New York's Vanishing Visionary: The Quiet Mysteries of Charles B. Stover
By Jeffrey Scheuer
On a summer afternoon in 1894, a despondent American expatriate walked along the Thames Embankment in London and contemplated ending his life in the river. Charles B. Stover was a thirty-three year old former divinity student from Pennsylvania, was suffering a crisis of faith, of unknown origin, which had led him to give up the ministry. But then, something magical happened. Gazing down at the Thames, an epiphany prompted a change of mind. As he later recalled, he heard “a rush of angel-wings, which stirred the waters, and thrilled me with an impulse to get back to New York and engage in the battle for the right.”
Charles Stover would live for another third of a century, and play an important role in the life of New York City. His most notable, but by no means sole, achievement was his instrumental role in creating many of New York’s parks and playgrounds. Although adept at publicizing his crusades, Stover didn’t seek the limelight; in fact, quite the opposite: he had a curious habit of vanishing from time to time, and then reappearing without explanation. Yet no one ever worked harder than this quirky, enigmatic, childless, and fiercely idealistic man –- or for less financial gain or public recognition -– to make New York a better place for children.
In a flurry of urban activism that began in the early 1890s and continued well into the new century, Charles Stover and his allies on the Lower East Side, worked to achieve a broad range of reforms. A series of organizations emerged early on: the Chadwick Civic Club; the Social Reform Club, which monitored labor conditions in the neighborhood; the East Side Civic Club, a merchants’ organization that was instrumental in widening Delancey Street. Most of these groups were headquartered at Stover’s residence on Forsyth Street. The men and women who gathered there organized petition drives, testified at hearings, wrote letters to the press, and lobbed in Albany for progressive legislation. They commissioned studies of social conditions in the Tenth Ward which reflected the infancy of modern social science, publishing the University Settlement Society’s annual reports and eventually a periodical, the University Settlement Society Quarterly; a monthly called the Guild Journal would follow in 1907.
During 1893-1894, Stover conducted a protracted, virtually single-handed campaign for municipal ownership of the planned subways, a relatively novel idea at a time when private franchises were the rule. He is believed to have spent his entire private inheritance of some $6,000 in that effort, which ultimately led to municipal control of the lines when the City’s subways opened in 1904. A bill before the state legislature would have put the trains in private hands; at the last minute, Stover won inclusion of an amendment calling for a city-wide referendum. He then slipped away to Europe in exhaustion and despair. But in November 1894, the city’s voters rejected private ownership by more than three-to-one.
In the spring of 1896 Stover was back New York, once again in the thick of the reform battles. The timing was right for just such a leader – an independent, high-minded, free-wheeling organizer, advocate, and gadfly. By the mid-1890s, University Settlement was at the epicenter of the reform movement in New York. In 1898, when University Settlement moved to a new building at the corner of Eldridge and Rivington streets (which it continues to occupy today), Mark Twain was among the speakers at the dedication. A few years later, a well-born young visitor from uptown, Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose fiancée taught dance at University Settlement, was shocked by the living conditions in the neighborhood. He would later call the Settlement “a landmark in the social history of the nation.”
It was never a one-man crusade; but Stover was at the hub of the talented group of change-agents that emerged at University Settlement, including Ernest Pool; William English Walling, a co-founder of the NAACP; Walter Weyl, founding editor of The New Republic; Arthur Bullard, Kellog Durland, Howard Brubaker, the novelist Isaac Friedman, and settlement scholar Robert Hunter. The social historian Allen F. Davis, in Spearheads of Reform, calls them “one of the most remarkable collections of young reformers and writers ever assembled.”
In 1910, Stover’s friend and ally William J. Gaynor was elected mayor of New York. As Gaynor’s biographer writes: “[T]o be Park Commissioner and President of the Park Board – a department riddled with political hangers-on – Gaynor appointed an unworldly settlement-house worker, Charles B. Stover, whom he liked because he could quote the Bible and Shakespeare at length.” In part, it was belated recognition of the work Stover had done over the years at University Settlement.
As Park Commissioner he immediately set about creating the Bureau of Recreation, which built thirty new playgrounds in the first three years of its existence. The Bureau reclaimed some ten acres of land from the waterfront along Riverside Drive, using stone excavated for the boring of the Catskill Aqueduct through Manhattan’s bedrock. Stover also engineered the city’s acquisition of the land that in 1913 became Jacob Riis Park. The ground he had sown as an advocate over the previous decades was bearing further fruit.
Relations with the press deteriorated, however, during a productive but increasingly stormy tenure in which Stover made new enemies and refreshed old antagonisms in his pursuit of a greener New York. Though he was hardly new to political controversy, the criticism now weighed heavily on Stover; and in October 1913, toward the end of his four-year term as Park Commissioner, there occurred the strangest incident of his public career. He suddenly vanished for more than three months, prompting a nationwide search.
Finally, after mailing his resignation from Cincinnati, Stover showed up again in New York in January 1914, claiming he had been touring cities in the South to study their parks. He never provided a full account of his absence. In a city whose history is rich in colorful characters and shocking events, the episode remains one of the most bizarre footnotes.
Compounding the Stover enigma is the fact that, despite all the years of effective advocacy for causes great and small, and many loyal friends and colleagues, he left behind a scant paper trail. Newspapers reported on his public activities from the 1890s through his Park Commissionership. But most of what we know of him beyond those press accounts is fragmentary and anecdotal.
Those anecdotes paint a partial but intriguing picture. Lillian Wald described him as “a completely selfless man,” and perhaps there is more to the comment than she intended. He was by all accounts unselfish in the extreme, living ascetically in a paper-piled room on Forsyth Street, and later at University Settlement, while devoting his life and personal fortune to civic causes. But beyond that, Stover seems to have lacked all of the trappings of a private life, living entirely within his missionary zeal to improve New York City. His friends would leave glowing accounts of his work, in private letters as well as in a short posthumous biography, Charles B. Stover: His Life and Personality, compiled by his long-time colleague James K. Paulding in the 1930s.
The final mystery is how so prominent and successful a figure, revered by his allies, could also attain – almost as if he had willed it – such posthumous obscurity. And indeed, he may have willed it. In a letter to a friend in 1927, Stover hints at writing a memoir and speaks of “the foolishness of letting others tell my story.” But then he continues: “My real preference is to be writ in water – just such complete obliteration as the poet Keats feared would be his fate.”
Of a piece with that obscurity, only two photographic portraits of Charles Stover are known to survive. The first was taken during his prime at University Settlement, most likely in the early 1900s. It’s a handsome formal portrait of a rather striking figure: bald and large of frame, with a thick moustache and a large round head, in a suit and tie, looking vigorous and determined; the quintessential Victorian gentleman fiercely devoted to good works. He could be anyone’s favorite uncle or inspiring minister. There is both kindness and steel in the eyes.
In the second picture, taken in the mid-1920s, Stover is seated on a bench at University Settlement’s camp in Beacon, N.Y. Though still in a suit, he now looks rumpled and grandfatherly, his large hands crossed in his lap, in a slightly awkward, wind-blown pose: an elder statesman in his dotage. His high-lace shoes seem like relics of an earlier time, as, in a way, does the man. (At an event marking University Settlement’s 40th anniversary in 1926, Stover would declare that the institution’s “chief mission is the up-building of character.” Long separated from the ministry, he was still about saving people’s souls.)
The 1920’s were also the dotage of New York’s pioneer generation of reformers – Stover, Low, Wald, Paulding, and others – who had built institutions, lobbied for legislation, and created or protected community organizations and public spaces, filling the gaps left by government and private charity in responding to the urban squalor associated with industrialization and mass immigration. In the process, they had helped to invent the civil society of 20th century urban America, advanced the nascent field of social science, and paved the way for the eventual professions of social work and urban planning.
Stover’s death in 1929 galvanized a vast society of friends and admirers, reflected in the encomiums in Paulding’s book. As one former colleague, Jonah Goldstein, typically recalled: “He accomplished more with less than any person I ever knew.” Whatever his quirks or secrets, he had touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers – in most cases without their ever knowing his name.
As Park Commissioner under Mayor Gaynor, Stover had established the 4-acre Shakespeare Garden in Central Park. Two decades later, in 1936, a wide, semicircular bench of Vermont granite was set into the rock atop a small knoll in that garden, looking out toward Central Park West near 80th Street, and dedicated to Stover. The Charles B. Stover bench, also known as the “Whisper Bench,” is a comparatively small and inconspicuous monument. The graceful curving slab of granite is an understated tribute, if a fitting one, to a man who loved Shakespeare almost as much as he loved parks and children. Its modesty, however inadequate to history, would no doubt have pleased him.
Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia presided at the dedication on Nov. 5, 1936. Standing next to him on the knoll that chilly afternoon was his Parks Commissioner, Robert Moses; and for all their sharp contrasts, Moses deserves credit for ensuring that the memorial to his predecessor was established. It bears a simple plaque:
CHARLES B. STOVER
FOUNDER OF OUTDOOR PLAYGROUNDS
WHO DEVOTED HIS LIFE TO PUBLIC SERVICE
IN GRATEFUL RECOGNITION
Jeffrey Scheuer is the author of The Sound Bite Society: How Television Helps the Right and Hurts the Left (2001) and The Big Picture: Why Democracies Need Journalistic Excellence (2007). For a full-length version of this essay, contact the author here.