From Portraits to Puddles, 2: Dewey Memorial

NOTE: What makes an effective tribute? What makes a memorable memorial? This is the second in a series of posts in which I point out the lessons we can learn from half a dozen memorials in Battery Park. Click “Portraits to Puddles” in the Obsessions cloud to see all the posts. The illustrations are from the video, available here. The complete series is also available in print and as a Kindle book: details in this post.

Our next stop is the Dewey Memorial. To get there, turn your back on Ericsson and walk toward Castle Clinton, that round, one-story stone building a couple hundred feet away. Keep Castle Clinton on your right as you head toward the water. The Dewey Memorial stands on the left, just before the steps that lead down to the promenade along the water and the gangway for the Statue of Liberty ferry. This memorial is a bronze plaque, about three feet high, on a slanted granite support.

The memorial is so small that it’s often obscured by pushcart vendors. We’re pausing to look at it because the medallions reproduced on it were designed by Daniel Chester French. French is best known for the seated Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial.

He also sculpted the four Continents in front of the nearby United States Customs House at Bowling Green. (See Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan, essay 4.)

The Dewey Medal

French was one of America’s two or three most distinguished sculptors, so any sculpture of his that you can find is worth a look. The medallions on the Dewey Memorial are reproduced from a medal that Congress awarded to all the members of the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps who were present at the Battle of Manila Bay on May 1, 1898. That was during the Spanish-American War, which a contemporary dubbed a “splendid little war.” For more on that, see the essays in Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan on Jose Marti and Carl Schurz, and particularly the essay on the Maine Monument, a splendid allegorical ensemble at Columbus Circle.)

The 1800 or so copies of the medal were cast by Tiffany & Co. Each bears on its reverse the name of one of the seven ships involved in the battle. On the rim is the name of the serviceman who received it. If you zoom in on this image, you can just see some lettering on the rim below the sailor.

French produced a good likeness of Admiral George Dewey. That’s a difficult task in a shallow relief, where the bone structure can only be hinted at, and one can’t use color to help suggest three-dimensionality.

The relief on the right of the Dewey Monument (the medal’s reverse) shows a sailor perched on a cannon. French succeeded admirably at showing the seated sailor from the front, with his legs in proper perspective.

Beyond that, French filled the circular shape of both medallions in a satisfying way, without lopping off limbs or leaving awkward blank spaces. It’s a highly competent job.

The Dewey Arch

The Dewey Memorial honoring the Battle of Manila Bay is a small, faint reminder of a form of civic celebration that used to be more common than ticker-tape parades. Dewey’s return from the Philippines was celebrated in New York by the construction of a triumphal arch in Madison Square.

The arch was temporary, built of plaster and wood like the buildings at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. (You may have read about such ephemeral buildings in Erik Larson’s bestselling Devil in the White City.)

The Dewey Arch was similar to the Washington Arch at Washington Square Park – but the Dewey Arch was much larger. The Washington Arch is 77 x 62 feet. The Dewey Arch was 100 x 80 feet, about 20 feet higher and wider. Like the Washington Arch, the Dewey Arch had numerous allegorical figures representing abstractions – in this case, Triumph, Victory, and Battle. Like the Washington Arch, the sculptures were designed and executed by prominent artists of the day.

New Yorkers hoped to raise funds to replicate the arch in a more permanent material. They abandoned their fundraising efforts, however, after Dewey lost the 1900 presidential nomination to William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. The temporary arch, which by that time had deteriorated into a public hazard, was carted off to the city dump.

The Dewey Memorial as you see it now, with reproductions of French’s medallions, was erected in 1973 in honor of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Manila Bay.

Lesson #2

What does the Dewey Arch show us that’s relevant for the World Trade Center memorial? It wasn’t a portrait sculpture. It was architecture, but it was covered with allegorical figures that illustrated how most Americans at the time felt about their victory in the Spanish-American War.

The point for the World Trade Center memorial is that a memorial need not be a representation of a specific person or event. Allegorical or symbolic figures can be very expressive.


  • As you pass Castle Clinton on your right, you’ll see a large bronze sculpture called The Immigrants (New York City Parks Department’s description is here) that’s covered in my first book, Forgotten Delights: The Producers. The Immigrants is a perfect illustration of Emma Lazarus’ “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” the poem on the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. Liberty herself originally had a much different message, which I discuss in The Statue of Liberty: Timeless Art, Political Hot Topic.
  • This essay was provoked in 2003 by the competition for the World Trade Center memorial. I originally gave it as a walking tour of sculptures in Battery Park and the southern end of Manhattan. Since 2012, it’s been available as a Kindle book: From Portraits to Puddles: New York Memorials from the Civil War to the World Trade Center Memorial (Reflecting Absence). The end of the book has an illustrated, annotated list of 30 memorials in Manhattan dedicated to people whose job is to keep us safe: soldiers, policemen, firemen, and so on. If you want to see other memorials that are both effective and memorable, it’s a great place to start.
  • The parts of this essay will appear as a series of blog posts: click “Portraits to Puddles” in the Obsessions cloud at right to find them.
  • This blog post is available as a video to my Patreon subscribers. (Thank you!)
  • Want wonderful art delivered weekly to your inbox? Check out my free Sunday Recommendations list and my Patreon page (free or by subscription): details here.
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