NOTE: What makes an effective tribute? What makes a memorable memorial? This is the seventh 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.
Progression of War Memorials
Let’s pause after the depressing American Merchant Mariners’ Memorial to take a quick survey of the change in war memorials over the past 150 years.
The memorials erected in Manhattan after the Civil War honored specific leaders and heroes. You can tell that just from reading their titles: Ericsson, Sherman, Sheridan, Farragut, Webb.
For the Spanish-American War thirty years later, we had the short-lived Dewey Arch and the grand, allegorical Maine Monument at Columbus Circle: more heroes and more satisfaction in a job well done.
The memorials erected after World War I reveal a significant change. Only one is a portrait sculpture, and it represents a chaplain rather than a fighting man. The other World War I memorials show anonymous figures, several of them wounded or dead.
Again, the list of titles reveals the trend: the Chelsea Park Memorial, the Flanders Field Memorial, and so on. These memorials honor not generals and admirals, but the tens of thousands who fought and died. Within the five boroughs of New York City, more than twenty of these World War I memorials were erected by local communities to honor their dead.
In tribute to those who died in World War II, we see for the first time a monument without human figures: the East Coast Memorial with its symbolic eagle.
You might wonder why there are six memorials to World War I in Manhattan, but only this one memorial to World War II. After all, four times as many American soldiers died in World War II. The answer is that Robert Moses, the czar of the New York City Parks Department for decades, decided that each borough should have a single large memorial rather than many small ones. Only Brooklyn gathered enough funds for a grand monument. It stands in Cadman Plaza, near the east end of the Brooklyn Bridge. But even that one wasn’t completed on the scale of the original design. (Details here.)
And now back to our story of the progression of war memorials.
In memorials erected in the 1990s, we saw the anonymous Universal Soldier’s silhouette for the Korean War, and the anonymous, doomed figures on the Merchant Mariners’ Memorial.
What’s the next step beyond anonymous and depressing? To have no figures of any sort.
This phase started in the early 1980s with Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall in Washington.
Usually referred to as “the Wall,” this memorial consists of a list of names inscribed on black granite slabs that are sunk below ground level. Lin’s design was enormously controversial when it was chosen, but many Americans favored it because they had ambivalent feelings about the Vietnam War. They wanted an unobtrusive memorial, one that recognized but did not honor those who died in Vietnam.
New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial
New York has two descendants of the Wall: the New York Police Memorial and the New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial. They’re both within easy walking distance of Battery Park.
The New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial consists of a map of Vietnam flanked by two rows of small slabs with lists of names. Behind these stands a wall whose glass blocks are inscribed with fragments of letters written by those who served in Vietnam to family and friends at home. The wall is made unobtrusive, almost invisible, by being set so that the short end faces the street.
So the Vietnam memorial in New York is a map, lists of names, and a wall with excerpts from letters.
New York Police Memorial
The New York Police Memorial, which commemorates officers who fell in the line of duty, is even starker than that. It consists of a list of names on a wall, with a pool and a trickling stream. But the stream … ah, the stream has Significance. The problem is that if I don’t tell you the significance, you’ll never know it.
Here’s the official explanation of the NYPD Memorial, from the official brochure on Battery Park public sculpture. This was once on the Battery Park Conservancy’s site; now I can only find it in this Flikr post.
The design of the memorial is composed of two distinct parts using water as a metaphor. A fountain serves as the genesis of the memorial and represents the rookie police officer’s first day while a linear flume acts as the time line of the officer’s career.
Water flows gently over the split face bottom of the flume leading to a slot in the granite wall. Finally the water comes to rest in a shallow pool marking the police officer’s death. The death of the police officer is commemorated in an outdoor room defined by two parallel granite walls and depressed thirty inches below the esplanade. A wall along the western edge holds the names of the officers and dates on which they were killed. Constructed of green granite, the stone is rendered with a split face finish facing outward and polished surface facing inward reinforcing the sacred nature of the space. Outside the room three flagpoles stand as sentinels.
So the stream is an officer’s career, the pool is his death in the line of duty, and the contrast between polished and rough granite indicates sacredness.
This is not common symbolism. It’s not something a passerby might be expected to know, the way he’d know, at the East Coast Memorial, that an eagle symbolizes America and a wreath symbolizes mourning. The New York Police Memorial is so abstract and abstruse that it requires that someone to explain the meaning. In that sense, it’s like the light shining through the head of the soldier in the Korean War Memorial.
The New York Police Memorial is peaceful, and a soothing place to sit and rest – but it does nothing to remind us of the courage and dedication of police officers who died in the line of duty.
The focal points of the Police Memorial and the New York Vietnam Memorial are lists of names. But there’s a problem with this. Memorials are erected by the living to help remember those who have died. It’s certainly not wrong to include lists of names. Such lists appear on the Maine Memorial, on many local World War I memorials, and on the East Coast Memorial, to name a few.
The problem arises when the lists of names plus architectural or landscape elements are the sole content of the memorial. If you visit the New York Vietnam Memorial or the New York Police Memorial with Ericsson or the East Coast Memorial fresh in your mind, you’ll literally “feel” the difference.
Proper names identify specific people. If you don’t know those people personally, then the most you can get from such a list of names is: “lots of policemen died,” or “lots of servicemen died in Vietnam.”
An artist can reach a much wider audience with a well-conceived and well-executed portrait of a specific human being such as Ericsson, or an allegorical or symbolic figure such as the eagle on the East Coast Memorial.
Put simply: Representational figures communicate ideas and values across space and time in a way proper names alone cannot.
- At the end of From Portraits to Puddles: New York Memorials from the Civil War to the World Trade Center Memorial (the Kindle book) is a list of war memorials in Manhattan, by war commemorated, and another list of memorials by date dedicated. The second list has illustrations, so that you can scroll through and see the progression in subject and style.
- 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!)
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