Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The 1928 Kossuth Monument -- Riverside Drive at 113th Street

photo by Alice Lum
Born into a noble Hungarian family in 1802 in Monok, Lajos Kossuth developed into a fiery nationalist.  Educated as both a journalist and lawyer, he used his several newspapers and journals to disseminate his then-radical ideas—independence from the Hapsburg Monarchy, industrial development and freedom for the peasant class.  By the time he was in his early 30s, he had established himself at the forefront of the country’s reform movement.

In 1847 Kossuth was elected to the national assembly, the Hungarian Diet.  Within a year he led the grassroots revolution that overthrew the old regime and established a new Hungarian government.   Kossuth’s coup came at a time when European monarchs were threatened with multiple nationalistic uprisings.   Anarchist groups spread what emperors and kings considered dangerous, treasonous propaganda; and the several revolutions of 1848 forced the Austrian Emperor Ferdinand I to abdicate in favor of his nephew Franz Joseph.

Franz Joseph, allied with the mighty Russian army, squashed the new Hungarian government in 1849, forcing Lajos Kossuth into exile.   The silver-tongued diplomat, revolutionist and reformer traveled throughout Europe lobbying support for Hungarian independence.  He then turned towards a sympathetic audience: the young, democratic nation of the United States of America that had fought its own battle for independence less than a century before.

On Friday December 5, 1851 Kossuth arrived in New York City on the steamship Humboldt, the first stop on a seven-month tour.    The following day he was taken on a trip around the bay and up and down both rivers “while Fort Lafayette and that on Governor’s Island furnished salutes, and the frigates North Carolina and Ohio fired thirty-one guns,” reported The Sun.  “On the Battery fully 50,000 people had gathered around the whole first division of the National Guard who…were awaiting orders to escort the Hungarian hero under a floral arch erected by a corporation jobber between Battery Gate and Bowling Green, and thence up Broadway to Bond street into the Bowery and down to the City Hall Park.”

Thousands of New Yorkers cheer Kossuth on December 6, 1851 -- The Ladies Home Journal, 1897 (copyright expired)
On December 7 the New-York Tribune filled an entire page with paid tributes and accounts of the welcoming parade the day before.   “Almost every store, and many private dwellings along Broadway, were more or less decorated,” it said.  “The Bowery Hotel, No. 395, had a large banner with the following inscription: ‘Freedom is the unchartered prerogative of Human Nature.’”

The American Museum on Broadway “was literally covered with paintings and flags.  One, a portrait of Kossuth, in the folds of Hungarian and American flags, with the words at the bottom: ‘Kossuth, the Washington of Hungary.’”

Kossuth spent days visiting groups and attending luncheons  where “in many speeches of acknowledgement was obliged to air his undoubted powers of oratory,” said The Sun.  Then on the evening of December 12 city officials hosted a grand dinner at the Irving House in the banquet hall.  At one point the throng of well-dressed guests stood and cheered to a grand toast.

City officials host a grand dinner in Kossuth's honor at the Irving House -- etching NYPL Collection

“Perhaps the most enthusiasm after the 300 champagne corks had popped was expended over the toast, “Hungary Betrayed, but Not Yet Sold,” said The Sun.

The newspaper described the celebrity lavished upon the Hungarian hero.  “Thus immediately previous to the Christmas of 1851 New York city underwent a period of Kossuth mania, and it affected the holiday presents.  Every New Year’s gift associated itself in some designation with Kossuth and Hungary.  Restaurants abounded with Hungarian goulash, a savory dish of boiled beef and vegetables, strongly infused with red peppers; and there were Kossuth cravats (formidable bands of satin or silk wound around the neck, with ends liberally folded over the shirt front), Kossuth pipes, Kossuth umbrellas, Kossuth belts and buckles, Kossuth purses, Kossuth jackets, and Kossuth braid and tassels for wearing apparel.”

Kossuth left New York for Philadelphia and Boston and, oddly enough, by the time he returned to New York “for his homeward journey there were few New Yorkers at the steamer to speed him—the Kossuth mania had become a thing of the past,” reported The Sun.

Kossuth died in Turin in March 1894 and his body was returned to Budapest for burial.  “Not less than 200,000 country people followed Kossuth’s coffin to the grave,” reported The Evening World on April 7, 1894, “as well as at least 300,000 residents of Budapest and the immediate vicinity, who were either in the procession or lining the roadways.”

The newspaper noted the glaring absence of uniformed participants.  “The most interesting and significant difference between the burial of Kossuth and any of the others was the entire absence of any military display.  Not a single soldier was in the streets, all being strictly confined to their barracks…It was an absolute popular outpouring of love in memory of a patriot, and, it must be remembered, of a patriot who had been in exile for nearly half a century, and whose ideas had almost all been fulfilled in the interval.”

Thirty-three years later, early in 1927, Hungarian-American Gezo Barko initiated a campaign through the daily Amerikai Magyar Nepszava to erect a statue to Kossuth in New York City.  Although fund raising was conducted primarily through Hungarian-American religious and civic groups, the general public of New York contributed as well.  Mayor James Walker organized and headed a statue committee and convinced the city council to designate a fitting location on Riverside Drive.

The original idea was for a memorial bust; but fund raising met with an unexpected response and a full-blown monument resulted.

Hungarian sculptor Janos Horvai was commissioned to design the sculptural grouping, based on the Kossuth statue in Cegled, Hungary.  The project progressed with astonishing speed and on November 5, 1927 ground was broken for the base of the statue.  The New York Times provided a description of the coming monument.

The statue “shows Kossuth holding the sword of Washington, which was presented to him when he was in America.  Other episodes of his visit will be portrayed in the plaques at the base of the monument.  One will depict the scene at Castle Garden, when he landed in New York and was met by enthusiastic crowds. Another will be a scene in the ceremonial procession on Broadway.”

At the foot of the pedestal a young Hungarian soldier offers his hand to an aged peasant, symbolically raising him from his suffering.

A young soldier, representing the new Hungary, assists an aged peasant -- photo by Alice Lum

News of the impending unveiling reached Budapest.  Zsigmond Perenyi, president of the Magyar Nemzeti Szovetseg (the Hungarian National Alliance) and Jozsef Zsenyi, director of the Amerikai Magyar Tarsasag (the American Hungarian Society, took advantage of it to create an overwhelming public relations event.   They established the Hungarian national Kossuth Pilgrimage Committee and planned a 500-person pilgrimage to the United States to attend the unveiling.

In addition, thousands of books were collected to be distributed among Hungarian-American children.

Not all Hungarian-Americans were pleased to hear of the impending “pilgrimage.”  Infuriated that the conservative government would intrude upon the ceremony for the liberal-minded Kossuth, they planned counter-demonstrations.

On January 10, 1928, the Magyar Tribune issued an editorial hoping to fend off trouble.  “We believe that the American Hungarians will have a beautiful celebration on March 15, at the unveiling of the statue of Kossuth in New York,” it said.  “Anyone disturbing the solemnity of this occasion is a boor and unworthy of being called a Hungarian.  The prestige of all American-Hungarians is lowered by any untoward demonstration during a great national celebration like this.  There are other methods of demonstrating disapproval than by disturbing the peace of this celebration.”

On March 10, 1928, five days before the unveiling, The New York Times reported on the city’s preparations to receive the Hungarian pilgrims and for the unveiling.  The Hungarian officials would be entertained at receptions and dinners and on the day of the unveiling a parade would proceed from 59th Street and Fifth Avenue north to 110th Street, then west to Riverside Drive.

“During the ceremonies soil from 400 parts of Hungary will be mingled in an urn with soil from many American States and placed beneath the pedestal of the monument,” the newspaper said.

In the meantime the Anti-Horthy League, the group protesting the arrival of the representatives of the Horthy government, called for Samuel Untermyer, a Horthy supporter, to step down from membership on the Kossuth Reception Committee.  Untermyer fired back in a letter published in The Times.

“No condonation of or sympathy with Hungarian or other Jew-baiters is involved in acceptance of membership on this committee and I accordingly respectfully decline to withdraw my name from the committee unless some very much better reason than you have presented in your letter can be offered for such an unfriendly act to the memory of so great a liberal as was Louis Kossuth,” he said in part.

Cast in Budapest, the statue had cost over $30,000. Despite a protest, the unveiling went off smoothly in the presence of around 25,000 viewers.  The unveiling speech was made by Baron Zsigmond Perenyi, the statue was presented to the city by Mrs. Geza Berko (accompanied by a 24-gun salute), Mayor Walker gave his acceptance speech and the Mayor Sipocz of Budapest followed with an address.

But within six months there were problems.

Members of the Anti-Horthy League charged that “not only had there been graft in the collection for the shaft, but the figures themselves were made of cheap bronze and were already beginning to decay,” reported The Times.

Sculptor Adolph Wolfe examined the statues and determined that they “were cast in too many pieces and were poorly pieced together; that the joints where the pieces came together showed evidences of deterioration after having been exposed to the weather for only six months.”

He added that the bronze was of poor quality and was already cracking in several places.

By 1930 it was obvious that the monument had a significant problem.   The Times had earlier reported that “While there was no immediate danger of the statue crumbling…there was danger of ultimate collapse due to the fact that the steel supports inside the bronze figures were not galvanized and are therefore subject to rust.”  In response the entire monument was taken apart, the statues were recast and reassembled.   At the time the bronze bas relief tablets were not replaced; but presented by the artist to the First Hungarian Reformed Church at No. 344 East 69th Street.

photo by Alice Lum
No longer a lightning rod for political dissension, for nearly a century the monument has been the focal point of the celebration of Hungarian Independence Day on March 15. 


  1. This statue is actually at RSD and 113th St. I know, because it's at the base of my street, and I pass it whenever I go walking in Riverside Park.

    1. whoops! You caught a typo! Thanks. Good thing I have proof-reading readers like you!

  2. This is my favorite statue in New York. What's so impressive for me--and no photograph ever captures it, you have to be there to see it--is the eye contact between the soldier and the peasant. They are making direct eye contact, and it's absolutely electric. I don't think I have ever seen anything like that it achieved in a sculpture before.