Monday, September 26, 2011

The Isidor and Ida Straus Memorial "Memory" -- Straus Park


 On April 19, 1912, just four days after the sinking of the RMS Titanic, Alfred Crawford testified before the United States Senate committee investigating the disaster.  Crawford had been a stateroom steward on the doomed ship.

The man was asked if he knew Mrs. Isidor Straus.  He did.

Isidor Straus and his wife, Ida, were returning home to New York on the Titanic.  Straus was a co-owner with his brothers of R. H. Macy & Co. as well as Abraham & Straus department store in Brooklyn.   The 67-year old was also a director of several banks and Vice President of the Chamber of Commerce.  He was highly regarded for his generosity.  The New York Times would call him “a supporter of almost every philanthropic and charitable institution in New York, regardless of creed.”

Chester testified that he was in a lifeboat and took Mrs. Straus’ hand to help her in.  “She started to get in, but then changed her mind and went back.”

Senator Smith asked “Started to get in?”

“Yes, she had one foot on the gunwale and then drew back,” said Chester.

Ida Straus looked back to her husband of 41 years standing on the deck and let go of Chester’s hand.  “We have been together a number of years,” she said to her husband.  “Where you will go I will go.”
She then instructed her maid to take her place on the lifeboat.

Later, as the aged couple sat quietly on deck chairs holding hands, the grand RMS Titanic slipped beneath the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Isidore and Ida Straus
The couple was mourned nationwide, but nowhere so deeply as in New York City.  Four weeks later a memorial service was held for them in Carnegie Hall and thousands crammed into the auditorium.  “The great hall was filled to capacity, and hundreds who pleaded to get in were turned away because there was no more room inside.  Every seat and every box was occupied, while perhaps 300 men and women stood up in the rear of the auditorium,” reported The New York Times.

During the ceremony, Jacob H. Schiff mentioned Ida’s fidelity to her husband.  “There is no doubt that in the awful hour when the Titanic sank that the noble woman broke not the oath that she had given at the altar, ‘Until death do us part.’”

The cable ship Mackay-Bennett recovered Isidor Straus’s body which was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.  Ida was never found, but the Straus tomb included an empty spot next to her husband.

The Straus home stood at 27-47 Broadway, near 105th Street, within sight of a small, triangular park called Bloomingdale Square.  On July 2, 1912 the Board of Aldermen adopted the resolution directing that the park “is hereby named and shall hereafter be known and designated as ‘Straus Park.’”

A move to erect a memorial to the couple was immediate and subscriptions poured in.  $20,000 had been donated by the Fall.   A competition for the memorial design was held and in November the Magazine of Art reported that “The prize was awarded to Mr. Augustus Lukeman, the collaborating architect being Mr. Evarts Tracy.”

The little, oddly shaped park made designing an appropriate memorial difficult.  “It was finally concluded that anything mainly monumental would not be desirable both because of the modesty of Mr. and Mrs. Straus and because the site selected is a small triangular park with a background of apartment houses which would not serve as a proper frame for anything very high,” explained the magazine.

Luckman’s design, one of 59 submissions, included a serene lily pond fed by a two-tiered fountain.  Above the fountain was a reclining bronze figure of a contemplative female upon a granite ledge.  Luckman called his memorial “Memory.”

Water lilies float serenely in the reflecting pool during the dedication of the Straus Memorial in 1915 -- Library of Congress
Behind the sculpture a granite bench provided a place of rest for those visiting the memorial.  The Straus Memorial, paid for entirely by public donations, was dedicated on April 15, 1915, three years to the day after the sinking of the RMS TitanicThe Times called it “one of the most beautiful monuments of its kind in the country.”

Inscribed on the rear of the monument was the biblical passage from II Samuel 1:23:

Lovely and pleasant were they in their lives
And in their death they were not divided

An orchestra played for the many who assembled for the dedication on April 12, 1915 -- Library of Congress
 The neighborhood around the Straus Memorial declined as the 20th century wound down and by 2007 the memorial had suffered some abuse.  That year the Parks’ Monuments Conservation Program initiated a restoration, sponsored mostly by The History Channel.

Regretfully, the lily pond—a crucial element in Augustus Lukeman’s design--was filled in as a flower bed in order to facilitate easier maintenance.  

Today the lily pond has been replaced by a not-so-lovely flower bed -- photo museumplanet.com

Despite the loss of the reflecting pool, the Isidor and Ida Straus Memorial remains one of New York’s most moving and evocative monuments.


non-credited photographs taken by the author

1 comment:

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