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Grand Army Plaza

John F. Kennedy Memorial map_it

History

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

This monument honors John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-1963), the thirty-fifth President of the United States.

After serving as a naval officer during World War II, Kennedy was a United States Congressman from Massachusetts from 1947 to 1953, and a United States Senator from 1953 to 1960.  Narrowly defeating Richard M. Nixon in the tightly contested election of 1960, he was elected the nation’s first Catholic president.  As president he launched initiatives such as the Peace Corps, and with Great Britain and the Soviet Union signed the nuclear test-ban treaty of 1963.  He also weathered the disastrous Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba (1961) and Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

On November 22, 1963 he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas by Lee Harvey Oswald.  Shortly after the assassination on November 22, 1963 of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Brooklyn Borough President Abe Stark proposed to Mayor Robert F. Wagner and Parks Commissioner Newbold Morris that a monument be erected in Kennedy's honor.  The American Institute of Architects sponsored the monument competition, and Morris Ketchum, Jr. and Associates were selected to design the monument.

The promontory where the monument is situated in Grand Army Plaza, was selected for its physical prominence, historic significance, and scenic beauty. The monument’s design went through an evolution, and one time included an eternal flame.  Eventually the design was reduced to a more modest oblong pedestal sheathed in Vermont marble, from which projects a bronze portrait bust of Kennedy, crafted by noted Brooklyn-based sculptor Neil Estern (born 1926).  Estern, then at the outset of his career, later served as president of the National Sculpture Society, also created the statue of Mayor La Guardia in Manhattan and a sculpture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, and their dog Fala, at the FDR Memorial in Washington, D. C.

The approach to the Kennedy monument consisted of a stairway leading to a circular plaza, 41 feet in diameter.  Inset at the center of this plaza around the sculpture was a circle paved with Amazon River ebonite pebbles.  Inscribed into the front of the pedestal was the call to action expressed by Kennedy in his presidential inaugural address delivered on January 20, 1961: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask rather, what you can do for your country.”

The monument was unveiled in a solemn ceremony held on May 31, 1965.  Attending were the president's brother Robert F. Kennedy, Mayor Robert F. Wagner and Borough President Stark, among other dignitaries.  However, it would not be long before the memorial was shrouded in controversy. Modifications to the design and imperfections in construction trapped in moisture that appeared to have caused discoloration of the marble veneer.  Sculptor Neil Estern designed an alternate pedestal of more durable granite, but the monument remained as is.

Over time, weathering and vandalism plagued the monument, and the marble proved an unforgiving material when penetrated by acid rain and vandals' tags.   Early in the 21st century, plans were advanced by the City and the Prospect Park Alliance to renovate the Bailey Fountain and the north precinct of Grand Army Plaza, affording an opportunity to rectify the monument's flawed design. Steps were replaced with a sloped path, and vulnerable river stone from the surrounding area was repaved with bluestone. Estern's tapered pedestal was adopted, necessitating that the artist remodel a new bust that would now be viewed in the round.  Working from his original model he modified the portrait for a new casting.  The original bust was conserved, and loaned to the National Sculpture Society for display.

On August 24, 2010 the redesigned monument was rededicated.  At that time Kennedy's former speechwriter Ted Sorenson--often credited with the president's most soaring rhetoric--commented: "It is fitting that the President, elected 50 years ago this year, who demonstrated more than any other since FDR his concern for the arts, John F. Kennedy, should be the subject of a superb work of sculpture in the heart of New York City, where his victory on November 8, 1960 clinched his election and his subsequent years in the White House devoted to the arts, social justice and world peace."

President Kennedy's daughter Caroline wrote: “I hope everyone who passes this memorial will reflect on his words ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,’ and consider how we can all contribute our talent and energy to the betterment of the nation."

John F. Kennedy Memorial Details

  • Sculptor: Neil Estern
  • Description: Bust on pedestal
  • Materials: Bronze, Regal Grey granite
  • Dimensions: H: 7'4 ½"
  • Cast: 2010
  • Dedicated: May 31, 1965
  • Foundry: Beacon Fine Art Foundry
  • Inscription: Front: / JOHN / FITZGERALD / KENNEDY/ MAY 29, 1917 / NOVEMBER 22, 1963 / 35TH PRESIDENT / OF THE / UNITED STATES / 1961-1963 /

    Below: / ASK NOT WHAT YOUR / COUNTRY CAN DO FOR YOU; / ASK WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR / YOUR COUNTRY/

Please note, the NAME field includes a primary designation as well as alternate namings often in common or popular usage. The DEDICATED field refers to the most recent dedication, most often, but not necessarily the original dedication date. If the monument did not have a formal dedication, the year listed reflects the date of installation.

For more information, please contact Art & Antiquities at (212) 360-8143

Directions to Grand Army Plaza

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