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Volume XXVIII, Number 5988
Thursday, Nov 21, 2013

Remembering President John F. Kennedy: The Saga Of His Brooklyn Memorial

JFK Memorial Dedication at Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza on May 31, 1965 with Robert F. Kennedy, Mayor Wagner & Borough President Stark;
JFK Memorial Dedication at Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza on May 31, 1965 with Robert F. Kennedy, Mayor Wagner & Borough President Stark;
Courtesy of the Parks Photo Archive

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy a half century ago, and we remember this critical tragic event in our nation's history. A memorial in Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza memorializes the late president and serves as a permanent reminder of his life and its impact.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-1963) was the 35th 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 Milhous 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 May 23, 1963, Kennedy dedicated the massive East Coast Memorial in Battery Park, which honors thousands of service people lost in the Atlantic during World War II.

On November 22, 1963, he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas and a shocked nation mourned the loss of this youthful and vigorous leader whose call to citizenship had stirred a "new generation." Soon afterwards 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 the northern reaches of Grand Army Plaza, was selected for its physical prominence, historic significance, and scenic beauty. The monument’s design went through an evolution and at one time included an eternal flame. The approach to the Kennedy monument consists of a sloped path leading to a circular plaza, 41 feet in diameter. Eventually the monument design was reduced to a modest oblong pedestal sheathed in Vermont marble, from which projected a bronze portrait bust of Kennedy, crafted by Brooklyn-based sculptor Neil Estern. Estern, then at the outset of his professional career, later served as President of the National Sculpture Society. He 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 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 causing severe discoloration of the marble veneer. Sculptor Neil Estern designed an alternate pedestal design 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. About a decade ago, when plans were advanced by the City and the Prospect Park Alliance to renovate the Bailey Fountain and the north precinct of Grand Army Plaza, park designers were afforded an opportunity to rectify the monument's flawed design. The surrounding area once paved of ebonite pebbles (known as river stone) was replaced with more durable bluestone paving. Estern's tapered pedestal received design approvals, necessitating too that the artist be enlisted to 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 also 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 also wrote to Parks: "I am grateful for [the City's] commitment to this memorial and to Mr. Estern for bringing his vision yet again to this memorial and honoring my father's legacy with such care...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."

Submitted by Jonathan Kuhn, Director, Art & Antiquities


"Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present
are certain to miss the future."

John F. Kennedy
(1917 - 1963)

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