In Brooklyn, Grand Army Plaza Gets an Intervention


In the moments after the Presidential election was called in favor of Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Nov. 7, a jubilant crowd gathered spontaneously in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza, whooping and dancing around the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch, atop which the bronze allegorical figure of Columbia, representing America, thundered forth in her horse-drawn chariot, flanked by trumpeting figures of winged Victory.

For much of its history since its cornerstone was ceremonially laid by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in 1889, the arch, a monument to Union veterans of the Civil War, has offered a pretty good measure of which way the wind was blowing in Brooklyn.

In 1976, a time of lean municipal budgets and blight, that wind was literal, as Columbia was blown backward out the back of her chariot, ending up hanging precariously off the arch’s roof as a ready symbol of the city’s malign neglect. Quick cable work by local firefighters kept her from tumbling into the plaza, and the incident led to a major restoration of the arch beginning in the late ’70s.

Today, Columbia and her triumphal bronze companions are healthy and well cared for, thanks to a privately funded preservation program begun in 1999. But the arch they stand on has not been so lucky. The roof of the 80-foot granite monument failed at least 10 years ago, and invasive reeds are growing from the shattered roof tiles. In late 2018, mortar fell from around one of the arch’s nine-ton keystones and the fire department again raced to the scene, along with the police. Barricades have been in place ever since to protect pedestrians from falling debris.

To address this monumental decay, a top-to-bottom restoration of the arch will be undertaken next year, funded by $6 million from Mayor Bill de Blasio and performed by the Prospect Park Alliance, a private nonprofit group that operates the park, along with Grand Army Plaza, in partnership with the city. The project, the first full restoration of the arch in 40 years, will stabilize and repoint the exterior envelope of the waterlogged monument, replace the roof, repair some of the interior iron staircases, upgrade the dreary exterior lighting and add new lights inside.

The alliance will also spend $3 million to replace the uneven paving around Bailey Fountain, in the plaza’s center, and restore the planted berms around its periphery. The conservation work is expected to be completed by 2022, after which the arch’s interior and roof will be open to the public on special occasions.

The great ellipse now known as Grand Army Plaza was planned as an elegant formal entrance to Prospect Park by the park’s designers, Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted. But despite the addition of a statue of Abraham Lincoln and a fountain with a large dome, the vast, simple plaza was never really embraced by the public.

“It is devoid of all life and is a stony waste,” lamented the Parks Commission in 1887. “It is suggestive of Siberia in winter and Sahara in summer.”

The vaunted firm of McKim, Mead & White was retained to reimagine the plaza, and veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic solicited donations for the construction of a commemorative monument. When fund-raising fell short, the state provided $250,000.

John Hemingway Duncan, who was also the architect of Grant’s Tomb on Manhattan’s Riverside Drive, beat out 35 other entrants to win the $1,000 prize for the design of a memorial arch. To create the bronze sculptural groups subsequently added to the arch’s crown and to its two pedestals facing the park, the architect Stanford White tapped the Brooklyn-boy-made-good Frederick MacMonnies, who lived in Paris and had studied at the influential École des Beaux-Arts.

For the pedestals, MacMonnies crafted two complementary groups of fighting men known as the Spirit of the Army and the Spirit of the Navy — dynamic, agitated depictions of the heroism and sorrows of war. For the Army group, the sculptor included a kind of selfie in bronze, as the officer urging on a cluster of soldiers in the scene was said to be MacMonnies himself.

The artist sculpted his works for the Brooklyn arch in France, casting them primarily at Parisian foundries. But the Navy group was damaged while being loaded into a steamship, snapping interior braces and deforming the base so that, as MacMonnies put it, “the men’s knees were shoved up into their neckties.” The statuary was repaired at the direction of the sculptor’s brother but encountered additional trouble at the Brooklyn Bridge, where the driver delivering it from New York City was stopped for not having a permit for a wide load. In the end, though, “Navy” was hoisted onto the eastern pier of Brooklyn’s arch in 1901.

Harking back to the Arch of Titus in Rome, Brooklyn’s monument blended classical Roman antecedents with French neoclassical adaptations of the form. “The use of sculptural groups on pedestals attached to the piers” is borrowed from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, art historian Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis wrote in Classical Receptions Journal in 2016, while the triumphal Columbia and her horse-drawn chariot were inspired by “the large sculptural group atop the Arc du Carrousel,” also in Paris.

The interior of the Brooklyn arch was also designed with some fine classical details, although the structure is in such disrepair that stepping inside today feels distinctly like entering a ruin. The 107-step iron spiral staircases that corkscrew elegantly up the two piers are badly corroded from chronic leaks and high humidity; icicles have even been known to form in winter.

The cast-iron newel posts, chipped and rusted, are in the form of Roman-style “fasces,” a bundle of rods with a single ax head that was carried as a symbol of authority during triumphal Roman processions. Though some of the ax heads are missing, they will be replaced with new castings made from molds taken from their surviving counterparts. The stairs in the eastern pier will be repaired.

Above the arch, an empty 44-foot-long trophy room — built to house war relics and formerly the home of the Puppet Library — has rusting beams supporting its vaulted ceiling, while pools of water have collected on its concrete floor.

Understanding the structural elements hidden beneath that floor was crucial to determining the necessary scope of restoration work. No original plans of the arch survive, and the drawings from the 1970s restoration left important mysteries of the arch’s construction unsolved.

Those ’70s plans “would point to these voids and say, ‘structure unknown,’” said Alden Maddry, the Prospect Park Alliance architect overseeing the restoration. “We wanted to make sure that the structure of the arch was in reasonably good shape so it won’t fall down.”

Consequently, the alliance employed modern technologies to investigate the concealed structure of the monument without cutting it open. Surface-penetrating radar scans of the trophy room floor revealed the presence of seven beams running east-west across the top of the arch, while magnetic field pulses generated by a pachometer confirmed that the beams were made of metal. Borescope investigations showed that the beams were in good condition. All these discoveries came as a relief.

“For an arch, the natural structural movement is to push the towers out,” Mr. Maddry said. “But if you have something stable tying these two towers together, like these beams can do, it’s more stable.”

Jonathan Kuhn, the longstanding director of art and antiquities for the Parks Department, said that the most successful monuments are those that transcend their original commemorative function.

“The arch has transcended the origin of its meaning,” he said. “It’s come to represent the borough, which was its own city, so it has taken on a rare level of visibility.”

In recent months the arch has also become a locus of community gatherings, for Black Lives Matter demonstrations as well as for the celebration of Mr. Biden’s projected victory.

“Its significance lies in the tension between the arch’s status as this monumental and solid and enduring landmark — which represents what at the time was meant to be timeless, right? — these meanings on the one side, and then the additional shifting meanings that it has acquired as the result of the changing configurations of the plaza, the uses of those spaces, the changing populations and most recently as the centerpiece of these protests” after the police killing of George Floyd, said the art historian Michele H. Bogart, the author of “Public Sculpture and the Civic Ideal in New York City, 1890-1930.”

The tension between the enduring and the ephemeral is also brought into high relief by the compromised physical structure of the monument itself.

“It’s in a very vulnerable condition right now, and the Parks Department knows more than anyone that bronze and stone are as fragile in their own ways as any tree or any natural material that they are charged with overseeing,” Ms. Bogart added. “It’s a fragile object, and it’s wonderful in my opinion that this work is about to be done so that people can gather there for whatever reason and find meaning in what they’re seeing, whatever those meanings may be.”

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