Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The 1913 Maine Monument -- Central Park

photo by Alice Lum

American public opinion against Spain in regard to its rule over Cuba was already heated in February 1898; mostly because of the agitation and yellow journalism of publishers like Joseph Pulitzer and William Hearst.  When Cuban riots protesting the new government broke out in Havana, President William McKinley ordered the USS Maine to protect American citizens and interests.

At 9:40 p.m. on February 15 a colossal explosion blew apart the Maine, killing 266 sailors.  Although there was no clear evidence that the catastrophe was anything but an accident and McKinley urged calm; journalists like Hearst were less forgiving.  Both he and Pulitzer printed sensational accounts of “atrocities” committed by the Spanish.  On April 11, a reluctant William McKinley declared war on Spain.

Remnants of the destroyed USS Maine in Havana Harbor -- photo Library of Congress
In the meantime, William Randolph Hearst began a patriotic drive just four days after the tragedy to erect a monument to the lost sailors.   His New York Morning Journal began a fund drive and immediately the public responded.  Benefits were staged and collections were initiated in schools, theaters, social clubs and political groups.

On February 28 the Executive Committee of Theatrical Managers held a meeting in the Knickerbocker Theatre “to consider some plan for giving benefit performances throughout the country to secure money for a monument to be erected in memory of the officers and men who lost their lives on the battleship Maine,” reported The New York Times. 

Manhattan’s socially elite rubbed shoulders with theater folk in the Metropolitan Opera House on Sunday evening, March 20, for a similar entertainment.  The performers ranged from stage actress Marie Dressler to comic vaudevillians Weber and Fields, from Shakespearean great Madame Helena Modjeska to entire opera companies including the Broadway Theatre Opera  Company, the Whitney Opera Company and the Castle Square Opera Company.

As an addition lure to the blockbuster event, the promoters titillated the public with a teaser.  “The theatrical managers who have the affair in charge promise a startling surprise, which, however, they refuse to divulge before the entertainment,” reported The Times.

To ensure the greatest receipts, tickets were not priced; but sold at auction.  On March 14 the Opera House was filled as the patriotic fervor of the cause took hold.  As patrons filed in for the auction they were “kept in good humor by the stirring strains from Innes’s Regimental Bank.”  Even those who would be performing joined in the bidding.  The first box sold was to Weber and Fields who paid a hefty $250.  By the time the last seat was auctioned, $5,000 had been raised for the monument fund—about $136,000 in today’s dollars.

Fund raising and other logistics would drag on for years.  In the meantime the two men commissioned to create the monument were hard at work.  Architect Harold Van Buren Magonigle had won the commission of designing the enormous memorial over 45 other submissions.  He would work hand-in-hand with sculptor Attilio Piccirilli who would execute the many sculptural elements.  Piccirilli, along with his five brothers, would later be responsible for the beloved New York Public Library lions.  In 1913 Magonigle and Piccirilli would work together again on the Riverside Park Firemen’s Monument.

Four years after fund-raising was begun, the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide succinctly reported on June 14, 1902 that the suggestion to place the Maine Monument in Longacre Square was approved by the Municipal Art Commission.  The site, later to be renamed Times Square, was perfect.  The New-York Tribune explained “The site then approved was at the junction of Broadway and Seventh avenue, at 45th Street, and was an irregular triangle in form.”  It was almost custom-made for the monument that would take on the basic shape of a ship.

The original design did not get approval from the Municipal Art Commission -- American Architect & Building News, July 28, 1900 (copyright expired)
But as the designs were worked and reworked, someone forgot about the monument.  “Through some oversight, however,” the New-York Tribune reported on July 8, 1910, “this space later was given for a public comfort station.”  The perfect site for the lofty Maine Memorial had been taken over by a toilet.

In 1908 application was made to situate the planned memorial at the Merchants’ Gate to Central Park.  By now more than $100,000 had been raised through public donations.  The Municipal Art Commission was quick to strike down the idea.  “The Columbus monument is now the central feature of the circle and should so remain.  It is impossible to place the Maine Monument, which is over sixty feet in height, in such close proximity to the Columbus column without dwarfing the latter and greatly detracting from the effect of both,” announced president Robert W. de Forest.  The commission was also concerned about pedestrian maneuverability.

Finally, on July 7, 1910 both the design for the Maine Monument and its location were approved by the Municipal Art Commission.  Highly esteemed Commission members Charles F. McKim, Daniel C. French and Frederick Dielman had made “minor changes” to the designs and it was now deemed acceptable.  Unexpectedly, the Commission changed its mind on the Central Park entrance site.  The New-York Tribune reminded readers the site in 1908 “was disapproved on the ground that, as then proposed, the monument would interfere with the circulation of pedestrians.  But it is now possible to take the monument further back in the park and thus entirely overcome this objection.”

“The sculpture will be executed in Knoxville marble,” said the newspaper, “with the exception of the crowning group, which will be of bronze.”

Another two years passed as Magonigle and Piccirilli toiled on the monument.  On February 15, 1912—14 years after the explosion in Havana harbor—the cornerstone was laid. The New York Times noted “It will cost about $175,000, most of which was collected by popular subscription from more than a million men, women, and children.”

On November 30, 1912 the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide noted that “The marble sculptures for the Maine monument will be on view in the Picirilli studios, at 467 East 142d street, from noon to 6 p.m., on Saturday, Nov. 30, and Sunday, Dec. 1.”  The long process of erecting a monument to the lost sailors was finally coming to an end.

A canopied reviewing stand is in place and gigantic American flags are positioned over the monument in preparation for the unveiling on Memorial Day 1913 -- photograph Library of Congress

Six months later the groundwork was well underway for the unveiling.   In May preparations were made for the arrival of the entire Atlantic fleet—21 battleships.  The participation of another ship, the cruiser Cuba, required deep consideration by legislatures.  The fact that it was not an American vessel was less touchy than its biracial crew.

On May 15, 1913 The Times reported that “The House today voted $5,000 for Cuba’s participation in the Maine Monument exercises in New York.  An amendment which was passed by a vote of 33 to 29 provides that the company of soldiers to be sent shall include both whites and blacks.”

As the unveiling neared, a police guard was placed at the monument.  The Sun explained “The policeman on duty yesterday said he had been instructed to look out for mischievous boys who might deface the monument.”

Fittingly, on the afternoon of Memorial Day 1913, the monument was unveiled in what The Editor and Publisher and Journalist called a “brilliant spectacle.”  The newspaper said “citizens by unnumbered thousands, some the most distinguished in the country, stood with bared heads while 15,000 soldiers and sailors stood at present arms.”

Thousands of sailors and soldiers stand by while little George Hearst, in a white sailor suit, prepares to unveil the monument -- photo Library of Congress
After James Grant Wilson, president of the monument committee, had finished speaking, William Randolph Hearst’s young son, George, dressed in a sailor suit, tugged on the lanyard.  The flags veiling the monument slowly pulled apart and simultaneously the Brooklyn Navy Yard band struck up the National Anthem.  At the same time 252 saluting guns from the Navy boats in the harbor went fired.
photo by Alice Lum

Former President William Howard Taft was the principal speaker and for the first time openly voiced his opinion that “the Maine had been blown up from the outside by a hostile hand.”  The Sun said “Mr. Taft spoke of Cuba as our foster child and as she errs in the childhood of her history we must bear with her.”

The monument was both impressive and complex.  A 40-foot high pylon (reduced from the originally planned 60-feet) was inscribed with the names of the men lost on the USS Maine.  “It is flanked by two colossi,” reported Editor and Publisher, “representing the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans…the Atlantic typified by a young man in the fullness of his strength, the Pacific by an old man half slumbering.”  The allegorical sculptures were over 14 feet tall.
The Pacific Ocean was depicted as a sleeping, elderly man -- photo by Alice Lum

At the foot of the pylon was a sculptural grouping entitled The Antebellum State of Mind: Courage Awaiting the Flight of Peace, and Fortitude Supporting the Feeble.  The figures were about double life-size.  Above the grouping was the inscription “To the Valiant Seamen who Perished in the Maine—By Fate Unwarned, in Death Unafraid.”

The foremost grouping was entitled The Antebellum State of Mind:  Courage Awaiting.  A sculptured ship’s prow supported the figure of a young boy “holding wreaths of olive and laurel, suggesting the new era inaugurated in Cuba through the Spanish war,” explained Editor and Publisher.   In the rear was another grouping, The Post-Bellum Idea: Justice Receiving Back the Sword Entrusted to War.

The marble ship originally floated in the pool of a fountain fed by two dolphins -- photo Library of Congress
Atop the pylon a gilded bronze figure of Columbia Triumphant in her seashell chariot was pulled by three enormous sea horses.  The bronze used in the casting of the sculpture was taken from the recovered canon of the USS Maine.  It is generally accepted that New York sculptors’ favorite model of the period, Audrey Munson, posed for the figure of Columbia.

Three gilded bronze seahorses pull the seashell chariot of Columbia -- photo by Alice Lum

Despite its impressive monumentality, not all critics were pleased with the design.  On July 15, 1916 the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide complained “The Maine monument is as regards composition not entirely successful.  The extreme animation of the silhouette conveys nothing of that sense of repose which a monument should symbolize and the naval emblems (sea horses) and figures are too excitedly grouped.”

The critic was pointed in his assessment.  “There is a lack of dignity in this monument that gives the impression that it is essentially a paper design.  On the drawing board beautifully drawn and exquisitely rendered it could not fail to charm; but the designer did not achieve his purpose, having failed to give sufficient character to the executed mass.”

Art critic Helen Henderson, in her A Loiterer in New York, fired back.  "Civic indifference towards sculpture reached a sort of climax with the unveiling of the Maine Monument and the more than usually stupid snap-shot criticisms of the press roused a storm of protest from the sculptors of the country, demanding intelligent criticism as the first step towards advancement in every phase of public betterment."  Saying that "The Maine Monument suffered more than most from a perverse misconception of its intention, from certain railing criticisms and heedless witticisms," she noted that "sculptors have rallied to the defense of Piccirilli, and claimed for him the consideration deserved for his 'high-minded consecration, and skill in the handling of marble, heretofore unknown in this country.'"

Despite the contention, the patriotic fervor which was responsible for the monument clung to it.  The same year that the Guide panned the design, the U.S. Army took advantage of the symbolism by erecting a recruiting tent next to the monument.  The Evening World remarked on April 6, 1916 “You boys that mother didn’t raise to be soldiers had better keep away from Columbus Circle for the next eight weeks of your Uncle Sam will get you if you don’t watch out.”

Similarly, politicians and activists over the next few decades used the monument as a backdrop for speeches and rallies.  A disgusted Nellie Candall Sanford fired off a letter to the editor of the New York Times in April 1922 protesting as the Maine Monument being used as “a rostrum and billboard combined.”  In particular she complained of one orator.  “That the speaker’s remarks were mischievous, unpatriotic and thoroughly un-American is perhaps beside the question, but I submit that the Main Monument is a tribute to our honored dead and not a platform and billboard for any propaganda whatever.”

Only six years after its unveiling the monument showed signs of neglect and disrepair.  The Evening World published an editorial deriding the Park Commissioners for allowing the inscriptions to become nearly illegible due to weathering.  An embarrassed Park Commissioner Philip Berolzheimer responded “I am glad The Evening World called attention to the condition of the monument.  It is a fine thing to have people take a real interest in the show things of the city, particularly when they have been erected as memorials for worthy deeds.  I will take steps at once to see that the carving on the monument is again brought out plainly and any other necessary repairs made.”

For years an annual memorial ceremony was held at the monument.  Wreaths were laid, speeches given, and veneration given to the lost sailors of the USS Maine.  But, as The Lookout magazine said in 1913, the same year the monument was unveiled, “in a busy, careless city the average person so soon forgets.”
photo by Alice Lum

Today thousands pass by the marble monument every day; few pause to read its inscriptions and even fewer remember the human disaster that launched a war.


  1. I've always wondered what happened to the wreaths of olive and laurel formerly held by the boy in the prow of the ship.

    1. I wonder too. There is no mention of the lost ornaments, even by the Parks Department. It could be that they were victims of the horrible desecration of so many of the Central Park monuments during the dark 1970s. But I have no documented basis for that.

    2. I remember hearing years ago that the wreath had been stolen so many times that the decision was finally made by the City to leave it off. My impression was that this had happened well before the Seventies