Tucked away in the Bronx, just a short stroll from the No. 4 subway line, the greatest Americans in history assemble in obscurity: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Mark Twain.

A bust of each sits in a magnificent colonnade at the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, a tourist attraction from an era when prominence did not come from getting voted off the island.

Few guests visit anymore. The collection remains unknown and unappreciated -- its 15 minutes past? -- even as dozens of other halls of fame sprout nationwide: the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame. The Celebrity Lingerie Hall of Fame. Even the Cockroach Hall of Fame.

Despite the competition, the new director of the Bronx hall -- the first of its kind in the United States -- hopes to resurrect its former glory.

"It does seem like the time is right for a Hall of Fame renaissance," said Dennis McEvoy, sitting in his office near the Beaux Arts hall, which was designed by architect Stanford White.

When New York University Chancellor Henry M. MacCracken proposed at the turn of the 20th century honoring America's greatest citizens, fame meant something different than it does today.

The hall opened on May 29, 1901, igniting a debate over candidates' worthiness that raged across editorial pages, barrooms, street corners.

Induction ceremonies, with the unveiling of the bronze busts, drew attendees such as Edison, President Herbert Hoover and movie star Mary Pickford.

A committee of 100 prominent Americans selected the Hall of Famers; over the years, voters would include ex-presidents Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, singer Marian Anderson and scientist Jonas Salk.

Its initial class numbered 29, with members including Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson. For the next 35 years, it remained the nation's lone Hall of Fame.

These days, it is just the oldest tree in an overgrown forest of celebrity.

You are now more likely to find an International Hall of Fame for (fill-in-the-blank) than an International House of Pancakes. You cannot get IHOP's "Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruity" breakfast in Fairbanks, Alaska, but you can visit the Dog Mushers Hall of Fame.

Pete Rose cannot get in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., on a bet, but tens of thousands of other Americans -- the living, the dead, the famous, the infamous -- cannot manage to stay out.

From coast to coast, halls of fame are inducting rock stars and real estate agents, your neighbors and even, well, Jim Nabors. (Alabama Music Hall of Fame, Class of 2001.)

At the International Clown Hall of Fame in downtown Milwaukee, this year's gala induction was held under a cloud: a squabble over who created the immortal Bozo.

The National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron is one of several in Ohio, including the rock and roll hall in Cleveland and the Accounting Hall of Fame in Columbus. The St. Louis-based International Bowling Museum and Hall of Fame includes an homage to 20 bowling writers.

Why so many halls? Why so many millions of Americans lining up to visit, or stepping up for induction?

"They daydream about being famous themselves," psychologist Joyce Brothers said. "There's a study that showed 75 percent of people fantasize about being famous."

The other 25 percent? Apparently, they are already inductees.

Cast a line anywhere in this great nation, it seems, and you will hit a hall.

There is the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, housed inside a 140-foot long, 41/2-story high replica of a leaping muskellunge in Hayward, Wis. And the International Game Fish Association's Fishing Hall of Fame in Dania Beach, Fla., where the inductees include the late Ted Williams, who is also in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

If that is not enough, the double Hall of Famer launched his own hall: the Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame in Hernando, Fla. Williams is an inductee there, too.

The Cockroach Hall of Fame in Plano, Tex., was the brainchild of pest-control specialist Michael Bohdan. In a rare twist, the honorees are present here, though dead: cockroaches dressed in bizarre outfits. There is Liberoachi, sporting a white cape, seated before a piano holding a tiny candelabra.

Admission is free -- just as it is at the original hall.

And yet tourists are not battering down the Bronx hall's gate for a look at the great Americans inside. McEvoy will not hazard a guess at the meager annual attendance, which peaked at 50,000 in the 1920s and '30s. The attraction's post-World War II slide mirrored the decline of the surrounding neighborhood.

When the hall opened, its home was as impressive as its roster: a 630-foot colonnade on the verdant New York University campus. It rose behind one of White's greatest works, the Gould Memorial Library, offering a panoramic view of Manhattan from the highest natural point in New York City.

Historians say the Hall was even celebrated in song, getting a mention in "The Wizard of Oz" when the Munchkins serenade Dorothy with the promise she would "be a bust, be a bust in the Hall of Fame."

Back then, "fame" was not a synonym for notoriety; Monica S. Lewinsky would not be nominated. One American idol was voted in: Charlotte Saunders Cushman, the nation's most popular 19th-century actress, was chosen in 1915.

But fame can be fleeting, even for a hall itself. NYU abandoned the campus in 1973, with the Bronx Community College moving in.

The busts, part of the nation's best collection of portrait sculpture, began deteriorating.

Four inductees never even received a bust when money ran out: industrialist Andrew Carnegie, Red Cross founder Clara Barton, horticulturist Luther Burbank and Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.

The last election for new inductees was held in 1976; the last bust, of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was installed in 1992 -- nearly two decades after his selection.

Now McEvoy pledges to foster a small revival that began with a $1.3 million face-lift in the late '90s, when the busts were restored.

The comeback will not be complete, though, until the hall begins inducting more members, said Lloyd Ultan, the Bronx borough historian and an unabashed fan of the site.

"If that was revived, it would stimulate interest," Ultan said.

McEvoy would love to resume elections, although there is no timetable. (There has been no committee of electors for the last quarter-century.) In the meantime, he plans a "Friends of the Hall of Fame" group that could raise money for the four missing busts and other projects.

He spouts facts about the hall's figures -- as easily discussing poet Walt Whitman as the forgotten William Thomas Green Morton, the first dentist to use ether as an anesthetic.

The new director particularly enjoys the inductees' historical connections: Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson opposite the Union's Ulysses S. Grant; Lincoln near his assassin's brother, Edwin Booth; archrival inventors Edison and George Westinghouse.

McEvoy is resolute that after 103 years, the original Hall of Fame's 15 minutes are not up.

"My big goal," he says, "is to promote it and popularize it again" -- in other words, to make it famous.

Lori Dotson, left, and Doris Patterson, both of Los Angeles, look over a display at the Clown Hall of Fame in Milwaukee. Dennis McEvoy, right, director of the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, and a friend chat in the 103-year-old hall's colonnade.