December 2015


On Catesby Leigh's Objections to the 9/11 Memorial

by Louis Torres

At the invitation of the magazine First Things (which presumably contacted other writers as well), I submitted the a letter commenting on "A Memorial to Forget" (November 2014) by the noted architecture and art critic Catesby Leigh, about the 9/11 Memorial in New York City. It appeared as the sole response to Leigh's essay in the January 2015 issue of the magazine. The letter appears below (by kind permission of First Things), with links added to images and further material regarding the memorials cited, and a note at the end on the 1913 Firemen's Memorial in New York City.

On "A Memorial to Forget" (and a Few to Remember)

Catesby Leigh's negative assessment of the 9/11 Memorial is persuasive in large measure because he brings to it a far-reaching knowledge of the history of monuments and an uncommon appreciation of their singular role in human life. Reminding us that monuments honor "events, ideals, or people of a historic, exemplary, or heroic character," he cites two very different examples---London's Cenotaph [more] of 1920 honoring the million British soldiers who died in the Great War, and the more modest bronze frieze [more] [more] at the firehouse near Ground Zero, dedicated to the few hundred firemen who perished there that fateful day.

Simpler funerary monuments, Leigh notes, often commemorate lives lost in catastrophes. He offers the General Slocum Memorial Fountain [about], sadly too little known, as a prime example. A decade ago, in an anecdotal Villager article headlined "New York's Forgotten Disaster Marks 100," the writer wondered in closing why the tragedy had been "relegated to the back burner of history." A more recent illustrated weblog post, "Fire and Water: A Remembrance of the General Slocum on June 15,2010," is by a writer who first heard the story as a boy and returns to tell it himself on the 106th anniversary of the tragedy. Tellingly, an inscription on the Slocum stele reads simply: "They were Earth's purest children, young and fair" [click on middle of inscription to enlarge]. An unassuming monument like this, Leigh rightly suggests,would have been entirely fitting at Ground Zero.

A surprising omission in Leigh's list of praiseworthy civic monuments is the Firemen's Memorial [front (west)] [back (east)] (1913)* situated just above Riverside Drive at 100th Street in Manhattan. Designed by H. Van Buren Magonigle, with sculptures [left side (north)] [right side (south)] by Attilio Piccirilli [carver of Daniel Chester French's seated Lincoln at the Memorial in Washington, D.C.], it is surely one of NewYork's grandest monuments and a perfect antithesis to the 9/11 Memorial.

* Note: The central architectural element of this deeply moving memorial is an imposing marble sarcophagus flanked by two allegorical female figures--Duty and Sacrifice. Its front surface bears a bronze relief sculpture of a lone fireman driving an engine pulled by three galloping horses, racing to join comrades battling a conflagration. Beneath it was this simple dedication: "To the Heroic Dead of the Fire Department." The back panel is devoted to a heartfelt expression of gratitude referring to fallen firemen as "soldiers in a war that never ends"--a sobering thought that lodges in memory:

To the Men of the Fire Department
Of the City of New York
Who Died at the Call of Duty
Soldiers in a War that Never Ends
This Memorial is Dedicated
By the People of a Grateful City

Erected MCMXII

Other Articles by Catesby Leigh on Memorials

"In Search of Dr. King," Wall Street Journal, October 18, 2011. A critique of the Martin Luther King memorial in Washington, D.C.

"Curbing Memorial Sprawl," Wall Street Journal, June 3, 2014. Objecting to starchitect Frank Gehry's proposal for a sprawling memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower in the nation's capitol, Leigh contrasts it and other horizontally oriented memorials ("designed as places rather than objects") with vertical examples such as the Washington Memorial (an obelisk) and the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials (temples)--all three of which he regards as true monuments. [Scroll down to three comments by L.T.]

"Public Monuments," Traditional Building, Fall 2014. As summarized by the editors, Leigh's essay demonstrates that monumentality "entails objective, enduring formal qualities that contemporary designers ignore at their peril." In "Secrets of Successful Civic Monuments" (a brief statement following the essay), the editors characterize the "contentious topic" underlying the Fall issue as "What's gone wrong with new public monuments?" As Clem Labine (the magazine's Editor Emeritus) notes in "The Critical Role of Sculpture," Leigh shows "that the classical figure is the central element of the monumental tradition--and asserts that few sculptors today have the training or sensibility to create appropriate monumental figures."