Vietnam Veterans Plaza
Vietnam Veterans Plaza
On May 4, 1985, Mayor Edward I. Koch dedicated this plaza in honor of the 250,000 men and women of New York City who served in the United States armed forces from 1964 to 1975, especially those 1,741 who died fighting the Vietnam War. On November 9, 2001 Mayor Giuliani rededicated the extensively redesigned plaza.
This plaza consists of two parcels of land, each with a distinct origin and history of uses. The City of New York acquired the northern section of this plaza in 1686 and 1730 by virtue of the Dongan and Montgomerie Charters, which assigned all unused or excess properties to the City. At that time, the remainder of the property was in the East River and was known as Coenties Slip. When the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 laid out Manhattan’s grid, the island contained hundreds of piers, but as the City’s population grew, the waterfront was filled in to make more land.
Coenties Slip was filled in 1835. In 1884 the trapezoidal parcel created by filling in Coenties Slip was named Jeannette Park in honor of The Jeannette, the flagship of the ill-fated Arctic Expedition (1879-1881) sponsored by New York Herald editor James Gordon Bennett, Jr., who named the ship after his sister.
In 1886, Horticulturist Samuel Parsons Jr., who served as Superintendent of Parks, designed Jeannette Park. More than 60 years later, Commissioner Robert Moses rebuilt the park with horseshoe pitches and tennis, paddleball, handball, and shuffleboard courts all arranged around a tear-shaped asphalt plaza with a flagpole. In 1967 the small square north of this property, which had belonged to the City since the 18th century, was designated parkland.
In 1971 Paul Friedberg redesigned the enlarged, triangular property in brick, with an amphitheater fountain. The owners of the skyscraper at 55 Water Street maintain the site in exchange for receiving permission to build over what was once Coenties Slip. In the early 1980s Mayor Koch campaigned forcefully for a memorial to honor those who fought and died in Vietnam. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commission raised $1 million from private donations to finance the memorial, as well as to provide counseling and employment services for Vietnam veterans. In 1982 a mayoral task force selected Jeannette Park as the future site for the memorial, and the property was renamed by a local law which Mayor Koch signed that year.
The winning design, by architects Peter Wormser, William Fellows, and writer/veteran Joseph Ferrandino, is a wall of translucent glass blocks, on which are engraved excerpts of letters, poems, and diary entries written by men and women of the armed forces, as well as news dispatches. A granite shelf runs along the base of the monument, onto which visitors from time to time have placed tokens of remembrance, such as baby shoes, military patches, pictures, plaques, and American flags
In 2001 Vietnam Veterans Plaza underwent a $7 million restoration that transformed the site, creating an attractive and dignified setting for this important memorial. A public/private coalition including the New Water Street Corporation, Vietnam Veterans of America, City of New York/Parks & Recreation, City Parks Foundation, the United War Veterans Council, and the Alliance for Downtown New York was formed to lead the plaza’s redesign and reconstruction. Mayor Giuliani, Borough President C. Virginia Fields, and the City Council provided $2.5 million of the total cost of the project.
The completely redesigned plaza features a new ceremonial entrance that provides access through the site from Water to South Street as well as new plantings and a new round, black granite fountain that forms a curtain of water. Visitors to the park are now guided through the site with a series of new features that educate and inform. An etched stainless-steel map that provides a geographical perspective of the war and details battle zones in South Vietnam greets visitors.
The “Walk of Honor,” a series of twelve polished granite pylons with the names of all 1,741 United States military personnel from New York who died as a result of their service in Vietnam, leads to the refurbished memorial, which was cleaned and repaired during the park’s renovation. Today the redesigned plaza and restored memorial serve as a timeless tribute to the Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.