Remembering World War One in New York

By Ross J. Wilson


Whether statues, plaques, street names, trees or buildings, New Yorkers live within an extensive commemorative landscape to World War One. However, if the plans of campaigners had been realized, then the war could have bequeathed a far more significant material legacy in the city. Indeed, New York might have been the resting place of the ‘Unknown Soldier’.

Arguments over commemorative sites to World War One are quite current in contemporary media. Earlier this year, after a long selection process and debates regarding the purpose of ‘another’ commemorative site in the capital, the chosen design was announced for the National World War One Memorial in Washington, DC. The debates and difficulties which have marked the attempt to create this memorial took place nearly a century ago in New York as a similar process gripped the metropolis in the aftermath of World War One. With the ending of the fighting in 1918, New Yorkers were called upon to remember a conflict which had seen a demand for this diverse city to demonstrate its ‘American’ status.

Throughout the war, a program of ‘Americanization’ was present across the city’s public and private institutions. As such, how to commemorate the war and mourn the dead became another means of affirming and policing identity within the metropolis. Understanding how the city remembered this conflict demonstrates the way in which New York and its citizens were redefined by the events of World War One.

With the signing of the Armistice in November 1918, the office of Mayor John Hylan (1868-1925) had set up a Mayor’s Committee to Welcome Homecoming Troops and a Mayor’s Committee on a Permanent War Memorial. Both were chaired by the politician and wartime Special Deputy Police Commissioner of New York, Rodman Wanamaker (1863-1928).

However, the controversial appointment of Hylan’s political backer, newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951), to the homecoming committee demonstrated the tensions that the war had created. Hearst had supported Germany’s cause through his media empire and his selection was met with demands that the committee be ‘100 per cent American’. Whilst this was politically motivated, such perceptions also demonstrated the tensions present within commemorating a conflict that witnessed a movement to redefine the city’s identity as an immigrant city to an American metropolis.

The Homecoming Committee appointed the renowned sculptor Paul Wayland Bartlett (1865-1925) and architect Thomas Hastings (1860-1929) to oversee the development of Fifth Avenue into a ceremonial processional route. Their response was to create a classically-inspired scheme which affirmed the values of the nation.


The elements of this ‘sacred way’ constituted of the ‘Arch of Victory’ located on 24th Street on Fifth Avenue, measuring over 30 yards high, depicting allegorical figures of Democracy and Justice and exhibiting panels commemorating the efforts at home and on the battlefield; the ‘Arch of Jewels’ on 60th Street, a columned gateway decorated with over 20,000 pieces of crystal, lit up by searchlights at night, along its center was draped an American flag; and the ‘Court of the Dead’, outside the New York Public Library, where the passing parade could honor the fallen. With the return of the city’s own divisions after the spring of 1919, the ‘Court of the Dead’ was garlanded with 189 wreaths, each from the city’s draft boards affirming the sacrifice of the city for the nation.

Indeed, the parade on May 7 1919, of the 77th Infantry Division, New York’s ‘Melting Pot’ Division, served to reaffirm specific ideas of citizenship. The 77th Division were thereby extolled as an example of patriotism for all of New York’s residents.

Such demonstrations of citizenship were not extended to returning African American servicemen. For example, the 369th Infantry Regiment (Harlem Hellfighters) returned to the United States in February 1919 before this ceremonial route had been fully completed. This began a process which remained throughout the 1920s, the form and function of war memorials in the city were used to shape the identity of New Yorkers.

The success of the homecoming parades encouraged the work of the Permanent War Memorial committee. After advertising for proposals, this group filed a report in November 1919 which discussed the various schemes forwarded; whilst they found none to their satisfaction they forwarded three initiatives which they believed would form the basis of future planning

  • A ‘Liberty Bridge’ – erected over the Hudson River

  • A ‘Liberty Hall’ – the development of Madison Square Garden to become the largest convention center in the world

  • A ‘Liberty Arch’ – erected near Central Park or Madison Square Park

The plans were made public in early 1920 as the Committee sought to gain support and donations from New Yorkers for their proposed schemes. A composite image of this scheme was designed by the architect W.A. Somervell (1872-1938) with city designers and engineers. However, the plans soon became subject to increasing political and popular resentment.

The ‘Liberty Bridge’, which evoked earlier plans for a ‘Hudson Memorial Bridge’ in 1909, found little support in the city as the scheme was not regarded as a fitting enough tribute to New York’s sacrifice. The potential benefit to the residents of New Jersey also seemed to be far more than the advantages that would be gained by the city in its construction according to New York’s politicians.

One scheme that did attract popular support was the notion of a Liberty Hall which would commemorate the dead but also provide a function for the living. However, the Victory Hall Association (VHA) who had proposed the plans withdrew from the Committee’s competition to develop the scheme on their own.
This grand scheme envisaged a larger version of the Parthenon in Athens, consisting of a 20,000 seat auditorium, meeting rooms, swimming pool and rifle range as well as large bronze plaques which would record the names of the dead. The site of this complex was selected as the city-owned plot beside Grand Central Station, bounded by Lexington and Park Avenues in the east and west, and by 42nd and 41st Streets to the north and south.

Victory Hall Association, 1920. Victory Hall: New York City's proposed war memorial and forum. New York, NY: Victory Hall Association

Victory Hall Association, 1920. Victory Hall: New York City's proposed war memorial and forum. New York, NY: Victory Hall Association

Such a prominent location brought censure from politicians such as the future Mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia (1882-1947) then serving as the President of the Board of Aldermen. The VHA had set out to raise the $20million needed from public and private donations but La Guardia condemned the plans as a cynical means of depriving the city of income and a resource for a scheme which would benefit only the rich hoteliers and club owners in the area.

To counter such claims of elitism, the VHA set out an ambitious plan to secure for its site the body of the Unknown Soldier. Following the internment of the bodies of unidentified servicemen in France and Britain, the decision by Congress to exhume a body of a US Army soldier was followed by an application by the VHA to have the last resting place of this individual in New York. This proposal was unsuccessful and the failure of the VHA to secure funding or combat the perceived limitations of its plans saw the scheme falter and fail by the mid-1920s.

The ‘Liberty Arch’ was the only viable option and this plan underwent significant alteration as the Commission consistently failed to secure political and popular support for the scheme. Faced with mounting criticism, Wanamaker resigned only to be reappointed by Mayor Hylan in April 1922 to spearhead a new scheme which saw Thomas Hastings appointed to rework a previous memorial scheme for the lower reservoir in Central Park as the city’s war memorial.

Without the support of the veterans’ group, the American Legion (AL), which had become increasingly prominent across the nation after their founding in 1919, and the lack of financial support from the city, the scheme was called to a halt in 1924. The funds that had been raised for this memorial were diverted into small parks and playgrounds in the city all of which bear the name of a soldier killed during the conflict. New York has no central memorial as no agreement could be made as to its form or function.

The dedication of places within the city had been a form of commemoration used after 1919 when Pershing Square outside Grand Central Station was named. Henshaw Street, Staff Street and Daniels Street soldiers, all off Dyckman Street, were renamed after soldiers from that area.The Manhattan approach to Washington Bridge was renamed McNally Square, after a soldier and son of a policeman of the city who had died in France. Similarly, in West Harlem, a single block from 126thStreet from old Manhattan Street to Claremont Avenue was named Moylan Place after Private William Moylan, 42nd Division, who died in 1918 and was buried in France. The city had taken on a very patriotic appearance.

The AL had supported this program of renaming of streets as well as being prominent in the creation of local war memorials in the city alongside the Gold Star Mothers (GSM) who were formed to support bereaved mothers of servicemen and women. Indeed, as the scheme for a main site of commemoration had faltered, across the five boroughs, neighborhoods with the financial and political support of the AL and the GSM had been responsible for garlanding the city in a variety of war memorials.

By 1921 there were 50 memorials, a figure which had doubled a decade later.The design of such sites was controlled as the city’s Art Commission had regulated all artwork erected on public land since 1898. The schemes which passed the Art Commission’s panel were reflective of the ‘American’ spirit such as flagpoles, tablets, allegorical statues and soldier statues.

The ‘Doughboy’ statues which can now be seen in Woodside, Red Hook and Chelsea were part of this scheme. These sculptures are more than just material forms of propaganda. In the interwar period, these sites are used by the local areas to demonstrate their commitment to the nation. They are all patriotic statements of that community’s service.

The American Legion and the Gold Star Mothers did not assist schemes for commemorating African American sacrifices with the same rigor in the city. Nevertheless, memorial spaces for African Americanservicemen were constructed in the 1920s and 1930s which were used by communities as a point of civic pride and national identity. For example, thousands of people attended the opening of the Dorrance Brooks Square in Harlem in 1925 whilst the dedication of the 369th Regiment Armory in 1933 was also marked as a testament to African American life in the city and the wider nation.

Park Commissioner Francis Gallatin (1870-1933) was supportive of the erection of these monuments on public land considering that these structures could do more to ‘Americanize’ the city than ‘all the sermons on Americanization’. As such, the profusion of memorials across the city after the ending of the war demonstrates the continued efforts to secure the ‘American’ identity of the metropolis in the aftermath of a war which sought to affirm New York was ‘100 per cent. American’. However, it also shows how the city’s communities sought to use these memorials themselves to ensure that their sacrifice would not be forgotten and to proclaim their place in New York.

Ross J. Wilson is Senior Lecturer in Modern History and Public Heritage at the University of Chichester (UK). He is currently working on a study of civic culture in nineteenth-century New York.

Further reading

The assessment of New York during the First World War can be read in Ross J. Wilson’s (2014) New York and the First World War.

Detailed assessments on American commemoration in the twentieth century can be found in John Bodnar’s(1992) Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century and G. Kurt Piehler (1995) Remembering War: The American Way.

Wider assessment on art and memorials in the city can be found in Michele H. Bogart’s (1989) Public Sculpture and the Civic Ideal in New York City.

The two latest assessments of American remembrance of World War One are, Lisa Budreau (2010)Bodies of War: World War I and the Politics of Commemoration in America 1919-1933 and Stephen Trout (2010) On the battlefields of memory: the First World War and American Remembrance, 1919-1941.