The long search for a site to build Manhattan’s most glorious war memorial

The unveiling took place on Decoration Day in 1902. That late May morning began with a parade of thousands of “grizzled men,” as one Brooklyn newspaper called the old veterans.

The marchers made their way from Fifth Avenue and Central Park South, passing hastily constructed viewing stands filled with proud spectators, to a gentle bend at Riverside Drive and 89th Street.

There, on the park side of the Drive with the Hudson River visible through the treetops, Manhattan’s newest and grandest war memorial—the Soldiers and Sailors Monument—was dedicated to the men who fought for the Union. The daylong ceremony featured school kids, city dignitaries, and men who 40 years earlier served with courage and valor.

Decoration Day, 1902

More than 120 years later, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument continues to stand at Riverside Drive and 89th Street. Modeled after a Greek temple, it’s a 100-foot tall, Corinthian-columned memorial set in a plaza and surrounded by stone plinths engraved with the names of important generals and decisive battles.

Considering the monument’s beauty and significance (below image, still under construction in 1902), you’d never think that a frustrating battle of a different kind ensued back in the early 1890s: a long fight to find a place to build it.

The story begins in 1893, when New York City officially commissioned a memorial that would honor veterans of the War Between the States. With the war long over and the emotions surrounding it dulled with time, Gotham was in the grip of a wave of Civil War nostalgia. The time was right to honor the veterans.

Once a memorial was commissioned, a site had to be selected. Officials “proposed a triumphal arch at Grand Army Plaza, at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, one of New York’s most prominent open spaces,” wrote Christopher Gray in the New York. Times in 2002.

But not everyone wanted a monument on this prime corner of real estate. A newly formed group called the Fine Arts Federation campaigned against it, claiming that the entrance to Central Park “must be kept free from large and striking constructions,” according to an 1895 article in the New York Sun.

The Fine Arts Association proposed Riverside Drive and 72nd Street for the monument. Having a memorial at the very beginning of the Drive would make a fine bookend for Grant’s Tomb, they reasoned, which was going up at the other end at 122nd Street, per an 1896 New York Times piece.

For the next few years, more sites were suggested—but no one could agree on a location.

“More than 20 meetings were held in 1896 and 1897 to try to choose a site, and other solutions were proposed, among them the triangle between 22nd and 23rd Streets and Broadway and Fifth Avenue,” wrote Gray. “Naval officers did not like the Grand Army Plaza idea because it was not within sight of water, a matter of little importance to Army veterans, who preferred the Fifth Avenue location.”

Eventually, Fifth Avenue and 59th Street was out of the running. Then Sherman Square, Abingdon Square, Union Square, the Battery and the northeast corner of Central Park were all proposed, stated Gray.

By 1899, officials were also seriously considering Mount Tom, a rocky outcropping off 83rd Street in Riverside Park made famous by Edgar Allan Poe, who liked to sit there with the son of his landlord at the time, Tom Brennan. But developers constructing new houses across the Drive protested, as did people who didn’t approve of “building on top of a natural feature,” as Gray put it.

At the end of the year, however, the site for the monument was finally agreed upon: the prominence on Riverside Drive and 89th Street. Architects were commissioned, a design chosen, and ground broken in 1900.

The building of the monument had finally commenced. But actually, there was one final snag.

During construction, a wealthy widow named Elizabeth Clark—who lived in a fine colonial mansion across the Drive and was the daughter-in-law of the man who built The Dakota—”got a temporary injunction against the monument, claiming in court papers that it would ‘interfere with the flow of light and air and obstruct the view’ and that it was ”unsightly and inartistic,'” wrote Gray.

“She lost the case in mid-1900, and work went ahead,” added Gray. Two years later, the completed monument—visible on land as well as by sea, to please both Army and Navy veterans—was a must-see site in Manhattan’s new center of wealth, Riverside Drive.

Now honoring veterans of all wars, it’s still a dignified beauty. But sadly, it’s deteriorating and behind fencing for several years now, its fate is unsure.

To find out more about the Soldiers and Sailors monument, sign up for Ephemeral New York’s Gilded Age Riverside Drive tour! Tours are currently scheduled for Sunday, June 4 and Sunday, June 25, both from 1-3 pm.

[Second, third, and fourth images: New-York Historical Society; fifth image MCNY, F2011.33.90]

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10 Responses to “The long search for a site to build Manhattan’s most glorious war memorial”

  1. Beth Says:

    The mortar that’s supposed to hold it together is nearly gone – it’s literally falling apart. Thanks to Council Member Gayle Brewer’s efforts, Eric Adams included $62.3 million dollars for monument repairs in the 2023 preliminary city budget. I don’t know when the budget will be ratified or when/if the money will be provided.

    • Greg Says:

      Thanks for the update! This monument simply must be preserved.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      This is wonderful news Beth! Last I heard, the city was secretly hoping that a rich private citizen would fork over $50 million for the repairs.

  2. andrewalpern Says:

    Splendid tale of one of the handsomest monuments in Manhattan. But Elizabeth Clark’s fine mansion wasn’t colonial. She built the sort-of-Georgian house after her husband Alfred Corning Clark has died and she had remarried to the Episcopal primate Bishop Potter. Here was the house on 22nd Street when she lived with Husband 1, and the far grander Riverside Drive mansion where she lived with Husband 2.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      You are right, it was Georgian! I hear it also had a bowling alley inside, which must have been fun for Mrs. Potter and the Bishop.

  3. Anna Lehr Says:

    Well thats just sad-how can the city allow a beautiful old monument to just fall apart- something should be done to save it

  4. velovixen Says:

    This is great story. It shows that even veterans aren’t immune to being victimized by NIMBYism.

    I couldn’t help but to think of the Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn. It’s in about as prominent a location as possible: at the entrance to Prospect Park and at the beginning of Eastern Parkway and Ocean Avenue.

    The reason why it became a monument to soldiers is that it didn’t start out that way. When Frederic Law Olmstead–he of Central, Fairmount and Mount Royal Parks–designed Prospect, he had in mind the plazas of Europe: Think of the Etoile, which surrounds the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

    It wasn’t until 1926–the sixtieth anniversary of the Park’s opening and the founding of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization of Union Army veterans–that the site was renamed Grand Army Plaza.

    Although the Soldiers and Sailors Monument is in a great location, it’s interesting to think of how it might have been different had it been built, instead, at 59th and Fifth, Columbus Circle or at the northern end of Central Park.

  5. Bobbi Says:

    I just wanted to mention an event of possible interest to you and your readers—the Kips Bay Decorator Show House at 337 Riverside Drive at 106th Street, New York, NY 10025:

    The highly anticipated design event has claimed the historic River Mansion at 337 Riverside Drive at W 106th Street in the Upper West Side as its location. The Show House will be open to the public for one month beginning Thursday, May 11th, 2023. An iconic building on the Upper West Side, the home is also known as “The River Mansion” as the oversized home sits on a corner high point beside Riverside Park with enchanting Hudson River views. With a colorful history beginning in 1902, the building has been home to several notable residents including actress Julia Marlowe, and the Bronfman family including Edgar, Sherry B. and Hannah Bronfman.

    The Show House runs until June 6th, admission is $40, and here’s the website address:

  6. Tom B Says:

    I’m curious what the “Cancel Culture” has to say about this monument. They seem to have the most influence on our historic monuments. Personally I would like to see it refurbished.

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