Yesterday I submitted some research to the World War 1 Memorial Inventory Project about a plaque that stands on the northern wall of the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in Bowling Green. The Custom House is a beautiful structure designed by Cass Gilbert at the turn of the twentieth century. Standing at the corners of Broadway and Whitehall, the building is one of the grandest and most distinct structures in Lower Manhattan. Today it houses the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the National Archives. Late in the summer I stumbled upon this monument early on a Sunday morning on my way to Governors Island:
I had to look him up but William H. Todd was a shipbuilder who lived in Brooklyn, NY. That makes sense as his company, Todd Shipyards Corporation, was based Red Hook. The company was formed through various mergers in 1916 and built many of the barges and minesweepers used by the U.S. Navy during the Great War. Oddly Todd died in 1932 when he fell down a flight of stairs at his son’s home.
What caught my attention on the plaque though wasn’t Todd, but the reference to a U.A.M.V. It turns out this was something called the United American War Veterans. I had never heard of this group but as it turns out it was a veterans group that in some ways competed with the American Legion after the First World War. It did not last; the U.A.M.V. seems to have gone defunct in the late 1920s.
If you search old newspapers from the 1920 you see a crazy quilt of Memorial Day commemorations across New York City. The Grand Army of the Republic was shrinking but still very much around. Not to be outdone there were then the veterans of the Spanish-American War. Now in 1919 and into the 20s there were the doughboys. Sometimes these cross-generational groups marched together and sometimes not. What’s more, even after consolidation in 1898 Brooklyn and Manhattan, not to mention the other boroughs, often had their own separate commemorations. There could be even more than one within the boroughs.
We see the remnants of the G.A.R. all around us. And the American Legion is still with us. It is funny though how some of these other groups fell by the wayside, all but forgotten by history.
This past weekend marked the anniversary of the start of the Meuse-Argonne campaign, which would continue on through the end of the war in November 1918. The American Battle Monument Commission just published this video that captures the essence of what it was all about. I cannot emphasize the quality of the work the ABMC has been doing during the Centennial, though that is no surprise given the organization’s rich history and institutional memory.
In 1927 Al Jolson appeared in The Jazz Singer, Louis Armstrong recorded “Potato Head Blues,” and Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig combined for 107 home runs. The Great War was over for almost a decade and life was seemingly returning to normal. That August President Calvin Coolidge traveled to South Dakota to speak at the groundbreaking of Mount Rushmore. As if channeling his inner Roosevelt, the staid Coolidge rode up the mountain on horseback. Curiously–perhaps in a nod to recent Franco-American relations?–a choir sang “The Marseillaise” in addition to “The Star Spangled Banner” and other patriotic tunes.
Rushmore literally put Theodore Roosevelt on the same level with Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson, and the monument was a big win for Roosevelt supporters. The RMA had lost a protracted battle for a Roosevelt memorial on the National Mall just a year earlier. The spot Hermann Hagedorn and others coveted eventually went to the Jefferson Memorial.
Ironically, Mount Rushmore has skewed our perceptions of the 26th president. When many people think “Theodore Roosevelt” they think of the West. Being depicted on a granite slab in the Black Hills will do that. Still it is important to keep in mind that, while Roosevelt spent chunks of time hunting and ranching out West, he was a city slicker first and foremost. Indeed he was the only president born in Manhattan, and it was to New York City and Long Island that he returned over and over across the course of his life.
(image/National Park Service)
I took this photograph of the Great War Memorial a few months back. It was restored a few years ago and looks fabulous. As you can tell by the image however, it does not get too much pedestrian traffic. That it is a tad off the beaten path explains part of it. Still, that can’t be the whole reason. It is less remote than it was even just three years ago when the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial was built; one walks through this general area when passing from the Mall to the MLK statue or vice versa. Even with the extra foot traffic, people do not seem inclined to stop and look. Maybe that will change during the Centennial.
I met historian Mark Levitch at the World War One Centennial Commission Trade Show in June. Since then I have contributed a few memorials to his World War I Memorial Inventory Project with a few more in the hopper. Earlier this week Mark was interviewed by CBS News about the project. Check out the video here.
I just got home from the Apple store in SOHO where I took an iPhoto workshop to brush up on my picture taking skills. I did this because at the World War I Centennial Commission trade show last weekend I agreed to participate in The World War I Memorial Inventory Project. The goal of project director Mark Levitch is to photograph and document 10,000 monuments to the Great War spread across the United States. Many are hiding in plain site.
As after the Civil War, the process of memorialization began almost immediately. Nations, states, and small towns around the globe built monuments in the 1920 and 1930s. What these all had in common is that every protagonist believed it had justice and righteousness on its side. This should not be surprising given the incredible human, financial, and material sacrifices they made. Who wants to think they sacrificed for nothing?
I intend to start off with the many World War I monuments on Governors Island. As I noted a few weeks ago there are many sprinkled across the island’s 172 acres. My goal is to do fifty, mostly in New York, over the next five years. I am not going to do the ones on New York City parks because the Parks Department has already done extensive documentation on these already. There are many in post offices, botanical gardens, and places like that. Often they are hiding in plain site.
I will not post the same images here on the Strawfoot that I submit to the inventory project, but occasionally I will take photos of the same subjects and share them here. I cannot tell you how excited I am about this.
(image/tablet for Lieutenant James Andes on Governors Island)
Yesterday I attended the WW1 Centennial Commission Trade Show. I met a lot of people who are doing some interesting things for the commemoration of the Great War. Here are a few pics from the show.
The trade show brought together museum officials, authors, and others to discuss their projects for the Centennial. Jones Day, theWashington white shoe law firm, hosted the event.
The acting chairman of the Commission spoke first and discussed the group’s strategic plan. They have obviously put a great deal of thought and energy into the enterprise. He and the other commissioners are all volunteers.
Before the trade show presentations there was a fifteen minute musical interlude by Benjamin Sears and Bradford Conner. They set a nice tone for the afternoon.
Sergeant York’s son (black shirt and glasses on right) was there with his own son and granddaughter (seated to his left).
Here are a few of the exhibits. As with the Civil War Sesquicentennial, the Great War Centennial will incorporate the changes that have taken place in historiographically in recent decades.
This is a sampling of some of the literature I gathered. I do not want to give away too much right now but I spoke to various folks about working on some projects over the next 4-5 years. I think the next few years will be fun and productive in a number of ways.
When in Washington over spring break the Hayfoot and I went to Roosevelt Island. This out-of-the-way site is something most tourists never see, which is understandable given that it is a little difficult to get to. Still, as the crow flies it is only a mile or so from the Lincoln Memorial. Roosevelt Island rests in the Potomac River and can be reached from the Roslyn stop on the Blue Line. The Iwo Jima statue is at the same stop but we missed that this time around.
Look closely through the trees and you can see the skyscrapers of Arlington, Virginia from the island. Landscape architecture is fascinating because the designer must be thinking decades down the line as to what his creation will look like when the trees and foliage fully mature.
One of Roosevelt Island’s charms is its tranquility so close to the Greater DC sprawl. The degree of difficulty in reaching the island is intentional. The planners wanted people to visit but also intended it to be a refuge. Believe me, you have to want to get here. Again, this is just a long toss from the Lincoln Memorial and the other sites on the Mall.
It may seem like pristine nature, but the island and memorial were a planned environment built by the Roosevelt Memorial Association in the 1930s. The RMA purchased the island from the Washington Gas Light Company for $364,000 and donated it to the American people in 1932.
Paul Manship designed the statue. It is more severe in photos than in person. The surrounding tress soften the subject’s commanding size and pose. Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. created the ninety acre island’s landscaping.
The statue came several decades after the memorialization of the island itself. The Depression, World War II, and other issues took precedence over the statue’s creation. Lyndon Johnson dedicated the statue on 27 October 1967 with Alice Roosevelt Longworth in attendance.
This monolith is one of four. Each notes an attribute considered important by Theodore Roosevelt.
Our only mistake was not bringing lunch. I have a feeling we’ll be back come summer.
(LBJ and Alive Roosevelt Longworth image from Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library. Dickinson State University)