Thursday, February 7, 2013

The 107th Infantry Memorial -- Central Park at E 65th St.

photo by ahodges7

Tensions between the British and Americans did not abruptly end after the American Revolution and in 1806 the British warships were back.  They sailed into New York Bay, claiming the lawful right to seize and search all American vessels and remove British subjects. 

The invasion incited New York’s citizens and the Seventh Regiment of New York was organized as a state defense force in response.  The regiment would be called into action again six years later in the War of 1812.  But the face of the unit changed with the Astor Place Riots in 1849.

20,000 working class demonstrators mobbed the elite residential neighborhood around the Astor Place Opera House.  The group was ostensibly protesting against a British actor appearing there; but the disturbance quickly turned against the upper class in general.  The mansions of some of New York’s wealthiest citizens were pummeled with bricks and rocks that broke windows and caused panic.

The Seventh Regiment responded, firing into the crowd and driving away what Harper’s Bazaar called “the bleeding rioters, demoralized and defeated.”  The bloody confrontation left more than 25 dead and 120 wounded.  The grateful upper class residents did not forget their champions and the Regiment became its favorite.  The sons of the wealthy enlisted in force over the years, earning the group its nicknames, “The Silk Stocking Regiment” and “The Dandy 7th.”

Following the Civil War a statue was erected in Central Park titled “The Citizen Soldier.”  Sculpted by John Quincy Adams Ward, it depicted a Seventh Regiment soldier staring thoughtfully into the distance.  It would not be the last tribute to the regiment in the Park.

The Regiment built a new armory in the 1870s on Park Avenue—a magnificent structure as much clubhouse as arsenal, with interiors by the premier designers of the day including Louis C. Tiffany and Herter Brothers.  It was the only armory in the United States constructed wholly with private funds.

On Wednesday, June 18, 1916 the New York Tribune published photographs of the Regiment marching up Eleventh Avenue in straight ranks and files, their rifles on their shoulders, heading to the train depot.  Smiling men in doughboy hats were pictured kissing their children good-bye and waving jubilantly from the rear platform of a railroad car.  Among the excited volunteers was young art student Karl Illava.  They were off to secure the Mexican border after Pancho Villa burned New Mexico army barracks and robbed stores.

It would not be many more months before the smiles were gone from the faces of the Seventh Regiment.   In April 1917 the United States was pulled into the ghastly World War in Europe.  The Seventh Regiment, renamed the 107th Infantry, shipped off to serve its country with General O’Ryan’s 27th Division.   The Regiment would now have participated in every war since the Revolution.

Karl Illava rose to the rank of Sergeant Major while overseas.   Before long the photographs appearing in the Tribune were not of smiling soldiers, but of those lost in combat.  In September 1918 the 107th was part of the assault on the Hindenberg Line, Germany’s intricate line of defense in Northeast France.  The assault was successful, with four of the unit’s members earning the Congressional Medal of Honor, one posthumously.  But the success came at a steep price with the Dandy 7th suffering 60 percent casualties.  The fresh young men who marched off to war from their posh Park Avenue armory would come home much older and much changed.

All of New York City turned out to cheer the returning heroes.  On March 25, 1919 the New-York Tribune remarked that for New Yorkers, the new designation of the 107th Infantry did not matter.  “It was still the old 7th, the ‘Dandy 7th,’ that marched up Fifth Avenue yesterday.” 

Thousands waved flags and cheered themselves hoarse.  There were receptions and speeches.  But when someone asked a private “What are the boys going to do tonight?” he answered “I guess when they all get inside they’ll drop that pack and rifle and say ‘Thank God!’ and go to bed.”

Sergeant Major Karl Illava was no longer the naive art student who had left New York in 1917.   Almost immediately he was given his first commission, a statue to commemorate the 27th and 30th Divisions to be erected at Spartanburg.  The sculpture was less heroic than realistic.  It was the result of war seen through the eyes of a soldier.

The Touchstone commented on the statue as Illava was still at work.  “Two changes are apparent in student art as the soldiers return from The War with their eyes still only half-seeing after the glare of the too-close vision of battlefields,” it said.  “The soldier-student has become poised.  He suddenly found himself in the turmoil that tore nations, and he grew old, as it were, in a day.  When he speaks it is as though he possessed the wisdom of years of suffering; and we are forced to listen with respect.  The soldier-student has also learned to see more minutely.  He has learned that the task to be well-done must be done to the smallest detail.  He does not forget, his military training has taught him that his life depended upon his memory.”

Karl Illava’s attention to the smallest detail and his acute memory of the horrors that he and his fellow soldiers in the 7th Regiment endured would be called upon again.  In 1926 a group was formed, the 7th-107th Memorial Committee, to erect a memorial to the brave doughboys who fought, some to their deaths, defending their nation.  Karl Illava was given the responsibility to depict his own regiment in action.

Perhaps the memories of war were too close to the surface for Illava’s comrades; for he selected businessmen and other civilians as his models.  Paul Cornell, head of an advertising agency would be his central figure—chosen, according to the artist, because he represented “a typical American.”  Princeton Alumni Weekly reported that “The figures on either side of Mr. Cornell—figures representing the brute in war—are Kenneth Logan, a Scarsdale realtor, and Mr. Ollin J. Coit, big-game hunter and friend of the late Theodore Roosevelt.”  The magazine listed the other posers adding “None of the men in the group was in the 107th Infantry Regiment, which the statue commemorates  but several of them saw military service.”

Models aside, what resulted was dramatic and gripping.  Illava’s first-hand experience with the terrors of war burst forth in the group of seven soldiers in the attack on the Western Front.  The sculptor masterfully captured fear, determination and valor in the faces of the young men facing death in battle.  Three hold outstretched bayonets as one holds a dying companion in his arms.  The feet of the soldiers are immersed in a boiling, swirling mass of bronze reflective of the chaos of war.

The fury of war around him are temporarily lost to the soldier upholding his fallen comrade. --photo by ahodges7

The completed statue was dedicated on September 27, 1927.  It sits upon a 25-foot wide stepped granite base designed by architects Rogers and Haneman at the end of East 67th Street at Fifth Avenue.  The powerful grouping seems to advance from the thicket of Central Park, bursting forth onto the avenue.

Marked determination is seared on the faces of the soldiers emerging from flame-like, swirling vegetation -- photo by ahoges7

 The commanding memorial, surely the masterwork of the young veteran sculptor, was called by Cal Snyder in his book “Out of Fire and Valor,” “A doughboy sculpture to end all others.”

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