Monday, November 2, 2009

Brooklyn's War Memorials I

Several things crashed together in my brain recently and resulted in this posting. First, during my wandering around Bushwick this past summer, I came across a couple of well cared for war memorials dating back to the First World War. Either I don’t notice those things when I pass by them, or there aren’t that many to begin with and it was just coincidental that I should happen on two within several blocks of each other around the same time. In any case, it spiked my curiosity about whether there were others around Brooklyn.


The second object in the brain collision was a story that was covered in the New York Times around that same time about a cross used as memorial in the Mojave National Preserve in California. The cross was erected by VFW post in California in the 1930s and a retired National Park Service employee objected to its being on federal land. The case reached the Supreme Court last month. In oral arguments, Justice Antonin Scalia grew rather testy, according to reports, at the suggestion that perhaps non-Christians might object to being memorialized by a Christian symbol. Scalia retorted that the cross was the most common symbol memorializing the dead and that it didn’t memorialize only Christian soldiers.

The Constitution and the Cross

Religion Largely Absent in Argument about Cross

Also, three, November 11 draws near; Armistice Day, Veterans Day.

Since the two war memorials I saw included no religious symbols at all, I thought of tracking down as many as remained in Brooklyn to find out what symbols were used in war memorials, at least the ones dating to World War I. I was lucky to find a small book published by the Brooklyn Historical Society in 1952 listing historical markers and monuments in Brooklyn, with a separate listing of World War I monuments (it was published under the society's previous name of Long Island Historical Society). It is simply an alphabetical listing with no photos.

Well, fifty-seven years have seen some big changes in various parts of Brooklyn and I wasn’t surprised that I couldn’t find all of them, but I did find some. And my search isn’t over yet. These memorials are located in different parts of Brooklyn, miles apart, and since the spirit of this blog calls on me to walk wherever I am going, it’s taken a hell of a lot of foot work to get to the ones I’ve found up to now. And up to now there’s been nary a cross among them.

Prospect Heights - Crown Heights

First I want to show you what I think are surely the most overlooked memorials to the fallen of World War I. I noticed these last summer purely by accident when I happened to look down as I wandered along Eastern Parkway. At the base of trees along the promenade on both sides of that boulevard are small plaques set into the ground with the name and service information of a Brooklyn resident who was killed in the war. In each case, a tree was planted in his honor. And I say “he” deliberately because I have yet to find the name of a woman among the plaques.

I read later that these were also to be found around the fountain at Grand Army Plaza, at Borough Hall, and in other parts of Brooklyn. The only ones I have noticed are along Eastern Parkway from the library to beyond Washington Avenue as far as I can remember, maybe further. I think it’s amazing that the plaques remain though many of the trees have been replanted. At least many of the trees don’t look over seventy years old to me (almost all these memorials date from the 1920s).

I found close to fifty of these plaques along Eastern Parkway and will probably look around Borough Hall to see if the ones there are still in place.

I won’t take the others in any particular order except that this first group is located mainly in the northern and eastern sections of the borough since I took the ones closest to home first.


Monsignor McGolrick Park in Greenpoint. When the memorial was erected this was known as Winthrop Park but it was renamed in honor of the pastor of nearby St. Cecilia’s church in 1941, three years after his death. The memorial consists of the bronze figure of an angel on a granite base (okay, maybe an angel could be considered a religious symbol though not necessarily exclusively Christian).

There is an inscription on the front memorializing the “dead heroes of Greenpoint,” and on the other three sides are inscribed the names of several major battles that presumably these men died in: St. Mihiel, Somme, Chateau Thierry, and Argonne. The statue is by C.A. Heber.

A perfect location in the park was chosen for the statue, in front of what could almost be taken for a classical triumphal arch especially designed to frame it. But on further examination, the arch turns out to date from several years before the war and probably a good ten years before the statue was erected; it is known officially as the Shelter Pavilion. Still, it does provide the perfect backdrop.

And since I’ve never been one to stay completely on topic let me go just slightly off topic now to mention another monument on the other side of the arch; it is war-related though not to World War I. I’m not sure how many people realize it but the famous Civil War ironclad Monitor was designed and built in Greenpoint and later launched from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The second monument in Msgr. McGolrick Park commemorates the battle, the men of the Monitor, and the designer, John Ericsson.

Msgr. McGolrick Park itself is, I suspect, another of those well-kept Brooklyn neighborhood secrets. I wonder how many people living nearby but outside of Greenpoint realize that they have this beautiful park practically on their doorstep. But because it’s on the way to nowhere in particular except the eastern edge of Greenpoint, the back end of Newtown Creek, and the swamps of Maspeth, I’m sure a lot of people in nearby Williamsburg probably don’t know it exists.

Not too many blocks away from the park is a small triangle of weedy ground in the shadow of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. Well, maybe weedy is doing it a slight injustice but it’s certainly unassuming. It’s known as Fidelity Triangle and was the location of another, more traditional type of war memorial: a German cannon captured during the war. The cannon was presented to the city to place in the park by the Fidelity Council of the Knights of Columbus in memory of the soldiers who died in the war.

The Historical Society guide lists several Brooklyn memorials consisting of captured German cannons, but unfortunately none remain, their having been sacrificed to scrap drives during the Second World War. Each was said to have been replaced with a flagpole, as indeed the cannon at Fidelity Triangle was, but it’s just not the same as a cannon. As you can see, even this flag is pretty sad. And when one considers it, that even a conservative Roman Catholic organization like the Knights of Columbus chose a cannon over a cross for a memorial seems to give to lie to Mr. Justice Scalia.

Now that I think about it, one reason this place seems so forlorn to me is that it's smack up against the B.Q.E.; it seems to be lost, away off on the edge of things. But when this little park was dedicated and the cannon placed, there was no B.Q.E. and it may have looked like a much pleasanter place. Mr. Moses no doubt accomplished many fine things for New York City but the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway was not one of them.


Up Broadway at Stuyvesant Avenue is another example of a missing-cannon memorial park (above), though this one is in better shape and actually still contains at least the base that the cannon once rested on. (And these are the only two I am going to show here, there's no sense in wasting too much space on something that isn’t there.)

This small park is Beattie Square, named after a local resident, Joseph S. Beattie, who died on a battlefield in France in October of 1918, only a month before the armistice. The small park was said to have been renamed for Beattie at the insistence of the Beattie VFW post in 1921. In 1924 a 12, 000 pound German Krupp gun was placed there but it, too, was lost to a World War II scrap metal drive. The park seems to be well-cared for with well-tended shrubbery and trees.

Not too far away at Willoughby, Myrtle, and Bushwick Avenues is the “Angel of Peace” in Freedom Square (above). This was the first of the memorials to catch my eye during my summer walks. It was erected three years after the war in 1921. It commemorates the men of the 19th Assembly district who died in the war. It is similar to the statue in McGolrick Park, a bronze angel striding forth, carrying a sword in one hand and holding aloft in her other hand what appears to be a palm branch. The sculpture is by Pietro Montana.

The site doesn’t seem very well-tended and the weeds have grown up around it, though perhaps when I saw it, it was between groomings. And considering that it’s at a pretty prominent intersection, it appears almost lost, off to the side under some trees in the shadow of the M train, and easily overlooked. Then again, probably more cars go through this intersection than people these days and that might lend it a certain air of neglect.

About four blocks away deeper into Bushwick, also on Myrtle Avenue (at Knickerbocker Avenue) is “The Fighting Doughboy.” This is also by Pietro Montana and was also unveiled in 1921. Mr. Montana was keeping very busy around that time since he was also responsible for a statue in Highland Park that I haven’t yet seen (assuming it is still there) that was unveiled in 1925.

The doughboy statue and park appear better tended than the angel of peace. When I last saw it, there were three large wreathes placed there by, I believe, American Legion Post 1815. The plantings are much better cared for also. Well, this small park, known as Heisser Square, is in a more bustling part of the neighborhood at the head of Bushwick’s busiest shopping street so probably more attention is paid. Again, no cross, but the figure of a soldier from World War I, one fist clenched, a rifle in his other hand, his helmet at his feet, and looking ready to take on the world.

The historical society guide mentions a field gun that was part of the monument and that was lost to the World War II scrap drive. It was to have been replaced by a flagpole from the 1939-1940 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, however I don’t recall seeing a flagpole there. There should be one, there almost always is, but I can’t see one in any of my photos.


Perhaps a mile further south in Bedford-Stuyvesant is Saratoga Square Park, a quiet, leafy retreat a block from Broadway between Saratoga and Howard Avenues. Here, all that remains of a memorial is a bare granite shaft stripped of the bronze tablet that is described as “a bronze figure of an angel in relief” against the granite shaft. It was inscribed in memory of the heroic dead by the residents of districts 31 and 32, with a list of 106 names.

Sad. When I found Saratoga Park and took the picture last month, I didn't know the background to this vandalism. The memorial actually was complete up to nine years ago. As Mr. Monk would say, here's what happened:

Statue from War Memorial Stolen

But I was able to find a photo of it when it was complete at this site. It really was a gorgeous monument:

Novelli Statue in Saratoga Park, Brooklyn

More in the next posting. On to Brownsville, Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, and more . . .