The year was 1952. Robert Prendergast was a medical student at Columbia University and a member of the heavyweight rowing crew team.
I imagine Prendergast, a sizable man, rowing the cool waters of the Harlem River, the Spuytyn Dyvil, and the Hudson on an early morning. The Prendergast in my head takes time to gaze about him, perhaps as the other rowers don’t. He notices the forest of Inwood Hill Park in the distance. He sees the crows flying overhead. He takes in the jagged cliffs to his periphery, the Fordham Gneiss (‘nice’).
Is there any way to really know what Prendergast was thinking when he conceived the idea of painting a giant ‘C’ on the rock facing Inwood Hill Park? And subsequently convinced the Columbia University rowing team, the Athletic Department, and the New York Central Railroad to go along with his idea?
Maybe not. Prendergast last gave a brief interview about the ‘C’ to local historian James Renner in 1999.
The Prendergast of my imagination was observant, detail-oriented, ambitious, persuasive, even charming. This is more than fantasy: I mean, he talked the New York Central Railroad into taking his idea, right? My guess is he could charm the socks off a snake.
Like many medical students and graffiti artists, he was out to shape the world, to make a mark on it, to make a change, to speak his piece – and he couldn’t be limited by the restraints of the classroom in doing so.
Fifty-five years later, an aspiring reporter wandered into Inwood Hill Park and beheld the “C.”
“Columbia” was not the first thing that came to my mind. I attended Columbia University, and I knew where Columbia was: main campus down at W. 116th St., medical center at W. 168th Street.
Instead, visions of Nevada floated by on the lazy Spuytyn Dyvil. A smattering of small towns dot the Nevada desert, the Rocky Mountains, and the Great Basin. Most towns sit at the base of a small mountain or large hill. It is the custom to lay white rocks out on the hillside overlooking the town in the shape of the town’s initials. High above Elko, Nevada loomed a giant “E.” Not so high, and not quite as visible, an “SC” rose up from the ground near Spring Creek. A “W” for Winnemucca. And to the bemusement of just about everyone, a “BM” floated above Battle Mountain.
My first thought upon seeing the “C”? Helloooo, small-town New York City.
Three years later, the “C” is more of an enigma than the first day I saw it. When the Manhattan Times editor suggested we run an article about it, I took the opportunity, thinking it would be a simple matter of interviewing a few local historians and long time residents.
No such luck. I began asking, and no one seemed to know more than the bare bones of the story of the “C.” I asked Columbia Public Affairs, CB12, Bronx CB8, the Parks Department, the Bronx Borough historian. I asked the Columbia crew coach, the assistant, the athletic director. A former athletic director. I called James Renner. I tried to contact Prendergast himself. He never returned my calls, and while I’m fairly sure he’s alive (he donated to Columbia College in 2009), the last known interview he gave on the “C” was to Renner in 1999.
I became a “C” detective, following every lead, turning over every stone, questioning all my most trusted community sources. If you know me, you were probably asked about the “C” sometime in the past nine months.
Columbia University Public Affairs research revealed no more than this: 1) there are no official records of the “C.” 2) Painting began in 1952 and was completed in 1954. 3) the “C” is maintained by members of the crew team. The last known repainting was in 1987.
Much of the other information I gleaned from blogs, articles, and brief interviews is contradictory or pure speculation. A 1998 New York Times article quotes Brian Bodine, then assistant director of athletics, as saying it was painted in 1955 and last touched up in 1986, while both Renner and Columbia Public Affairs gave the dates as 1954 and 1987. Bodine claimed crew members were suspended by boatswain’s chairs while they painted. This detail was confirmed by Renner, who reported that a boatswain’s chair was hung from ropes attached to drill holes at the top of the rock.
All sources did agree on one fact: the “C” was never painted legally, technically making it graffiti.
But like most graffiti, the “C” has its detractors and its enthusiasts. Sit in a local coffee shop and ask for opinions and see what you get. Some say it should be subjected to the same regulations as all graffiti and removed. Others see it as history – it might be graffiti, but it’s the long-lasting kind that seeps into your unconscious and becomes a permanent fixture, in both the physical and emotional landscape.
Perhaps tellingly, no one I spoke with claimed the “C” was art.
Maybe Prendergast is only partially responsible. After all, if the “C” is taken to be the artist’s moniker, then it follows that Columbia University is the responsible artist.
When it comes to neighborhood graffiti, the king of the hill has its name written, literally, on the hill.
After Gabby’s months of sleuthing, a second character in the mystery of the “C” emerged, after being contacted by someone at the university who heard an article was being written.
Alan Frommer was on the freshman lightweight crew team when he arrived at Columbia in 1953 as an engineering student. His brothers Paul and Herbert were also students.
At the time, only the bottom portion of the “C” had been painted.
During spring break the following year when he and his crewmates did morning and afternoon rows and little else with their time he was inspired to finish the job.
The crew found paint buckets in the boathouse. Speaking by phone these 56 years later, he remembers that the coach had told them “go ahead” and his eight or so companions got to work, finishing it over several days of vacation.
The New York Central Railroad had been working on the rock wall so the necessary equipment to scramble up and down the rock face was lying around.
“It’s been 50 years, I don’t know how the hell we did it, but we did it,” Frommer remembers. “We were bored.”
Once the team was done painting it, the members went on with their training and studies. Frommer graduated in 1957 and had a career in finance. He hasn’t seen the “C” since the 1980s when his daughter attended Columbia.
The stunt didn’t earn him any respect or notoriety with his classmates, he said, even though the “C” would become part of the Inwood landscape and baffle locals with its sideways smile for ages.
“I’m just happy that we had the chance to do it,” he said. “We were very proud of our affiliation.”