In Brooklyn, Grand Military Plaza Will get an Intervention

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In Brooklyn, Grand Army Plaza Gets an Intervention

In the moments following the November 7th presidential election in favor of Joseph R. Biden Jr., a cheering crowd spontaneously gathered in Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, hooting and dancing around the Soldiers & # 39; and Sailors & # 39; Memorial Arch on which the allegorical bronze figure of Colombia, representing America, thundered in its horse-drawn chariot, flanked by trumpet figures of winged victory.

For much of its history since its cornerstone was ceremonially laid in 1889 by General William Tecumseh Sherman, the Arch, a memorial to Union Civil War veterans, has been a pretty good measure of how the wind blew in Brooklyn.

In 1976, at a time of tight municipal budgets and dire straits, that wind was literally as Columbia was blown backwards from the back of her car and hung precariously from the roof of the arch as a symbol of the city's vicious neglect. Rapid cable work by local firefighters prevented it from falling onto the square, and the incident resulted in a major restoration of the arch from the late 1970s.

Today Columbia and her triumphant bronze companions are safe and sound thanks to a privately funded conservation program begun in 1999. But the arch they're standing on wasn't so lucky. The roof of the 80-foot granite memorial failed at least 10 years ago, and invasive reeds are growing out of the broken roof tiles. At the end of 2018, the mortar fell from one of the nine-tonne keystones of the arch, and the fire department ran to the scene again together with the police. Since then there have been barricades to protect pedestrians from falling debris.

To counter this monumental decline, a top-down restoration of the arch will be carried out next year, funded by Mayor Bill de Blasio with $ 6 million and by the Prospect Park Alliance, a private nonprofit group that operates the park, Grand Army Plaza is carried out in partnership with the city. The project, the first full restoration of the arch in 40 years, will stabilize and realign the exterior of the water-filled monument, replace the roof, repair some of the iron stairs inside, upgrade the drab exterior lighting, and add new lights inside.

The alliance will also spend $ 3 million to replace the uneven paving around the Bailey Well in the center of the square and restore the planted berms on the periphery. The conservation work is expected to be completed by 2022. After that, the interior and roof of the arch will be open to the public on special occasions.

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

"It is devoid of life and a rocky waste," lamented the park commission in 1887. "It suggests Siberia in winter and the Sahara in summer."

The vaunted firm McKim, Mead & White was hired to redesign the plaza, and veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic asked for donations to build a memorial. When the fundraising failed, the state provided $ 250,000.

John Hemingway Duncan, who was also the architect of Grant's Grave on Riverside Drive in Manhattan, knocked out 35 other contestants and won the $ 1,000 prize for designing a memorial arch. To create the bronze groups of sculptures that were later added to the crown of the arch and its two pedestals overlooking the park, the architect Stanford White tapped the Paris-based Frederick MacMonnies, who lived in Paris and at the influential École des Beaux had studied -Arts.

For the pedestals, MacMonnies crafted two complementary groups of fighters known as the Spirit of the Army and Spirit of the Navy – dynamic, excited depictions of the heroism and concerns of war. For the army group, the sculptor included a kind of selfie in bronze, since the officer who pushed for a group of soldiers in the scene is supposed to be MacMonnies himself.

The artist modeled his works for the Brooklyn Arch in France and mostly cast them in Parisian foundries. But the Navy group was damaged when it was loaded onto a steamboat, snapping internal brackets and deforming the base so that, as MacMonnies put it, "the men's knees were pushed into their ties". The statue was repaired on the direction of the sculptor's brother, but encountered additional problems at Brooklyn Bridge, where the driver who was delivering it from New York City was stopped for not having a permit for a large load. In the end, however, "Navy" was hoisted onto the east pier of Brooklyn's Arch in 1901.

The Brooklyn monument, which dates back to the Arch of Titus in Rome, blended classical Roman ancestors with neoclassical French adaptations of shape. Art historian Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis wrote in the Classical Receptions Journal in 2016 that "The use of sculptural groups on plinths attached to the pillars," originated in the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, while the Triumph Columbia and her horse-drawn chariot were inspired "The large group of sculptures on the Arc du Carrousel", also in Paris.

The interior of the Brooklyn Arch has also been designed with some subtle classic details, though the structure is so dilapidated that stepping into it today feels like stepping into ruin. The 107-step iron spiral staircase that elegantly corkscrews the two pillars has been severely corroded by chronic leaks and high humidity. Icicles are even known to form in winter.

The cast iron Newel posts, broken and rusted, are shaped like “fasces” in the Roman style, a bundle of sticks with a single ax head, carried as a symbol of authority during the triumphant Roman processions. Although some of the ax heads are missing, they are being replaced with new castings from molds taken from their surviving counterparts. The stairs in the east pier are being repaired.

Above the arch, in an empty 44-foot trophy room that housed war relics and which formerly housed the dolls library, is rusty beams that support the vaulted ceiling while pools of water have accumulated on the concrete floor.

Understanding the structural elements hidden beneath this floor was crucial in determining the extent of the restoration work required. No original plans of the arch have survived, and the drawings from the 1970s restoration left important puzzles about the arch's construction unsolved.

Those 1970s plans would point out those loopholes and say, "Structure unknown," said Alden Maddry, the Prospect Park Alliance architect who oversaw the restoration. "We wanted to make sure the structure of the arch was in reasonably good shape so it wouldn't fall off."

As a result, the alliance used modern technology to examine the hidden structure of the monument without cutting it open. Surface-penetrating radar scans of the trophy room floor showed the presence of seven beams running east to west across the top of the arch, while magnetic field pulses generated by a pachometer confirmed that the beams were metal. Endoscopic examinations showed that the rays were in good condition. All of these discoveries were a relief.

"For an arch, the natural structural movement is to slide the towers out," Maddry said. "But if you have something sturdy that holds these two towers together like these beams can, it's more sturdy."

Jonathan Kuhn, the park department's long-time director of art and antiques, said the most successful monuments are those that go beyond their original memorial function.

"The bow has passed the source of its meaning," he said. "It came to represent the part of town that was its own city, so it got a rare visibility."

In the past few months, the arch has also become a place for community gatherings, both for Black Lives Matter demonstrations and to celebrate Mr Biden's planned victory.

“Its meaning lies in the tension between the arch's status as a monumental, solid and enduring landmark – which represents what should be timeless at this time, right? – these meanings on the one hand, and then the additional changing meanings it has received as a result of the changing configurations of the square, the use of these spaces, the changing population and, most recently, as the centerpiece of these protests, ”police said after the assassination of George Floyd art historian Michele H. Bogart, author of "Public Sculpture and the Civic Ideal in New York City, 1890-1930".

The tension between the permanent and the ephemeral is also evident through the impaired physical structure of the monument itself.

"It's in a very vulnerable state right now, and the parks department knows more than anyone that bronze and stone are just as fragile in their own way as any tree or natural material they are supposed to oversee," added Ms. Bogart. "It's a fragile object, and I think it's wonderful that this work is going to be done soon, so that for some reason people can gather there and find meaning in what they see, whatever those meanings . "

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