Archive for the ‘War memorials’ Category

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

May 15, 2023

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]

New York’s oldest statue is in one of the city’s oldest parks

April 24, 2023

It took 10 years to raise the money to erect an official City of New York monument to George Washington. But with the funds finally secured in 1843, the first specifics were breathlessly reported in the pages of the New-York Tribune.

It would be a 425-foot granite pentagon-shaped structure, with a pinnacle at the top and space for a library, collections rooms, and an “astronomical observatory,” according to the Tribune.

Okay, so clearly this memorial to General Washington didn’t rise anywhere in Gotham. But 13 years later, during a dedication ceremony that attracted huge crowds on the streets and watching from windows and rooftops, a very different version was unveiled outside Union Square at Fourth Avenue and 14th Street.

This monument was a bronze equestrian statue of Washington by Henry Kirke Brown. The arresting statue came in at 29 feet high, including its granite pedestal, designed by Richard Upjohn, per the Brooklyn Eagle in an article on the day it was dedicated in 1856.

Portraying Washington on Evacuation Day, when he rode back into the city triumphantly with hundreds of other members of the Continental army following the departure of the British in November 1783, it ranks as the oldest statue in a New York City park today, per NYC Parks.

It made sense to bring the statue to Union Square, which at the time was surrounded by fine houses inhabited by elite New Yorkers and had only held park status for 17 years.

Union Square, known as Union Place (because it was the juncture of Broadway, then known as Bloomingdale Road, and the Bowery) until the 1820s, was originally a potter’s field before becoming a “public place” in the 1830s and then an official park in 1839—one of the few parks at the time.

The theater district would come to Union Square in the 1860s and 1870s, followed by commerce in the 1880s. But at the time the statue was unveiled, this was an elite area worthy of a sculptural memorial to Washington.

Illustrators created images of the statue, and photographers followed suit, giving contemporary audiences a detailed idea of how peaceful today’s raucous Union Square looked before and after the Civil War. (The first photo in this post dates to 1870; the illustrations appear to be earlier.)

One thing that eventually changed is the placement of Washington’s statue. By 1930, during a renovation of Union Square Park, the statue was moved inside the southern end of the park.

A renovation in the 1980s gave Washington a new sword and stirrup, replacement the originals, which had been taken by vandals.

Brown’s George Washington statue has fared better than his bronze Lincoln, which he completed in 1870 and also graced Union Square. Critical disdain and a lack of respect by park goers (or park workers) toppled it.

[Top image: Wikipedia]

This mostly forgotten war memorial to fallen Brooklyn transit workers is especially poignant

April 17, 2023

It might be the last place in the city you’d expect to find an artful and expressive monument to World War I heroes.

But not far from Brooklyn’s busy Broadway Junction subway stop, near the bus depot and behind a chain-link fence at Broadway and Herkimer Street in East New York, is a tall bronze plaque framed in granite.

The plaque presents a touching image: a bas relief of a robed figure deep in mourning. The figure is reclining on the ground, faceless under a head covering, holding what appears to be a palm branch in one hand.

Under the figure’s elbow is a realistically carved subway car—with the initials BRT inside a circular logo above the train.

Most contemporary New Yorkers probably wouldn’t recognize those initials. But BRT stood for Brooklyn Rapid Transit system—the public transit company formed in 1896 that consolidated several existing railroad lines in Brooklyn and Queens. The BRT operated surface trains and subway routes until it went bankrupt in 1919.

Before the BMT went under, the company built this monument. “Dedicated by the employees of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit System to the memory of their fallen HEROES in the world war, 1917-1918,” the plaque reads.

More than 50 names are emblazoned on the plaque, as well as each man’s job and the location where he worked.

The humanity of this monument makes its presence with the names. Pvt. Theodore P. Jensen was a motorman based out of the Ninth Avenue Depot. Pvt. August Hegel was a machinist at the repair shop at Fresh Pond. Sgt. Bernard F. Spaulding was a plumber’s helper in the Building Department.

Many decades after this memorial went up, transit workers added a small plaque on the cement base in memory of “World War II, Korean, and Vietnam War Veterans.” Beyond this additional plaque, there’s no signs of recent visitors, no wreaths or flowers. That seems to be the fate of many Great War monuments outside Manhattan, like this one in Hunts Point.

One intriguing mystery is the name of the sculptor: A. Zeitlin, it looks like. A Russian-born sculptor named Alexandre Zeitlin came to New York City in 1915 and became noted for his statuettes and portrait busts before his death in the 1940s. Could this be the artist behind this mostly forgotten monument to dozens of young transit workers cut down by war?

[Thanks to Jim S. for the photos and alerting me to this hiding-in-plain-sight memorial]

The city’s most neglected war memorial might be this granite marker in the Bronx

March 6, 2023

You can barely walk through a New York City park or square without coming across some kind of war memorial, and I consider that a good thing.

Sturdy doughboy statues, proud eagle sculptures, sedate bronze plaques—these monuments don’t just pay homage to the dead but connect us to different eras in Gotham’s past. They remind us, even for a passing moment as you hurry to catch the bus, about the human toll of combat.

But occasionally you encounter a war memorial that feels not just forgotten but almost actively neglected, so battered by the elements over time that it’s become more of a receptacle for litter, not a source of reflection.

That’s the case with this granite, five-foot marker outside the Hunts Point 6 train station in the Bronx. Intended to honor the Hunts Point natives who lost their lives in World War I, it sits on a sidewalk island once known as Crames Square, for a local resident named Charles Crames who was killed in the Great War.

“To the men of Hunts Point who gave their lives in the World War 1914-1918,” a simple inscription at the top reads like a scroll between two carved ribbons.

This granite marker didn’t start out so unloved. “Three thousand residents of Hunt’s Point [sic] attended the unveiling of a seven-ton granite memorial to World War dead from that part of the Bronx,” wrote the New York Times in a small writeup on May 23, 1938.

The afternoon ceremony went from 2:30 to 4:30, and it was preceded by a parade “of civic organizations, school children, Gold Star mothers and veterans and auxiliaries of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars,” continues the Times.

Buglers played taps, and a local official told the reporter that “the purchase of a bronze eagle three feet in height was being considered by the civic association to complete the monument.”

Eighty-five years after the unveiling, Crames Square no longer honors a Great War casualty because it no longer exists. This busy spot is now known as De Valle Square, after a Cuban-born priest who led the nearby Bronx parishes at St. Anselm’s and St. Athanasius in the 1970s and 1980s.

The granite monument itself hasn’t been erased, but there’s an empty circle which perhaps held the bronze eagle the civic leader at the parade mentioned to the New York Times reporter.

A forgotten war memorial in Madison Square Park honors the “glorious dead”

November 7, 2022

New York is a time capsule of war memorials. Solemn doughboy statues, heavy bronze plaques inscribed with names, and dramatic sculptures personifying courage and mortality honor all the city residents over the years who lost their lives in combat.

Some of these memorials are so inconspicuous, they’ve been pretty much forgotten. Case in point is this simple metal plaque on a concrete plinth in Madison Square Park honoring America’s “glorious dead.”

Located on the east side of the Park at about 25th Street, the plaque is partially hidden by fallen leaves from the tree planted at the same time it was installed.

The organization responsible for the tree and plaque is the Young Australia League—a group formed in 1906 in Perth as a soccer league that embraced Australian patriotism and pride. In March 1929, a group of 159 young Australians from the YAL came to New York City as part of a “sightseeing and goodwill” trip of the United States, according to this Brooklyn newspaper article.

Strangely, the marker doesn’t specify who the glorious dead are. But since the plaque came to the park in 1929, the intent was likely to honor the 116,708 American military personnel who perished from any cause during the Great War.

Though small and hard to find, the plaque is in good company in Madison Square Park. The Admiral Farragut statue, honoring the Union Army leader of “damn the torpedoes…full speed ahead” fame, sits inside the northwest corner of the park.

And the military grave site and 51-foot obelisk memorial to General William Jenkins Worth—who died during the Mexican-American War in 1849—rises nearby at Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and 25th Street.

The understated war memorials inside a private Central Park South club

November 8, 2021

The New York Athletic Cub on Central Park South might sound like a strange place to honor Veterans Day. But if the doormen let you take a look around this “Italian Renaissance Palazzo style” club founded in 1868, wander through the cavernous lobby.

On the right amid the club chairs and lounge areas is an entire wall with a plaque dedicated to the New York Athletic Club members who served in World War II. Within the plaque is a list of men who make up their “honored dead.”

World War II isn’t the only war worthy of a memorial. Besides the WWII wall are smaller plaques honoring those who died in Korea and Vietnam.

To my knowledge, the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq don’t have their own monuments inside the building—which opened in 1930 at Seventh Avenue on the former site of the magnificent circa-1880s Navarro Flats, one of the city’s most spectacular apartment complexes.

But there is a plaque commemorating the event that started those wars, listing the names of club members who were killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Going back in time to 1930s Columbus Circle and Central Park

October 11, 2021

Whatever you think of Christopher Columbus, you have to admit the circle named for him at 59th Street looks pretty spectacular in this 1934 postcard.

It’s a rich and detailed view looking toward Central Park South and into the park itself. There’s the Columbus monument, the Maine monument at the entrance to the park (no pedicab traffic, wow!), the Sherry Netherland hotel all the way on Fifth, and a streetcar snaking its way to Broadway.

[postcard: postcardmuseum]

This was General Grant’s more modest first tomb in Riverside Park

September 27, 2021

When Ulysses S. Grant succumbed to throat cancer on July 23, 1885, the entire country, and New York City in particular, mourned a man considered to be a national hero.

Though he passed away at an upstate resort near Saratoga, the former US President and Civil War General had made Manhattan his home since 1881. He resided in a handsome brownstone with his wife, Julia, at 3 East 66th Street.

In the months before his death, as Grant finished his memoirs and battled a painful cancer, the press had something of a death watch going—writing front page articles about the doctors who came in and out of the brownstone, how well Grant had slept the night before, and what medications he was taking.

Crowds formed outside his brownstone all the way to Central Park, as this Harper’s illustration shows. “Expressions of sympathy were heard on every hand, and every one thought it marvellous [sic] that the General was able to continue the struggle for so long,” reported the New-York Tribune in April 1885.

Those same crowds were likely among the estimated 1.5 million people who lined city streets from City Hall through the Upper West Side to witness Grant’s funeral procession (above, at Bryant Park).

Before his death, Grant decided New York City would be his final resting place. “Mayor William R. Grace (who would later serve as president of the Grant Monument Association) offered to set aside land in one of New York City’s parks for burial, and the Grant family chose Riverside Park after declining the possibility of Central Park,” states

Riverside Park was a wise choice. The park, with its natural rock outcroppings and sloping hillside, had recently been developed, and the winding drive alongside it, then called Riverside Avenue, was to be a peaceful carriage road leading to the 18th century inn known as Claremont at 124th Street and beyond.

The problem was, the magnificent Grant’s Tomb we recognize today at Riverside Drive and 122nd Street—with its Doric columns and a circular cupola that can be seen from miles away—was not yet in the planning stages.

So a first tomb for Grant was built in Riverside Park a few blocks north (top two images). Much less grand, the original Grant’s tomb ended up housing his remains for 12 years.

The temporary vault was designed by Jacob Wrey Mould, chief architect of New York City’s Department of Public Works. “With outside dimensions of 17’ x 24’, it consisted primarily of red bricks with black brick trim and a semi-cylindrical asphalt-coated brick roof,” wrote

The site chosen for the vault was described in The New York Times on July 29 as “a spot of rare natural beauty away from the noise and turmoil of the great and busy city.”

While Grant’s coffin rested there, the city worked on the design and financing of the spectacular permanent tomb, which opened with great pomp and fanfare on April 27, 1897—a city holiday named Grant Day.

Grant’s remains were quietly transferred inside. Meanwhile, the first tomb was being dismantled, and the bricks became souvenirs.

“In 1897, when Grant’s coffin was transferred to the permanent tomb, the bricks from the dismantled structure became a hot item,” wrote Michael Pollack in a 2006 New York Times FYI column. “As many as 1,000 were acquired by the mayor’s office and distributed to former generals, dignitaries and others.”

And about the old joke about who is buried in Grant’s tomb, the answer is…nobody. Grant’s remains, as well as his wife’s, are entombed (but not buried) in the sarcophagi, viewable from the main entrance.

Riverside Drive is one of New York’s most historic (and beautiful!) streets. Join Ephemeral New York on a walking tour of the Drive from 83rd to 107th Streets on October 24 that takes a look at the mansions and monuments of this legendary thoroughfare.

[Top photo: Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library; second image: NYPL; third image: MCNY,; fourth image: LOC; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: NYPL]

Brooklyn’s 14th Regiment armory, day and night

May 31, 2021

Designed to look like a Medieval fortress with towers and turrets, the 14th Regiment Armory—also called the Eighth Avenue armory—has been part of Park Slope since 1893.

In daytime or at night, this block-spanning armory with brick and bluestone trim is a Victorian wonder, as these postcards (the first one with glitter!) from the collection at the Museum of the City of New York reveal.

It owes its existence to the wave of armory-building undertaken by New York between the Civil War and World War I. Not many survive, but putting the spotlight on one on Memorial Day will hopefully encourage New York to take a closer look at these magnificent beauties.

[First postcard: F2011.33.1067; Second postcard: MCNY, X2011.34.2288]

All the arches that were built (and then bulldozed) in Madison Square

May 31, 2021

Arch fever at Madison Square Park started in 1889. That’s the year a pair of elaborate wood arches festooned with American flags were built to commemorate the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration.

One arch went up outside the 23rd Street and Broadway entrance to the park (above photo), and the other was constructed on the 26th Street side (below). The city threw an impressive party for the first president, but after the festivities honoring Washington ended, the two arches were reduced to rubble.

But arches in general were quite popular all over the Beaux-Arts city through the end of the Gilded Age. So 10 years later, another arch was unveiled beside the Fifth Avenue Hotel at 24th Street and Broadway.

This impressive structure was the Dewey Arch (above), named for Admiral George Dewey, whose victory at the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War earned him national hero status. Dewey was coming to New York to be honored with a parade and a flotilla of ships, and city officials hoped to welcome him in triumphant style.

The ostentatious arch reflected that spirit. “The Dewey Arch, designed by architect Charles R. Lamb, was based on the Arch of Titus in Rome and was produced by 28 sculptors,” wrote “It was topped by a quadriga, a chariot pulled by four horses running abreast. This one, in keeping with the occasion, depicted four seahorses pulling a ship.”

After the Dewey celebration, calls went out to turn this temporary arch (made from staff, a mixture of plaster and wood shavings) into a permanent one. Unfortunately, the Dewey Arch was “carted away” later that year, already picked apart by vandals, according to Daniel B. Schneider in The New York Times FYI column in 1999. The public lost interest in Dewey by then anyway.

But Madison Square Park wasn’t done with arches yet. In 1918, a fourth arch, called the Victory Arch, would be unveiled at Fifth Avenue and 24th Street. The Victory Arch was the brainchild of Mayor John Hylan, a way to honor the fallen soldiers from World War I as well as the men who were returning from Europe.

“The $80,000 triple arch was designed by Thomas Hastings in temporary materials and modeled after the Arch of Constantine in Rome, with relief panels commemorating important battles, war service organizations, and industrial might—like munitions makers,” wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 1994.

As with the Dewey Arch, many New Yorkers wanted the Victory Arch to be permanent. Of course, it had plenty of critics as well. “Fiorello H. LaGuardia, as a candidate for President of the Board of Alderman in 1919, denounced the project as the ‘Altar of Extravagance,’ stated Gray.

By 1919, thousands of doughboys had marched through the Victory Arch during the many parades held by the city. It must have been quite a shock, then, to watch the arch be demolished in the summer of 1920—a victim of “bureaucratic infighting,” according to Allison McNearney in The Daily Beast.

Madison Square Park remains archless a century later—but it wasn’t for a lack of trying.

[First image: MCNY, X2010.11.11029; second image: MCNY, X2010.11.11015; third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: MCNY X2010.28.827]