Sunday, October 31, 2010

My Grandfather's carvings, part 2

My Grandfather, Harry Levine, when he came to the United States from Vilna, Russia (or actually Lithuania, but it depends on the "when") had been trained as a woodcarver, a furniture maker. In the US he found himself in Brooklyn, and his life included sculpture classes at the Educational Alliance Art School in NYC. A cool aside here: I spent some time in NYC at the Center for Jewish History, researching Grandpa's time at the Educational Alliance. My big "find" was minutes from a faculty meeting where Grandpa Harry was in attendance (he must have taught a class) as they all discussed a grievance. The faculty at the meeting included Chaim Gross, Abbo Ostrowsky, and more, including Louise Nevelson!! How cool is THAT!?

Anyhow, going through old papers at home I found, in an Educational Alliance Art School exhibition booklet a writeup about Grandpa that said he had been commissioned to carve a series of satyric faces on fenceposts at an estate in Croton. EUREKA! Confirmation!!

Around the same time, my brother was back in Croton, showing around the photos. In the public library, someone recognized the lintels over the garage doors and windows, and the next thing I knew, I had a phone call from my brother who was standing in front of the garage doors looking at our grandfather's carvings (photo below). Except the carved panels in the doors had been removed, and all that was left was the lintels. No sign of a totem pole anywhere, no fenceposts.

Note: I've been separating paragraphs in this post with some photos of the lintels as they can be seen now.

He was taken inside the Jewish Center, where upstairs there is a preschool. Staring down from the ends of ceiling beams were more carved faces! Nobody in the Jewish Center knew anything about the history of the carvings, and surprisingly little about the history of the building. Amazingly, the little pre-schoolers didn't seem to notice the scary-ish faces. And as you can tell by the condition of them, they have not been given much (or any) TLC over the years. The wood is cracked, and they are dusty. :-(
Here they are, plus the one at the top of this post. My husband is looking directly at one:

I arranged to meet my brother at the location (currently the Croton Jewish Center) in late Autumn (last year) when the leaves were off the trees, so we could more thoroughly scout the woodsy grounds. After a couple of hours, about to give up, my husband spotted a pile of stones, right near the entry road. On closer examination, we realized they had been cemented together, and there is a nice hole in the center. It matches the stones in our photos; it's the base for the totem pole! Proof it had been there!!

And further exploration found a little log building on the site, which appears in the background of some of the fencepost photos. But there is now a condo development where the fence/bridge/stream would have been. So our photos are probably all that is left of the carved posts. But where is the totem, and where are the carved garage door panels?

We found other carvings that we didn't know about, in particular these two little gargoyle-like men by the front door. My husband (left) and brother (right) are doing their best imitations.

So why am I spending so much time posting this stuff? Two reasons, really. First of all, simply to share, because of my artistic family heritage. I'm (understandably) proud. But also, you never know when somebody might see something or read something that sparks some memory, that might establish for us a new place to look.

Our trips to Croton have led us on wild goose chases - from a call about totem pole in Croton that turned out to be a Boy Scout project, to a claim that someone so liked the garage door panels that they "copied" them for their bathroom vanity. Hmmmm.... We've learned that the Croton Jewish Center isn't really in Croton, it is in Cortlandt, and we've been sent back and forth and all over the place talking to assessors and historians. We've learned that Croton-on-Hudson's history is rich in the arts, and also that there was a lively community of anarchists around the time Grandpa Harry was taking the train north from NYC to do these carvings. We've put stories in the local newspaper, placed ads asking for information, and tried to make it clear we are trying to establish a historic family record. There was even a story in the Westchester version of the New York Times.
We want to find these items to photograph them, not to take them away from anyone who has given them a home. It's been an interesting ride, but I'm out of ideas. Let me know if you can suggest where we might look next!


  1. What a wonderful story, Phyl. The carvings are amazing. You've really uncovered a treasure drove of family memories and connections. I wish you the best of luck. Keep us posted on where this investigation takes you. There must me more of this out there.

  2. Great detective work. I enjoyed learning about your grandfather's carvings.

  3. This is fun to read! Did you find the totem?

    1. No luck. Many wild goose chases, but nothing.