Nearly two years after the end of World War I, New York Legislative Documents noted, "No progress has been made during the past year toward a conclusion as to the form of New York City's great war memorial." The two favored ideas being considered were a "Liberty Bridge" over the Hudson River, and the conversion of Madison Square Garden into Liberty Hall, proposed "to become the largest convention hall in the world, with a seating capacity of 20,000 people, containing a sacred Gothic Chapel and an organ that should be the greatest yet built." The document added, "As a third alternative they recommended a Liberty Arch in the heart of the city."
As it turned out, none of those ideas would earn the approval of millionaire department store mogul Rodman Wanamaker, Chairman of the Mayor John Francis Hyland's Committee on Permanent Memorial. (Wanamaker almost undoubtedly achieved the position through his former employee, Grover Whalen, who had been appointed Commissioner of Plants and Structures in 1918.)
Wanamaker felt strongly that the monument "should stand out by its simplicity"--the very antithesis of the three popular ideas. It may have been that conflict that resulted in his personally footing the $25,000 bill for the project--more than $360,000 today.
Wanamaker's committee eventually approved the design submitted by Thomas Hastings, of the esteemed architectural firm Carrere and Hastings. The Eternal Light Monument would take the form of a 125-foot tall wooden flagstaff formed from a century-old tree cut in "the virgin forests of Oregon and transported over the Rocky Mountains," according to The NYC Department of Parks. Hastings designed a monumental pink granite pedestal that upheld the grand bronze pole base. Paul Wayland Bartlett, who had studied under Auguste Rodin, executed the sculptural elements.
Atop the flagpole was a seven-pointed electrified star. It was first illuminated on Armistice Day, November 11, 1923, and the m0nument was formally dedicated on June 7, 1924. The names of significant French battles were engraved on the east and west faces. On the north was carved, "In memory of those who have made the supreme sacrifice for the triumph of the free peoples of the world," and on the south, in part, "Erected to commemorate the first homecoming of the victorious Army and Navy of these United States."
The Eternal Light Monument was the terminus of the annual Armistice Day parades, when tens of thousands of veterans marched from City Hall to Madison Square. (Armistice Day marked the day and hour World War I ended--the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11 month in 1918.)
The monument was also used by the city to honor distinguished guests. In June 1927 the Broadway motorcade of Charles Lindbergh stopped so the famous flier could lay a wreath at its base. And a month later, on July 18, The Daily Worker reported, "Clarence Chamberlin, Richard E. Byrd and the three men who flew with Byrd to Paris came back to New York yesterday...The fliers were met at the City Hall by Mayor Walker and received the city's medals of valor. At the eternal light in Madison Square, William H. Woodin welcomed them to the state in the absence of Governor Smith."
The Eternal Light Monument turned political around 1930, when socialists adopted it as their own symbol. It may have started with the May Day observations in Union Square that year. Army veterans planned a counter-protest. The Socialist newspaper The Daily Worker wrote, "If the Veterans of Foreign Wars can scrape together enough sluggers, boss-bellycrawlers and thugs they will start their march from the Eternal Light in Madison Square."
Members of the Women's Overseas Service League pose before the monument around 1924. from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
In 1932 veterans marched on Washington D.C. to demand government promised pension money. Two of them, Eric Carlson and William Hushka were shot dead by D.C. police. The deaths enraged Socialists, who organized "Huska-Carlson Day" the following year. On July 27, 1933 protestors assembled at Rutgers Square. The Daily Worker advised, "From there, a parade will leave for Madison Square (23rd St.) at the Eternal Light."
Every year the antithetical groups would use the monument for their widely disparate purposes. The annual Armistice Day parades and subsequent ceremonies went on in November, while the Socialists embraced the memorial in the spring months. On March 6, 1934 The Daily Worker announced, "The youth section of the American League Against War and Fascism will hold an anti-war parade starting at the Eternal Light in Madison Square, where a wreath will be laid." The banner on that wreath read, "We Will Not Support the Government In Any War It May Undertake."
Ernst Thaelmann, the leader of the Communist Party of Germany, was arrested by the German Government in 1933. Reaction in the form of rallies and protests among the Socialist and Communist communities in America was swift. On the night of June 13, 1934 Jack Corrigan shimmied to the top of the Eternal Light flagpole and hung a massive red banner demanding "FREE ERNST THAELMANN." He and his comrades assured that it would remain there as long as possible by greasing the pole upon his descent and cutting the pole ropes. On June 15 The Daily Worker reported, "While crowds gathered to watch the sight, police squads desperately tried to get up the pole, but it was greased too well for them."
In 1954 Armistice Day was changed by Congress to Veterans Day, in order to honor the deceased veterans of all wars.
In 1976 the wooden flagpole was replaced with a metal version. By then the once massive Veterans Day ceremonies had greatly diminished. On November 13, 1979 Judith Cummings, writing in The New York Times, said "Few New Yorkers marched in the annual Veterans Day parade yesterday on Fifth Avenue and almost as few bothered to watch it, deciding instead to take advantage of department store sales." She went on, "Ceremonies at the parade's terminus at Madison Square Park drew several dozen onlookers, who stood quietly in chill wind to hear the speakers in front of the graffiti-scarred Eternal Light monument near 24th Street."
Part of the meager turnout was blamed on anti-Vietnam War sentiments. But numbers grew in 1981 when national patriotism swelled with the return of American hostages from Iran. Mayor Edward Koch announced, "Now we must not rest until they [the Vietnam MIA's] are likewise returned."
The Veterans Day ceremonies saw another increase of numbers in 1983. Gannett Westchester Newspapers wrote on November 12, "About 2,000 present and former servicemen marched under cloudy skies in New York City's Veterans Day parade to pay tribute to America's fallen heroes, especially those killed recently in Lebanon and Grenada. They stepped smartly down Fifth Avenue to the Eternal Light Monument in Madison Square where 32 wreaths were placed in memory of the fighting men and women of the United States."
But the numbers had waned again in 1986, when The New York Times reported "The sparse crowds at recent Veterans Day parades in Manhattan were generous compared with the smattering that turned out yesterday." It was, nevertheless, a groundbreaking event. The article noted, "for the first time, homosexual veterans joined the march under their own banner." It was not entirely a welcomed change. The article noted, "As the Gay Veterans entered the parade from 39th Street, a man slashed the banner with a knife and fled."
The luminaire, or lighted star, at the top of the flagstaff was refurbished in 2017. Thomas Hastings's magnificent base, described in 1979 as "graffiti-scarred," has been restored. And the Eternal Light monument continues to be the site of the annual Veterans Day ceremonies after nearly a century.
photographs by the author
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