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Ways of the World

Carol Stone, business economist & active Episcopalian, brings you "Ways of the World". Exploring business & consumers & stewardship, we'll discuss everyday issues: kids & finances, gas prices, & some larger issues: what if foreigners start dumping our debt? And so on. We can provide answers & seek out sources for others. We'll talk about current events & perhaps get different perspectives from what the media says. Write to Carol. Let her know what's important to you:

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Mrs. Astor

Ways of the World has talked before about modern-day philanthropists, in particular, how they put their funds earned in business to good use for society. Brooke Astor is another example; while she inherited the funds she gave toward a multitude of good causes in New York City, those funds had their origin in business efforts.

The first John Jacob Astor traded furs all the way to Fort Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the Columbia River by 1811. From the 1830s (according to Wikipedia), he believed New York would become one of the world's great cities and he began to buy up huge parcels of Manhattan real estate. At his death in 1848, he passed on a fortune estimated at $20,000,000. However, a biographer, James Stokesbury, reminds us that Astor was not the nicest man in the world. "To the end, money was his passion, and to make it his men evicted widows and debauched Indians." [, American History Magazine]

Mrs. Astor was not out to make up for this lack of character in her husband's ancestor or his other progeny; she was, by her own estimation, trying to leave society better off than it would have been without her. She could clearly do no more. But perhaps the good she has done with this money can put salve on that earlier pain. Regardless, her many beneficiaries are surely appreciative of her largesse. I know firsthand. My Church, St. Ann & the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn, was the recipient of grants from the Astor Foundation, one of them among the last grants before it was dissolved. These funds provided for the restoration of several of our mid-19th Century stained glass windows, the first figural windows produced in the United States. The one shown here is a 40-foot masterpiece that towers over the entire sacred space. The church building and these windows were provided in the 1840s by another businessman, Edgar John Bartow, a Brooklyn paper manufacturer.

So as we think about these people and how they make their money, let us also give thanks for those stewards who put that money to such marvelous uses. People in Harlem, who live on Astor Row, know this about the houses they live in. The staff of the Metropolitan Museum knows this; not only did Mrs. Astor support the museum's collections, she gave an endowment to provide in perpetuity for the staff Christmas party. She supported the New York Public Library most of all, and we ordinary people who just want to browse for books have her to thank for the Library's acquisition of an old department store building that became the Mid-Manhattan Library. So thank you again, Mrs. Astor. And thanks too to old John Jacob Astor, who began with almost nothing and left us the wherewithal to build a future – and for St. Ann's Church to preserve its past.

"The Glorification of Christ" by William J. Bolton and Robert Bolton, 1844-1848. Church of St. Ann & the Holy Trinity, Brooklyn, New York. Restored 1997 by David Fraser and the Staff of the Brooklyn Stained Glass Conservation Center. Photo by David Fraser.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Carol, What a wonderful commentary on Mrs. Astor's life. My clients were beneficiaries of Mrs. Astor's largesse through the Vincent Astor Foundation which she used wisely and well. She would not give money until she had made a site visit and was convinced her money would make a difference and would be used properly for the benefit of many.
As a member of the Vestry at St. Ann & The Holy Trinity and involved with the St. Ann's Center for Restoration and the Arts, I attest first hand to the effect the grants from the Astor Foundation had. In addition to saving beautiful stained glass art, preserving a landmarked building, nurturing and sustaining a stained glass studio which trained new workers in this medieval art,the grants encouraged a dedicated but struggling community of artists and spiritual seekers. Everyone is on a spiritual journey to seek answers to the questions of "Who Am I?" "Why Am I Here?" "Who Is My Brother (Sister)?" Art's task is the help answer those questions. The job of artists is to raise consciousness - to make us see, feel, think, be grateful, express awe. If we only "lead lives of quiet desperation" taking care of our physical needs and those of others less fortunate, we will be soul-dead. "The poor you will always have with you." Art is unique, one of a kind, startling, awakening.
Now, don't get me wrong, I believe in tithing my time and talent and treasure and helping the person in front of me who asks, but I am all for funding the arts and individual artists and I praise audiences, art patrons and abundance. I bow to Mrs. Astor and bless her memory. May I be as prosperous and generous and remembered as well as she.
Rev. Seana from Brooklyn

8/24/2007 9:42 AM  

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