move into offices there. As time went on the Paine Museum, along with the Paine Cottage next door (owned by Huguenot Historical Society) became the intellectual center of matters relating to Thomas Paine and his ideas in the country.
During the Second World War, seen by many as a battle against the prejudices of the Germans and Japanese, Paine and his ideas of racial equality became more popular in the North. In a fireside chat in 1942 Franklin D. Roosevelt quoted from Thomas Paine’s The Crisis.
During the “Freedom Summer” of 1964 young people from New Rochelle were among those who went to the South to fight to regain voting rights lost after Reconstruction. Among them was Michael Schwerner whose mother taught at New Rochelle Highs School. Schwerner and his compatriots Andrew Goodman and Michael Chaney were murdered by white supremacists, an act which shocked the North and is said to have been a factor in convincing President Lyndon Johnson to advocate for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (Although considered one of the most effective civil rights measures in American history, it was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013).
The interest of the New Rochelle’s city government, and many in the community, waned. Fewer and fewer New Rochelle residents are aware of the history of the city, the civil rights movement, or the role played by the Paine Museum. In the late 1990s, under there own financial and curriculum restraints, New Rochelle fourth graders no longer made visits to the Museum, which then began to have financial difficulties of its own.
In 2003, there was considerable uproar when the Museum attempted to sell parts of their collection to maintain the building. With the support of the New York State Attorney General’s office, the Museum’s management moved its collection to a newly formed Thomas Paine Institute at Iona College and the Thomas Paine Society shuttered the building.
Recently the Paine Society has been seeking to sell the Museum and use the proceeds for an international effort to produce a multi-volume collection of Paine’s works and correspondence. The costs of maintaining the vacant Paine Museum are considered an impediment to their efforts.
Many New Rochelle residents, and apparently many public officials, had no knowledge of these plans. Geraldine Hogan Kaplan (my wife and a member of the Colonial Dames of America) took notice. A 37-year resident of New Rochelle, an educator whose children had visited the Museum when they were young, brought the issue before the New Rochelle City Council and the result was Councilwoman Kaye’s proposal for landmark status.
At a sparsely attended meeting of at the New Rochelle Historic Landmarks Commission (whose recommendation must be approved by the City Council) there were two distinct visions of how the legacy of Thomas Paine should be promoted. Gary Berton, speaking on behalf of the Paine Society, argued that the City of New Rochelle had in the last fifteen years shown only minimal interest in Thomas Paine or the work of the Society, and failed to support the Museum in any way.
In order to fulfill its mission, Berton argued, the Society, the City, and its residents, should not object to selling the former museum building to support its important scholarly work of cataloguing Paine’s writings. Geraldine Hogan Kaplan, speaking on behalf of a newly formed Committee to Preserve the Paine Museum, argued that the building was a priceless landmark and monument to the history of New Rochelle, in which the people of New Rochelle had invested themselves in over the past 100 years.
The City government has a duty to current and future citizens to protect such an important part of its history, she argued. While it may be true that the City and its citizens had been negligent in appreciating the importance of Paine, the Paine Museum management, including the Paine Society, was not wholly blameless. With proper support from local institutions such as the City government, the New Rochelle Board of Education and historical societies she said, this neglect could be reversed, returning the Museum to its role as an important City tourist and educational site.
The Landmarks Board voted to recommend landmark status to the City Council, where it will be subject to a hearing on Tuesday, April 21. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, no personal appearances will be permitted. Comments should be submitted in writing to the New Rochelle City Clerk, 515 North Avenue, New Rochelle, NY, 10801.
The Committee to Preserve the Thomas Paine Museum is urging interested parties, both in New Rochelle and elsewhere, to submit their written comments.
Photo: Thomas Paine Cottage, located next to the former Thomas Paine Museum.
Cindy Kaplan says
I have many suggestions. The Thomas Paine Museum is a treasure. So is your article. I know how we can bring this treasure back to life;
Schools will study Thomas and bring children. Here. Actors will play Thomas Paine and bring this house to life.
Music will illuminate the genius of his intellect with readings year round.
Please contact me I am the producer and founder of the Haworth Shakespeare Festival and a graduate of NRHS 1958
I would love to hear your ideas. I am a board member and volunteer at the Thomas Paine Cottage Museum and am very interested in hearing your ideas. Please contact me through our website contact form, thomaspainecottage.org. Thanks.
James S, Kaplan says
Certain readers of this article have complained to me that it inadvertently created some confusion between the Thomas Paine Cottage Museum (the Paine Cottage Museum) which is owned by the Huguenot and New Rochelle Historical Society, and the Thomas Paine Memorial Building, which is owned by the Thomas Paine National Historical Association. Although the Paine Cottage and the Thomas Paine Memorial Building are adjacent to each other, it is the Paine Memorial building on North
Avenue that is threatened with sale, and not the Paine Cottage Museum. The Paine Cottage Museum is a City landmark and is actively operating and providing public programs. The picture accompanying the article was of the Paine Cottage and not the Paine Memorial Building, which may have created some of the confusion.
Gary Bush says
The Huguenot & New Rochelle Historical Association, administrators of the Thomas Paine Cottage Museum, appreciate the clarification Mr. Kaplan. We applaud your efforts in trying to save the Thomas Paine Memorial Building, a long standing New Rochelle treasure that honors one of our great founding fathers.
Although all nonprofits, especially in these current times, do experience on going much needed fundraising efforts, the Thomas Paine Cottage Museum has no plans on closing permanently to the public or considering ANY type of sale.
The Thomas Paine Cottage Museum has been part of our community since it opened as an Historic Home Museum in 1910 and with the generosity of our supporters, we will continue to do so for many years to come.
Visit our website thomaspainecottage.org to learn more about the Thomas Paine Cottage Museum. Thank you.
Thank you very much for writing this article. I just learned important history from an entirely different perspective, thanks to you. As an appointed member of a local municipal preservation board, I recognize the challenges ahead for your community. May you be successful in assembling the time and resources necessary to achieve your goal so people like me who live hundreds of miles away in NYS may again have an opportunity to visit -and learn – at this museum.
Bobby Salerno says
As a one time resident of New Rochelle I wish to support any and all efforts to maintain the legacy of New Rochelle as unfortunately the Queen City of the Sound has lost much of its luster for reasons not to be debated here, but here is an opportunity to preserve an item of historical significance.
Tim Toterhi says
Reading this was a surreal experience. My next novel has a sub plot that threatens the entire Paine site with demolition. We’ve all heard about life imitating art, but this is ridiculous. History should be taught not torn. Count me in for a letter. And thanks for fighting the good fight.
an unreconstructed paineite says
Thank you for raising awareness of this long-festering problem. Your treatment was fair and balanced, though I believe it underplays the role of Gary Berton and others in the denoument of the TPNHA, the underhanded and under-the-radar sell-off of the literal “pearls” of the collection at fire-sale prices (has anyone ever seen a close accounting of what happened to the money?), and completely overlooks the mass board-of-trustees resignations over other alleged misappropriation (there are $20,000.00 in grants AT LEAST still unaccounted for) and malfeasance back in 2000. You are forgiven, if for no other reason that there is a GREAT deal of detail and confusion over these issues. Lest anyone think that the so-called TPNHA acted with any interest but that of its principals, the former “director” of the Museum was banned from any further contact with the museum or the TPNHA as part of the agreement with the Attorney General’s Office and the remainder (detritus?) of the collection was not exactly just “moved” but rather it was the subject of a 510/511 hearing before the courts at which time the determination was made that the remainder of the collection would be transfered to Iona. If the sale of the building is completed, the really GOOD news is that the involvement of Berton and his cabal will be at long last … at an end. They have proven again and again NOT to be worthy of a public trust and it is safe to assume that any moneys will be used to gild the rather drab “scholarly” career of Mr. Berton. Mr. Kaplan, I have a suspicion that we will meet soon enough, but you are welcome to contact me directly; I and others know that story personally and very directly.
Here’s the best link from the actual time of which I am aware: