View Full Version : Dotting the Parks, Monuments to the Famous or Forgotten

January 12th, 2014, 01:49 AM
Dotting the Parks, Monuments to the Famous or Forgotten


The Conrad Poppenhusen Memorial, left, in Queens; Pleasant Plains Memorial on Staten Island, top;
and the Lithuanian Flyers Memorial in Brooklyn. These photographs were shot on an iPhone with the Hipstamatic app,
using a filter that adds vintage texture and tone. Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Remember the Walloon Settlers? The contribution to New York’s history made by Eugene G. Putnam? Conrad Poppenhusen ring a bell?

Was that no, no and no?

And yet, each of them is memorialized somewhere in this city, their mark on history etched in bronze and granite.

There are about 800 monuments on city parkland in the five boroughs (http://www.nycgovparks.org/art-and-antiquities/permanent-art-and-monuments), scattered along rambling paths, grassy triangles and slender medians. They loom over passing pedestrians and cast a weary eye on gridlocked traffic — often somber, sometimes whimsical, frequently ignored, as the household names of past decades and centuries slip into obscurity.
What exactly constitutes a monument is not cut in stone, so to speak.

“A monument can be an artwork, but it doesn’t have to be,” explained Jonathan Kuhn, the parks department’s director of art and antiquities. “It has to perpetuate memory and have a commemorative function. It’s everything from a marker in the ground to the triumphal arch in Washington Square Park.”

So many monuments were erected on city parkland over the years that a half-dozen parks, starting in the 1970s, have had unofficial moratoriums on commemorative sculptures. Battery Park (http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/batterypark/monuments/page/2) alone is home to 20 such tributes, among them the Walloon Settlers Monument (http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/batterypark/highlights/12796) (they were a group of Belgian Huguenot families who sailed for New Amsterdam in 1624), the Norwegian Veterans Monument (http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/batterypark/monuments/1123), the John Wolfe Ambrose (http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/batterypark/highlights/12349) statue and the Wireless Operators Memorial (http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/batterypark/monuments/1715).

Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park in the 1850s with Calvert Vaux, detested memorials. He derided the monuments that were already pouring into the park as “incidents” and presciently bemoaned the inevitable anonymity that would come to cloak many of the people they honored.

New ones still gain entry today, although the bar is considerably higher — over the last 20 years, fewer than 60 new memorials have been approved by the city. The parks department vets proposals and forwards worthy candidates to the city’s Public Design Commission, which is the final arbiter. Among the more recent honorees are Antonin Dvorak, the Czech composer; Benito Juárez, a former Mexican president; Harriet Tubman, the abolitionist; and Eleanor Roosevelt, the former first lady. The Tubman and Roosevelt memorials helped fill a void among the city’s monuments, which almost exclusively memorialize men.

Some number of these historical markers, from busts and benches to fountains and figures in neo-Classical style, are not only fetching objects in themselves, but fascinating for the ways in which they illuminate dimly remembered parts of the city’s multilayered history. Here, portraits of some that deserve more than a passing glance.

The Andrew Haswell Green Memorial bench in Central Park. Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Andrew Haswell Green Memorial Seat

Ask most people who created the 843-acre masterpiece that is Central Park, and Olmsted and Vaux get the credit. But a handful of local history buffs have another answer: Andrew Haswell Green.

While Olmsted and Vaux were the creative geniuses, Green, as president and comptroller of the park’s Board of Commissioners, was effectively Central Park’s chief executive.

Every November on the anniversary of Green’s death, a group led by Michael Miscione, the Manhattan borough historian, gathers to raise a glass of apple cider in his honor at the grand marble bench — more than 12 feet across — that serves as his monument. It lies, somewhat hidden, at the top of a hill inside the park near Fifth Avenue and East 106th Street.

Dedicated in 1928, the bench is inscribed, in part: “In Honor of Andrew Haswell Green, Directing Genius of Central Park in its Formative Period.”

Sometimes likened to Robert Moses, Green is credited with consolidating the city into five boroughs in 1898, earning him the nickname Father of Greater New York. The historian Kenneth T. Jackson has called Green “arguably the most important leader in Gotham’s long history.”

Perhaps one reason Green is so overshadowed by Olmsted was that the two often sparred. An atypically candid sign next to the memorial bench acknowledges his more difficult side: “Critics and even allies found him overbearing and stingy.”

The memorial to Gen. Daniel Butterfield in Sakura Park on Riverside Drive. Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Gen. Daniel Butterfield Statue

No subject is more celebrated in stone than military heroism. And Daniel Butterfield, who started his adult life as a New York merchant, certainly achieved that. During the Civil War, he served as chief of staff to the Army of the Potomac, rising to become a major general by the war’s end.

But he is best known for another military contribution, his role in the creation of the plaintive bugle call, taps. In 1862, Butterfield, who was not a musician or a composer, summoned a bugler to his tent to help him produce a new version of the bugle call to signal the end of the day, to replace one he deemed too formal. Some question whether Butterfield simply modified the existing call, while others say he composed a new one. Whatever the case, the tune has long been the closing for military funerals.

After the war, Butterfield joined the family business. It proved to be a lucrative move. His father, John, helped found American Express. The young war hero was good, too, at sniffing out railroad and real estate opportunities. Along the way, he married Julia Lorillard James.

In her will, she left detailed instructions (and money) for the creation of a “colossal statue” of her husband, arms folded and hat cocked. John Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor better known for Mount Rushmore, received the commission. Today the monument stands (http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/sakurapark/monuments/202), indeed larger than life, in the southeast corner of Sakura Park, in Morningside Heights, opposite Butterfield’s old commander in Grant’s Tomb.

Apparently, Borglum was so annoyed by the estate’s executors that he wound up signing the top of Butterfield’s bronze head. “That,” he said, “is the only part of the original statue they didn’t make me change.”

Chief Nimham Memorial in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx.
Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Chief Nimham Memorial

Nearly one-third of all the battles fought (http://nysparks.com/historic-preservation/heritage-trails/revolutionary-war/default.aspx) during the Revolutionary War were in New York. A memorial in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx commemorates one bloody encounter.


A fieldstone cairn honors the sacrifice of Chief Daniel Nimham and other Stockbridge Indians in the Battle of Kingsbridge. On Aug. 31, 1778, with New York City held by the British forces, they were killed while fighting on behalf of the Revolution.

The battle, described afterward as an “ambush” and “massacre,” dragged on for hours on land belonging to Van Cortlandt Manor, a vast estate between Broadway and the Bronx River. Chief Nimham, a veteran of the French and Indian Wars and a convert to Christianity, fought alongside his son, Abraham, who was also killed. According to one account, with his men overpowered, Nimham called upon them to retreat but refused to yield himself. “I am old, and can die here,” he is said to have shouted. (http://gnadenhutten.tripod.com/patriotsblood/id4.html)

The rustic memorial (http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/X092/monuments/1120), which blends with the park’s natural landscape near Van Cortlandt Park East and Oneida Avenue, was erected in 1906 by the Bronx chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. It bears a simple plaque: “Upon this field Chief Nimham and seventeen Stockbridge Indians, as allies of the Patriots, gave their lives for liberty.”

The statue of Abraham de Peyster, the city’s 20th mayor, in Thomas Paine Park in Lower Manhattan.
Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Abraham de Peyster Statue

Before the Bushes and the Cuomos, there were the de Peysters. Abraham de Peyster (http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/thomaspainepark/monuments/370), born in New Amsterdam, was the 20th mayor of New York City in the 1690s. His father, Johannes, had been deputy mayor before him. A few years after Abraham’s tenure, his brother, Johannes Jr., became mayor. He, in turn, was succeeded by their brother-in-law, David Provost.


There are shades of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in Abraham de Peyster’s story. A philanthropist and businessman, he donated his own land for a new city hall (later renamed Federal Hall), lent the struggling city money and underwrote impoverished schools.

In 1893, a great-great-great-grandson of Abraham de Peyster proposed a memorial, and a base for it was built in Battery Park. But even in the late 1800s, the Battery was considered overrun with monuments. “Battery Park is not the place for the effigy,” declared an 1895 editorial in The New York Times. “There is no room for it. We have gone too far in park statuary already.” It added: “Better fill up the hole and find another place for de Peyster.”

Place was found for him in Bowling Green, though the bronze-and-granite monument, dedicated in 1896, was judged to be too large; it was removed and a smaller version was created. It was later moved to Hanover Square and, last fall, to Thomas Paine Park, part of Foley Square near the city’s Supreme Court building. There it stands today.

The Pleasant Plains Memorial in Pleasant Plains Plaza on Staten Island. Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Pleasant Plains Memorial

While memorials often commemorate those who have suffered adversity, occasionally it is the monument itself that stands as a symbol of endurance.

On Staten Island, in the middle of a small traffic triangle bounded by handsome houses and utility wires, a World War I monument remembers 13 fallen soldiers and many others who served from the Pleasant Plains neighborhood. The statue is based loosely on the “Winged Victory of Samothrace” in the Louvre: a Grecian-style female figure stands 10 feet tall upon a globe.

But the Staten Island monument, which now serves as a backdrop for Christmas-tree lighting ceremonies in the community, is actually a replica of the original, which was erected in 1923.

A car accident in 1963 left the statue with a broken arm; a second car crash, two years later, toppled the entire thing. Then, in the 1970s, after the statue was removed for restoration, it was stolen from a city warehouse on Randalls Island.

While various ideas for a replacement were debated, the empty pedestal was destroyed in yet another car accident. Finally, in the 1990s, two members of the City Council stepped in and paid to have the original monument replicated, based on photographs. To protect the new monument, the parks department raised the triangle and fenced the monument in. So far, so good.

The Alexander Skene memorial near Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn. Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Dr. Alexander J. C. Skene Bust

Of the hundreds of monuments in the borough parks, only two are devoted to physicians. Both were gynecologists.

One was Dr. James Marion Sims (1813-1883), considered the “father of modern gynecology,” whose monument stands in Central Park. The other was the Scottish-born Alexander J. C. Skene (http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/grandarmyplaza/monuments/1451), who received a medical degree from Long Island College Hospital and began his career in Brooklyn.

According to the parks department’s website, Skene chose the borough despite warnings that “no Brooklyn physician has ever made a ripple that crossed the East River.”

He made waves instead. A revered surgeon, teacher and physician, Skene founded the American Gynecological Society in the 1880s and eventually became president of the hospital where he had earned his degree.

Dedicated in 1905, his monument, in Grand Army Plaza at the entrance to Prospect Park, is an august affair, with a large bronze bust set against a tall slab of white Vermont marble. The hospital, in Cobble Hill, has not fared as well. It has lost money for years, and the State University of New York (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/s/state_university_of_new_york/index.html?inline=nyt-org) is trying to shut it down.

Conrad Poppenhusen Memorial in Poppenhusen Park in Queens. Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Conrad Poppenhusen Bust

The name Conrad Poppenhusen (http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/Q042/monuments/1208)may not have wide recognition outside College Point, Queens. But old-timers in the neighborhood know all about him: “He helped build up the town,” said Bob Lewis, 80, a retired police detective and a College Point native.


Poppenhusen, who immigrated from Hamburg, Germany, in the 1840s, founded a prosperous rubber factory in College Point. He built worker housing, a railroad, a church and a vocational high school.

He is best known for erecting what is believed to be the first public kindergarten in the United States. To this day, the Poppenhusen Institute (http://poppenhuseninstitute.org/), which had housed the kindergarten, as well as a library, bank and courtroom, serves as a cultural and educational center.

Occupying a triangle on College Point Boulevard and 11th Avenue, Poppenhusen’s monument features an oversize bronze bust that shows him with a strong nose, an Amish-style beard and an impish expression. Erected in 1884, the pedestal says simply: “To the Memory of the Benefactor of College Point.” In late December, as twilight descended on the quiet neighborhood, a pine garland was draped around his shoulders.

A statue of the Irish poet and biographer Thomas Moore in Prospect Park. Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Thomas Moore Memorial

As it turns out, you don’t need to have lived in New York — or even to have visited — to earn a monument here. Waves of immigrants to the city have felt the need to commemorate the cultural heroes of their homelands. The Concert Grove in Prospect Park is a who’s who of great European artists who never set foot here.

Beethoven, Mozart and Weber are there, presented by the United German Singers. Edvard Grieg is there, thanks to the Norwegian Societies. And so is the Irish poet and biographer Thomas Moore (http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/prospectpark/monuments/1057), courtesy of the St. Patrick Society.

Only Moore, who was also a lyricist and singer, traveled to the United States, coming here in the early 1800s. It is unclear whether he ever made it to New York City.

In any case, he is said to have loathed most Americans, finding them crude and vulgar, and he even disliked President Thomas Jefferson, whom he met briefly in Washington. It could not have helped that the president apparently mistook the diminutive Moore for a child.

On his return to Britain, he wrote “Epistles, Odes and Other Poems,” a catalog of his antipathy for all things American, particularly slavery, and his adventures with American women. The book, published in 1806, elicited gales of protest in the United States. But memories fade, and 73 years later, his bust, by the sculptor John G. Draddy, was dedicated in Prospect Park.

Putnam Memorial in Veterans Park on Staten Island. Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Putnam Memorial Fountain

Some monuments are so modest that they seem not to speak of bold actions on a monumental stage, but to whisper about lives touched on a smaller scale. The granite drinking fountain in Veterans Park on Staten Island is one such example.

Erected in 1915, the fountain honors the memory of Eugene G. Putnam (http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/R019/monuments/1294)(1865-1913), who, as a plaque explains, was principal of Public School 20 in the Port Richmond neighborhood for 17 years. The original P.S. 20 — a city landmark built in 1891 — still overlooks the park, but the building is now a residence for the elderly. The new elementary school is next door.
What was distinctive about Mr. Putnam’s school leadership has long since faded from memory. But some residents say they cannot help but muse about him as they pass the fountain’s large stone basin in Veterans Park, the borough’s oldest.

“I just have a picture of what this neighborhood must have looked like 100 years ago, with the children going off to school and the principal standing on the steps,” said Peter McNally, 52, who was walking his dog.

Weeping Beech Tree Landmark Plaque

Samuel Parsons, a horticulturalist and nursery owner, brought back a cutting of a weeping beech from Belgium and planted it in 1847 between Bowne Street and Parsons Boulevard in Flushing, Queens. It flourished, with its trunk eventually growing to 14 feet in circumference and its branches spreading 85 feet. It became a living memorial to Parsons, who, according to the parks department, provided many of the original trees for Central Park and Prospect Park.


A plaque dedicated to Parsons (http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/margaretcarmangreen/monuments/1694)is affixed to a rock in what is now Weeping Beech Park. The park doubles as the grounds of Kingsland Homestead, a shingled house with a gambrel roof, dating to the 1780s, that in the late 1960s was moved to the current site, on land that was formerly the Parsons nursery.

In 1998, at the age of 151, Parsons’s tree succumbed to the forces of nature. But the tree endures, in its way, through a stand of young beeches.

“They were deposited naturally when the mother tree was still alive,” said Ellissa Fazio, the executive director of the Queens Historical Society, referring to 10 weeping beeches that dot the grounds. “They are the daughter trees.”

Lithuania Flyers Memorial in Lithuania Square in Williamsburg. Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Lithuanian Flyers Memorial (http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/B202/monuments/929)

In the 1930s, after Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic, crossing flights became all the rage. The parks department’s Historical Signs Project says: “The world was fascinated with what was called ‘Atlantic fever.’ ”


In 1933, two Americans born in Lithuania, Steponas (Stephen) Darius and Stasys (Stanley) Girenas, set off from Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn in a Bellanca CH-300 Pacemaker. They were bound for Kaunas, Lithuania.

Just three hours short of their destination, the co-pilots died when the plane crashed in a forest in Germany. What happened remains a mystery, although one theory holds that Nazi Germany, which would attack Lithuania in 1941, shot the plane down.

The men became instant heroes in Lithuania. The government issued postage stamps and currency with their images and renamed bridges, streets and schools in their honor.

Their trans-Atlantic flight was also memorialized here in 1957, with the naming of Lithuania Square in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a triangle bounded by South Second Street, Hewes Street and Union Avenue. The Lithuanians of Greater New York raised money for a granite flagstaff base that shows the two fliers in bas-relief.

While their story may mean little to most Americans, for Lithuanians “it’s part of our folklore,” said Arturas Rozenas, an assistant professor of politics at New York University, who was speaking not as an expert on the fliers, but as a Lithuanian national.

“There’s a four-line poem about them that every child learns,” he added. Asking a Lithuanian who the Fliers were, he said, “would be like asking who George Washington is.”