Remembering and Forgetting the Great War in New York City

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The Local War Memorials

Whilst the memorial playgrounds celebrated the individuals from their communities they were only an incomplete means to recognise the contribution of the city’s population in the war. In contrast to the hesitant and partial official effort to remember the war, the communities of New York commissioned and erected their own memorials to mark the service of the men and women from their own areas.69 Across the boroughs of New York City, citizens who witnessed the draft of young men from their community had either experienced the death of family members directly or knew of others who had felt loss and bereavement. The return home of the soldiers was met with a desire from localities to erect memorials and monuments to honour the service and sacrifice of their own residents. As more areas declared an interest in erecting a permanent dedication of some form, a growing unease was felt by both New York’s political authorities and the architectural and artistic elite, that a profusion of structures of dubious taste and aestheticism would soon crowd the city.70 The fear of an expression of diverse ethnicities, cultures and religions was also considered to go against the desire to express a unified ‘American spirit’ in the war memorials.71 The body controlling the erection of public or private monuments in New York City on public property was the Art Commission, which was established in 1898 to curtail the profusion of individual monuments and establish aesthetic principles for the construction of artwork in the city.72 The Art Commission’s board was composed of the President of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the President of the New York Public Library, the President of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, three artists and three ‘lay’ members unattached to the arts profession. The commission possessed the power to accept, veto and request alterations on any proposed structure in the city. Directly after 1918 and lasting throughout the 1920s, the commission’s main source of work was concerned with the erection of memorials in communities across the city.73 Groups and organisations desiring to build a monument on public land, therefore, were required to obtain permission from the commission on issues of design and location.

The Art Commission adhered to a series of principles in the construction of local war memorials. These were based on issues of taste, practicality and ‘spirit’ and reflected the wider debates across the United States on the form and function of public war memorials.74 The American Federation of the Arts also took a key role in this process and offered advice to organisations seeking a memorial in their area.75 The goals of both the Art Commission and the AFA were highly compatible. Indeed, the AFA not only held board members in common with the Art Commission, but also proposed a similar set of viable designs for war monuments. Whilst social groups and organisations called for the construction of community halls and community facilities, a dominant movement within the AFA and the Art Commission of New York City dismissed these proposals as potentially divisive and against ‘the spirit of remembrance’.76 The American Legion, the Gold Star Mothers and the Veterans of Foreign Wars took the same interest in the construction of local war memorials in the city. In this manner, meeting places, libraries and public amenities were considered to encourage and perpetuate ethnic, cultural or religious enclaves within society. In the scheme of planners, the remembrance of the war required a dedication to unity, the principles of liberty and an assertion of ‘one nation’ and ‘100 per cent Americanism’:
Any method of commemoration will be fitting that in simple, straightforward manner, expressed the feelings of honor and gratitude which stir the community.77
Monuments and memorials were, thereby, restricted to a number of forms which were thought most suited to communicate these concepts. Flagpoles, tablets, allegorical statues and soldier statues of ‘artistic’ merit were considered appropriate in developing a scheme of commemoration that reflected the correct ‘spirit’.78 As the immediate post-war period saw widespread ethic, racial and political violence, the desire to use war memorials to evoke a stable and unified nation was pressing across the United States and especially in New York. The suspicion of ‘foreign’ elements raised by the 1918 Sedition Act, which enabled the expulsion of dissenters from the country and was only repealed in late 1920, served to heighten distrust of communities in the city; the summer of 1919 witnessed substantial race riots in a number of locations, including New York City; and in September 1920, a bomb concealed in a horse-drawn carriage and thought to be planted by Italian anarchists, exploded on Wall Street killing 38 and wounding hundreds.79 The Art Commission of New York was, therefore, compelled to take decisions on monuments in the context of these social and political anxieties.

The option to construct a local memorial was often taken in conjunction with the regional officials and prominent businessmen that also sat on the local draft boards as well as housing associations and political groups. However, the funding and support for such schemes came directly from the local residents as they sought a means to mark the effect of the war on their community.80 These memorials reflected a community’s inclusion as part of the wider war effort. For the émigré communities of New York City, it anchored them into the history of their adopted country and served to demonstrate their status in America. For the Art Commission and groups such as the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Gold Star Mothers, such memorials acted as a means of unifying the nation and acclimatising foreign-born and diasporic communities as American. The ability of the Art Commission to control these local memorials was an inevitable by-product of the inability of communities to obtain private land for construction. As the price of real-estate was at a premium, and the future progress of areas still unknown, there was a marked hesitancy in building memorials which would subsequently become obstacles to housing, traffic or development.81 As such, the only recourse groups had to ensure the building of their memorial was to request permission from the Parks Commission to build structures in the city’s parks, squares and gardens. As memorials on public property the final decision on the form of the memorial would lie entirely with the Art Commission. Such an arrangement was also favoured by the Park Commissioner Francis Gallatin who argued that the memorials and monuments in the city’s public spaces could do more to ‘Americanize’ the city’s foreign-born residents than ‘all the sermons on Americanisation’.82

Local memorial schemes continued apace and by 1921, the total number of war memorials across the city numbered nearly 50. By the 1930s there were approximately 100 memorials on public property in New York City.83 Indeed, the rush of some residence committees to erect their own monument led to complications and duplications. Anthony Pantola of Lewis Place, Brooklyn, was falsely recorded as dead whilst serving in France, whilst the records had been amended, his name still appeared on three separate memorials in Brooklyn in 1922.84 Communities were desirous of connecting themselves with the war effort and quickly raised funds to support the work of the various local ‘War Monument Committee’ and ‘Victory Associations’ which were initiated to oversee developments. The residents of Long Island raised the majority of the $20,000 required to build a memorial in their area through a circus held for the community in 1920 (Figure 1).85 To acquire the funds for a memorial in Highland Park, Brooklyn, the local memorial committee organised block parties for local businesses and political groups as well as the Polish and Italian communities in the area.86 Whilst the collection of money to support the building of monuments drew upon the city’s diverse communities, the modes of expression deemed suitable for the monuments architecture did not. Indeed, a certain awkwardness pertained the discussions between the Art Commission and foreign-born residents:
The greatest diplomacy must be used to avoid hurting the feelings of such donors (proposals put forward by those ‘deficient in artistic judgment’)...the problem is particularly complicated where Americans of foreign birth or descent are concerned.87
The Art Commission would inform local communities of the verdict of their proposed memorial and could suggest alterations in the location and design of the piece. To ensure support for the scheme, local groups would also enlist the assistance of local chapters of the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Gold Star Mothers. These groups could also participate in the decisions made as to the form of memorials before submission to the Art Commission. Despite the level of hegemonic control over the selection of memorials, these structures served to provide reassurance and support for bereaved families, especially for those whose relatives were buried in Europe. Joseph Scherer, treasurer for the Long Island City Memorial League stated at the outset of his organisation’s efforts to fund a local memorial:
I believe that a monument bearing the names of the country’s dead erected in the localities from which the men were taken would be a solace to those whose relatives lie ‘over there’.88
In contrast to the limited amounts that were raised for the proposed permanent memorial for the entire city, the smaller community memorials were able to motivate residents and local businesses to contribute to the building of their own site of remembrance. These memorials were intended to provide communities with a permanent memorial of patriotism and sacrifice to the nation. This is most clearly manifested in the use of the ‘Doughboy’ statue or soldier statuary which was used for nine of the 100 memorials on public property in the city. These pieces were selected by the Art Commission and were not the cast-iron replicas which quickly became popular in small towns in the United States. These statues were commissioned from notable artists and cast in bronze depicting soldiers in a variety of poses, poised, contemplative, valorous and mournful. Despite the emotion or action that these statues depicted, they provided communities with a symbol of unity. The figure of the soldier was used to stand for the ‘100 per cent Americanism’; a means of remembering not the heritage and background of the soldiers from the area, but a reminder of the collective appeal to nation. The artist Celia Beaux, working with the AFA, reflected upon this communicative power of the statue of the soldier:
Surely the most poignant reminder, must be the image of the boy himself, as he goes to the front, with the burden of his full kit, and accoutrement from under which his boyish, lean, American face leans out.89
The statue was particularly popular for residents from the middle class districts around the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The community around Greenwich Village funded the $10,000 required for the construction of a bronze ‘Doughboy’ in Abingdon Square, whilst memorial associations organised the construction of the Chelsea Park and De Witt Clinton Park ‘doughboys’.90 The ‘Doughboy’ statue was also erected across the other boroughs of the city, with the Woodside Doughboy in Queens paid for by the local chapter of the Gold Star Mothers. This memorial was unveiled in November 1921 and contains a dedication to the ‘Unknown Soldier’, ‘to those unknown heroes of the community who died in the service’. Whilst egalitarian in composition, the reference to the ‘unknown soldier’ served to reinforce the concept of ‘one nation’. The author, John Dos Passos, a veteran of the conflict, critiqued this pretence of this democratic mode of remembrance in ‘The Body of an American’:
Make sure he aint a dinge, boys

make sure he aint a guinea or a kike

how can you tell a guys a hundredpercent when all you’ve got’s a gunnysack full of bones bronze buttons stamped with the screaming eagle and a pair of roll puttees?91

The ‘spirit of remembrance’ required by the Art Commission evoked a singular vision of liberty, patriotism and service that required foreign-born residents to conform to a concept of ‘American’ identity. The statue of a bronze angel in Winthrop Park, Brooklyn raised by the Greenpoint Memorial Association reflects these desires in its dedication:

‘To the living and the dead heroes of Greenpoint who fought in the world war because they loved America, revered its ideals understood and supported its institutions and gave their all that our government shall not perish from the earth’
The efforts of the American Legion and the Gold Star Mothers, whose posts throughout the city sponsored a third of the memorials on public property, served to reinforce these notions. Monuments and memorials to the African American servicemen of the city were conspicuous by their absence. The Gold Star Mothers did not allow African American members and the William Lloyd Garrison Post of the American Legion in Harlem for African American veterans faced accusations of dissent and corruption from the Legion’s principals in the early 1920s.92 Public bodies and veteran’s groups, therefore, did not assist in providing memorials to reaffirm the principles of citizenship and ‘Americanism’ within the African American communities in Harlem and elsewhere in the city.

Whilst the memorials were intended to act as unifying force, bringing together the disparate populations, they became the focus of community activities. As the campaign for a city memorial faltered, throughout the 1920s the centre of memorial activity shifted to the local boroughs and around the individual memorials. The marking of Armistice Day in the city had continued to use a parade on Fifth Avenue as the means of coordinating remembrance activities. These often served to appeal to popular nationalism as part of the commemorations. In November 1921, marchers carried an American flag as part of the ‘Americanization parade’ organised by veterans groups to mark the internment of the ‘Unknown Soldier’ and to raise awareness of American values.93 The American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars were key in ensuring the observance of the Armistice Day and the two minute silence in the city.94 Large crowds in early 1920s were drawn to Fifth Avenue to watch parades of veterans.95 However, as the local memorials were constructed, largely between 1920 and 1926, the remembrance activities were attached to these sites. For instance, the marking of Armistice Day in 1925 in Greater Ridgewood, Brooklyn, was marked by a large parade conducted through the streets of the community after which a congregation gathered at the Ridgewood Memorial Monument, a gift of the Gold Star Mothers, where a service was held to honour the 111 men from Ridgewood who died in the war.96 Whilst local memorials became the backdrop for military manoeuvres, veteran’s parades and religious services – local memorials became a means of articulating the memory of the service of members of the community in the conflict. Monuments became part of the ‘ownership’ of communities and their maintenance and upkeep became significant to the areas that upheld the memory of their fellow citizen’s service. This process has continued to the present; the ‘Winged Victory’ statue in Pleasant Plains in the borough of Staten Island, erected in 1923, was stolen in 1975 whilst being repaired after its position on a traffic island resulted in repeated damage in collisions with cars. Whilst the city authorities offered an alternative structure as a replacement, local residents campaigned for a replica of the monument, which was originally raised through public subscription, to continue honouring the wartime actions of its residents.97 Furthermore, in 2005 the 369th Infantry Division, the ‘Harlem Hellfighters’, officially received recognition in the city for their wartime service with an obelisk erected in Harlem outside the 369th Armory.


The memory of the Great War in New York City is thereby marked by division, anxiety, conformity and eventual ownership. Whilst no central memorial exists which structures the remembrance of the conflict, local sites of memory have served to articulate wider sentiments regarding identity, citizenship and patriotism. As the hundredth anniversaries of the Great War approach a reappraisal of the history and legacy of the United State’s involvement in the global conflagration is apparent. Scholars have assessed how the war formed the basis of the ‘American century’, paving the way for the cultural and political dominance of the United States.98 The memory of the war in the city was a highly contested issue immediately after the cessation of the conflict; various interest groups and political authorities sought to utilise the war experience as a means to recast the disparate population of New York as ‘100 per cent American’. As the fear of ‘foreign influences’ infiltrating New York’s political and social systems and wreaking havoc as well as wider racial tensions in the city, war memorials were used to provide a harmonious, unified vision of ‘Americanism’ in a city whose varied population before the war had been routinely viewed as ‘un-American’. The remembrance of the war in the city was in this respect cast as one held by local communities. Rather than forming a singular, popular memory of the war, the communities in New York City created memories of the conflict which were specific to their own context. For the émigré populations, these memorials occupied a multiform of positions. Memorials were part of a hegemonic structure, to remember the war as a unifying experience to encourage the process of ‘Americanization’; conversely, they also acted as a means of validating their own presence in the city, stressing their place in the history of the United States; finally, the memorials were also a significant means of grieving for the dead, enabling bereaved families to remember their relatives.

Memorials to the Great War in New York City encapsulate the social, political and individual impact of the conflict on the city. The division of the analysis of war memorials into a ‘functional school’ or a ‘grief school’ obscures how these memorials portray, create and maintain narratives of remembrance which function at multiple levels. The war memorials in New York City emphasise this capacity of structures to create a complex web of associations. The official narratives of remembrance were intended to smooth away the distinctions within the city’s population. Despite this objective, memorials became anchors for citizens, attaching them to their place in the city and the country. The memory of the Great War in New York is not located in a single site, a monument or tomb. It might, therefore, appear that the war is a forgotten aspect of the city’s and United States history. Such a perspective derives from the inappropriate level of analysis conducted on the remembrance of the war in the United States. A dominant narrative of remembrance comparable to that of Britain, France, Australia or Canada does not exist. Rather, the remembrance of the war is composed of a series of ‘memories’, individual narratives of participation and engagement that demonstrate identity, place and attachment and that are mobilised to reaffirm a group’s or community’s history.

1. Megan Smolenyak, ‘WW1 Soldier Laid to Rest at Arlington National Cemetery’, Huffington Post, July 12 2010, (accessed November 12 2010).

2. Census Office, Abstract of the Twelfth Census, 1900, 104.

3. Capozzola, Uncle Sam Wants You, 10-12.

4. Schrader, “The German Americans,” 9-10.


. Census Office, Abstract of the Twelfth Census, 1900, 107.

6. Chadbourne, Mayor’s Committee on National Defence, 1.


. “New York Police Department is on a War Footing,” New York Times, February 11, 1917; “City Now Prepared is Calmly Waiting,” New York Times, April 4, 1917.


. Office of the Provost Marshal General, Selective Service Regulations, 1-10.


. Chambers, To Raise an Army, 15.


. Ford, Americans All, 25-27; Ford, “Mindful of the traditions of His Race,” 35-37.


. “Appeals from Draft put at 30,000 Here,” New York Times, February 12, 1918.

12. “Predict Peaceful Registration Here,” New York Times, June 5, 1917.

13. “Emma Goldman and A. Berkman Behind the Bars,” New York Times, June 16, 1917.

14. “Negroes in Protest March in Fifth Avenue,” New York Times, July 29, 1917.

15. Leonard, The Story of New York in the World War, 30.


. This and the proceeding quotation are both from “Upper East Side Cool on Draft Adherents,” New York Times, May 31, 1917.

17. “Issue Final Orders for Mobilisation”, New York Times, September 7, 1917.


. Ward, “The origin and activities of the National Security League,” 51-65.

19 “Seize 20,000 Here in Slacker Search,” New York Times, September 4, 1918.

20. Sterba, Good Americans, 10-12.


. “Three Boards Fill Quotas for Draft,” New York Times, August 9, 1917.

22. Shenk, Work or Fight, 5.

23. Leonard, The Story of New York in the World War, 12-13.


 . Ibid., 30.


. Kennedy, Over Here, 18.


. Grotelueschen, The AEF way of war, 20-22.

27. Congressional Research Service, “American War and Military Operations Casualties: Lists and Statistics,” sgp/crs/natsec/RL32492.pdf (accessed November 10, 2011).

28. Moriarty, “The Material Culture of Great War Remembrance,” 653.

29 Winter, Sites of Memory, 8.


. Mosse, Fallen Soldiers; Bushaway, “Name upon name”; Prost, Republican Identities.


. Maclean and Phillips, The Sorrow and the Pride; Inglis, “The Homecoming”; Gaffney, Aftermath; Connelly, The Great War.


. Moriarty, “Private Grief and Public Remembrance,” 125-126.


. King, Memorials in the Great War, 6.


. Glassberg and Moore, “Patriotism in Orange,” 160-162.


. Bodnar, Remaking America, 15; Bodnar, “Public Memory in an American City,” 74-75.

36. Wingate, “Over the top,” 29-32.

37. Piehler, “Remembering the war to end all wars,” 28-30; Piehler, “The war dead and the Gold Star”, 170.

38. Piehler, Remembering War, 15-18; Trout, Battlefields of Memory, 12; Budreau, Bodies of War, 2.


. Wertsch, Voices of Collecting Remembering, 6.

40. “Art on the ‘Avenue of the Allies’, New York City,” Art and Archaeology 7 (338-339).

41. New York Mayor’s Committee on National Defence, The Mayor’s Committee on National Defence, 7-14.

42. Gallatin, Art and the Great War, 53-56.

43. “Congress of Peoples at Liberty Altar,” New York Times, October 20, 1918; “Will Urge Wealth Here to Subscribe Largely,” New York Times, October 4, 1918.

44. “Avenue of the Allies,” New York Times, October 2, 1918.


. Bogart, Public Sculpture and the Civic Ideal, 276.


. Mayor’s Committee on a Permanent War Memorial, The Report of the Mayor’s Committee, 5


. “Police to Collect for Memorial Arch”, New York Times, November 24, 1918.


. “Tells Victory Arch Plan,” New York Times, January 1, 1919.

49. “Fifth Avenue’s Liberty Altar, Arch and Portal”, Greater New York: Bulletin of the Merchants Association of New York 30(8), July 28, 1919, 15-18; “Pageantry for Returning Heroes,” The Literary Digest, April 12, 1919, 26-28.

50. “Honor the Fallen in Court of Dead,” New York Times, May 7, 1919.

51. Gannon, “Proceedings of the United Spanish War Veterans,” 200.

52. New York Mayor’s Committee of Welcome: Review and parade of the 27th Division.


. “Fifth Avenue Cheers Negro Veterans”, New York Times, February 18, 1919.

54. “Honor the Fallen in Court of Dead,” New York Times, May 7, 1919.

55. Mayor’s Committee on a Permanent War Memorial, The Report of the Mayor’s Committee, 9.


. “Asks Hudson Bridge as War Memorial,” New York Times, June 11, 1920.

57. “Wingate tells Mayor’s Committee Association wants to build on its own account,” New York Times, February 20, 1920.

58. Victory Hall Association records, 1920-1921. New York Public Library, MSS Col 3165.

59. “Start Victory Hall Fund with $100,000,” New York Times, October 23, 1919; Cornelius, “War Memorials: Part II,” 42.

60. “Condemnation Bill passed at Albany gave rights to the Victory Hall Association,”

New York Times, May 30, 1920.

61. “Debate Victory Hall Site,” New York Times, February 28, 1920.

62. “Plan to Honor American ‘Unknown Warrior’ In Victory Hall Proposed to Secretary Baker”, New York Times, November 20, 1920.

63. “Liberty Altar Plan Opposed by Smith,” New York Times, January 25, 1921.

64. “Legion Opposes Monument,” New York Times, January 7, 1920.

65. Mayor’s Committee on a Permanent War Memorial, The Report of the Mayor’s Committee, 12-13.


. Ibid., 12-16.


. “Mayor’s Memorial Called Vandalism,” New York Times, June 28, 1922.

68. “Mayor Decides Play Areas Today,” New York Times, 15 July, 1934.

69. Snyder, Fire and Valor, 78.


. Moore, “Concerning War Memorials”, 425-426.

71 Moore, “Memorials of the Great War,” 233-234.

72. Bogart, The Politics of Urban Beauty, 25.


. Collins, “Diplomacy and Courage required to Prevent Erection of unsightly monuments”, New York Times, July 17, 1921, 69.

74. Ibid., 69.


. “The Problem of War Memorials: Art at Home and Abroad,” New York Times, May 18, 1919.

76. Root, “The Memorial Spirit,” 407.

77. Moore, “Memorials of the Great War,” 235.


. “War memorials Rising throughout the World”, New York Times, November 7, 1926.


. Feuerlicht, America's Reign of Terror, 35; Gage, The Day Wall Street Exploded, 11-13.

80. Rockefeller, History of the Memorial Monument, 12.


. “Clubs to Vote on Memorial,” The Star, January 7.


. “Gallatin Pleads for City Beauty,” New York Times, February 18, 1923; “Experts Tell How to Beautify City,” New York Times, March 4, 1923.

83. Snyder, Fire and Valor, 78-80.


. “Three Monuments Bear Living Man’s Name,” New York Times, May 29, 1922.

85. Long Island City Memorial League, Queens Library and Archives, 295H.


. Rockefeller, History of the Memorial Monument, 3.


. Collins, “Diplomacy and Courage required to Prevent Erection of unsightly monuments”, New York Times, July 17, 1921, 69.


. “Steinway Folk Organise to Get Hero Monument,” The Star, December 1, 1918.


. Beaux, “The spirit of War Memorials”, 271.


. “Greenwich will erect monument in Abingdon Square,” New York Times, June 23, 1921; “Chelsea Starts a Drive,” New York Times, September 22, 1919.

91. Dos Passos, “The Body of an American,” 375.


. “What the Posts are Doing,” American Legion Weekly, May 28, 1920, 15.

93. “Huge Parade Here on Armistice Day,” New York Herald Tribune, November 9, 1921, 17.

94. “City will pray for dead in war to-day,” New York Herald Tribune, November 11, 1921, 1-2.

95. “City will recall Armistice Today,” New York Herald Tribune, November 11, 1923, 11.

96. “Smith not coming Armistice Day,” Ridgewood Times, November 6, 1925.

97. “S.I. Area Fights to Regain Statue Lost by City Parks Department”, New York Times, December 15, 1975.

98. Keene, The Doughboys, 10.

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