Friday, February 27, 2009

In Memorium: Cornelius Geertruyus Kolff (September 2nd 1860-February 27th 1950)

A century ago, residents of Staten Island knew the name Cornelius G. Kolff --dean of realtors, apostle of good will, a man who dedicated 60 years of his life to boosting the island’s image. Yet members of my generation, and certainly those younger, do not have the pleasure of knowing Kolff, since he passed before our time, and with his passing, it is unfortunate that his name, by and large, has been forgotten. During his lifetime, he like to be called “Staten Island’s Most Obedient Servant." I hope to enlighten those unfamiliar with Kolff about his life and work, about his importance to those of us in Staten Island, and I endeavor to bring awareness to what is being done to re-introduce him to the public eye.
First I must admit, ashamed as I am, my wife and I were only introduced to Kolff four years ago. As my parents introduced me to my life-long study of J.R.R Tolkien, my mother-in-law would re-introduce us to Mr. Kolff and his Staten Island Fairies. My father recently told me that as a child, he took me to see the fairy dolls fashioned after Kolff's fairies. I unfortunately do not have any recollection of seeing them at Staten Island Historical Society’s Toy exhibit.

Since receiving the Staten Island Advance article on Kolff, from my mother-in-law-I have been on a non-stop journey exploring the vast depths of the multidisciplinary work Kolff has left behind. Many Islanders today may not realize it, but they directly experience, enjoy, work, drive or utilize numerous services Kolff developed on Staten Island. Kolff can also be seen as the initial spark responsible for the real estate boom on Staten Island, which has, more or less, gone unchecked since his passing and has swallowed up the open forested spaces cherished in Kolff’s time. At the same time he brought electricity to SI in 1895, which powered the first electric railcar, now the Staten Island Rapid Transit. As the Island’s most prominent civic leader of his time Kolff either founded, was a trustee, President, Secretary, or leader for many of SI’s institutions, such as: The SI Historical Society, SI Institute of Arts and Sciences, SI Chamber of Commerce, Belles Lettres Society, SI Rotary Club, Parks Association and Tree Planting Association. Alongside the many highways, roads, and residential developments, Kolff was the first to propose the great bridge across the narrows in 1926, connecting SI to Brooklyn; the Verrazano Narrows Bridge was completed in 1964.

Can today’s real estate overdevelopment and commercial excesses on SI be solely blamed on Kolff? Not entirely, yet, Kolff was the first to blame himself. As I review Kolff’s life, it has become apparent that he had a very acute awareness of the opposing natures contained in himself: one for business, and the other for the environment.

It is to be feared that all of us have more or less of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde idiosyncrasies in us. Sometimes I think I have. In fact, to be perfectly honest, I know I have. The reason for this latter assertion is quite clear to my mind if not yours. The stern necessities of life compel me to work. I wish it were otherwise, because I have all the instincts of a man of leisure.

Observing an increase in commercial activity upon the island, Kolff later regretted the impact he feared would result in the future. Kolff’s business put in new roads, homes, facilities and watched as the “cruel plow share cut into a bunch of blue Gentians.” Saying goodbye to trees, flowers, and relocated nesting animals, with a moist eye, Kolff noted, “With the rapid development of SI now going on they will all soon be things of the past.” Today, I believe many Islanders would agree with Kolff’s 1919 prediction. I do not believe many developers today have the heart, nor the desire, to save what plants, trees, or shrubbery when the plow sets to destroying a wooded area. It is evident from Kolff’s letters, that he sought to re-plant at his farm what he was able to save from destruction.
His moral struggle, combined with a show of understanding, a comprehension of the plight both he and his society was in, sometimes runs counter to his love of nature. From my experience, developers of today have neither concern for nor conscience about what they are destroying. The necessity of earning a living has become the key focus for us all, and the unrelenting destruction of our natural landscape has become secondary. Would the reader then venture to ask if Kolff’s work, outside of his civic affairs, from his philosophies and stories, to his histories and geographies, to all his collecting and writing of human interest stories, limited to Staten Island? Absolutely, they were not. Kolff sought to establish the importance of Staten Island as a world centre and to ground the borough firmly in story, and a folk history. Kolff chiefly set about this by collecting stories from almost everyone with whom he met.
“I don’t believe anybody hears as many human interest stories as a real estate broker,” Kolff was known to say. In this role he would ask clients and community members for bits of folklore, myths, and stories in an effort to keep a record of these tales. Perhaps his 1934 letter to William T. Davis can shed some light on his reasoning. He said “[I am] anxious to perpetuate as far as possible… short stories, of which I have written many, the individuals and the institutions the memory of which are gradually fading away and will be lost in obscurity unless some record is kept of them.”

Kolff admitted to being an ardent disciple of Emerson’s philosophy and promoted it by building a log cabin on Emerson Hill, five hundred feet from his own farm, which was in the vicinity of the home of Ralph’s brother, Judge William Emerson. Kolff named the cabin the Philosopher’s Retreat. It was here that statesmen, poets, artists, writers, and friends would come and spend hours within a “natural auditorium,” smoking from corncob pipes and reading their philosophical treatises—in a sense sharing their stories. Some of Kolff’s own tales were born from these meetings—meetings that took place during the years of 1904-1917. The Philosopher’s Retreat held meetings some twenty years prior to another famed literary circle meeting across the pond in Oxford, England. Lord of the Rings author, J.R.R. Tolkien, met with C.S. Lewis (of Narnia fame), Charles Williams, and others, and formed The Inklings, a group like Kolff’s that met to share philosophies and stories. So, in essence, the “Staten Island Inklings,” (as I have dubbed them,) were ahead of their contemporaries’ literary curve a half a world away.

A brief exploration of Kolff’s early life can be found in his publication A Staten Island Boy in Holland, or the unpublished An American Boy in Europe which illustrates his first steps toward common ground between Staten Island and distant countries he visited or had the desire to visit in his lifetime. Kolff’s Dutch ancestors were some of the first settlers upon Staten Island in the early 1600’s alongside the already long established Native American population. In 1866, after an initial childhood on SI, Kolff was taken to Europe for his education by his step-father Frederick Momsen. In the ancestral land of his grandfather Ernest Fiedler, a young Cornelius would be the “juengster lehrling,” youngest apprentice serving most of his apprenticeship at Haltermann and Brattstroem in Lubeck, Germany. The company dealt mostly with the Suomi people, or Finland as commonly known. Immediately to the right of entering the office was a huge map of Finland where Kolff would acquaint himself with all of its geographical features of Finland, which its beauties and features of scenery were described to him by the clients. Much was told to him of the literature of Finland, Runeberg, Canth, Topelius, and Lonnrot’s Kalevala which he read 15 years before the birth of Tolkien, another noted Kalevala enthusiast, but did not fully absorb until Kolff was well into his 40’s. Unfortunately it would not be until 1936; sixty years later that he would visit the land of his desire, the Finland of his dreams. There are two unpublished volumes of interest, Finland of My Dreams,” written prior to his trip, detailing history and sites he would like to visit, which is followed by his post trip report Suomi. Both contain such descriptively wrought narratives as to allow the reader an experience almost equal to setting foot on Finnish soil. Following in the footsteps of his merchant family Kolff would learn the trades of his grandfathers and absorb their equal passion for stories.

Kolff’s work is not biased, nor polarized toward one belief system or another, his intent is abundantly clear, to establish that everyone were brothers and sisters under the skin, and that in the eternal fitness of things the foundation of all religions were the same. It was the brother-and sister-hood of the world community for which he sought. This is why he felt that the preservation of human interest stories would in time improve mankind, and his passion for this is unmatched by none other.

Can we then give in and still say Staten Island is a forgotten borough, as has been proposed? That it still suffer from the myth of isolation? Only now do these questions come to the forefront of debate amongst residents. Perhaps it is Kolff’s legacy of placing Staten Island at the world’s centre and it is the people who have forgotten, or just been away from the tomes of time.
It is my hope, as it has been said, that this is Kolff’s year, as we begin to explore his life and work. As cited earlier, for four years now I have been compiling a database of Kolff’s work, and I have been lucky enough to be dubbed the first researcher, and biographer, into his life and work. For this I am grateful first to, my parents, my wife, my mother-in-law, Maxine Friedman and Carlotta Defillo of the Staten Island Historical Society, and secondly to the Folk Art Programming Director Frank Williams and Jo Anne Kavagh of the Council of Arts and Humanties of Staten Island, and Christa Schepen of Rotterdam. This April COAHSI’s newsletter will feature a Kolff article, and begin what I hope to be a fruitful journey toward giving Kolff the dedication he deserves. We are also planning with Frank and COAHSI a day long program dedicated to the 70th anniversary of Staten Island Fairies, fun time for children and adults, with readings and talks, which is currently aimed to take place April 2009. Stay tune to COAHSI, Staten Island Arts for more information.

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