NOTE: What makes an effective tribute? What makes a memorable memorial? This is the fourth 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.
We’ll look next at the East Coast Memorial. To reach it from the Dewey Memorial, walk east, away from Castle Clinton, on the sidewalk along the water that’s officially known as the Admiral George Dewey Promenade. (Why yes, that Dewey.) When you reach Gangway 3, you’ll see four pairs of enormous granite slabs on your left.
Towering behind the slabs, to the north, is an 18-foot-tall bronze eagle on a six-foot pedestal. Walk toward the eagle until you can see it from the side – that’s the best view to see its diving motion.
The East Coast Memorial honors over 4,600 servicemen who died in the Atlantic during World War II. On the eight slabs are the name, rank, branch of the armed service, and home state of each one.
The eagle is sweeping down to place a wreath on a wave. The wave symbolizes the sea. A wreath can symbolize victory, honor or mourning. Here it’s all three. The eagle, of course, represents the United States. So this bronze shows the United States honoring and mourning Americans lost at sea. All these symbols are pretty common – not obscure or difficult to interpret.
Normally animals are less expressive than human figures, but this bronze eagle fairly shouts a message. Its wings, beak and talons all slant in the same direction. Its feathers are reduced to a few stylized lines that also emphasize the speed of its dive. And look at its eyes, especially from the front. I don’t know if eagles express emotion with their eyes, but this one has scowling brows that give it a human ferocity.
This eagle’s ferocity and single-minded motion imply that although those who erected the monument are mourning, they are not wallowing in despair. They are proud to have fought and won, and they are still willing to fight. We get all that, without words, from the figure of the eagle.
As I said when discussing Ericsson, an artist’s choice of what details to include and how to show them always conveys a message. That’s true even if the subject isn’t human. For example, in front of the nearby Customs House, a fluffy eagle is snuggling up to the figure of America, nibbling the corn in her lap.
If that eagle were the focus of the East Coast Memorial, the United States would be shown symbolically as tame and timid. In contrast, the East Coast Memorial’s eagle is fierce and intent.
The site of the East Coast Memorial even suggests what the soldiers of the Second World War fought and sometimes died for. If you turn your back on the eagle and face the harbor, you’ll see the Statue of Liberty centered between the pairs of slabs.
That is not accidental. We have rules and regulations and public hearings in New York that are guaranteed to prevent such things happening by mere serendipity.
What’s the lesson for the World Trade Center memorial? Go back to the Promenade and look at the East Coast Memorial as a whole. Now imagine for a moment that the eagle is gone, and only the long lists of the deceased remain. Who would stop here to read them? Only relatives searching for names of loved ones.
It’s the addition of a recognizable figure – even if it’s a bird rather than a human – that makes this memorial appeal to a much wider audience. I’ll come back to this point – in fact, I’ll jump up and down on it with both feet – later in this series.
- 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 the 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!)
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