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John Wolfe Ambrose

History

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

This monument honors engineer John Wolfe Ambrose (1838–1899), whose vision and persistence resulted in the deep sea channel to New York harbor, which improved the viability of the port of New York, making New York City the heart of commerce in the United States.  The channel is named in his honor.

Ambrose was born on January 10, 1838 in New Castle, Ireland, and as a child immigrated with his family to the United States.  Though forced to work at an early age, he prepared for college, and later attended New York and Princeton universities.  Though intending to enter the ministry, in 1860 he joined the staff of the Citizens’ Association, one of the City’s earliest reform organizations.

Later in his career, Ambrose was involved in several significant construction projects, including the building of the Second Avenue and Sixth Avenue elevated rails, the laying of the first pneumatic tubes for the Western Union Telegraph Company, and the development of many northern Manhattan streets, particularly in Harlem.

In the 1880s, Ambrose organized and was president of the Brooklyn Wharf and Dry Dock Company, and founder of the 39th Street South Brooklyn Ferry.  Long interested in the development of Brooklyn waterfront industry, Ambrose recognized the inadequacy of the swampy and shallow shoreline, lobbying congressional river and harbor committees to appropriate the necessary funds to create a channel which could accommodate large enough ships to sustain New York’s maritime economy. In the late 1890s, his appearance before the United States Senate Committee on Commerce helped secure funds to construct a suitably deep and wide harbor channel, and for his efforts the 1901-02 Congress named that channel for Ambrose.

Soon after his death, friends of Ambrose gave his children a sculptural portrait bust by Andrew O’Connor Jr. (1874–1941), a well-respected sculptor of his day who received many private and public commissions.  In the 1930s, Ambrose’s family in turn gave the sculpture to the City.  Parks’ chief consultant architect Aymar Embury II (1880–1966) designed an architectural setting and wall niche for the sculpture which was inserted into the New York Aquarium at Castle Clinton, and decorated with a relief map of the harbor by Frederick G. R. Roth (1872–1944).  The monument was dedicated by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia (1882-1947) on June 3, 1936.

In the 1950s, the monument was relocated to the south wall of the concession building in lower Battery Park, but in November 1990 the bronze bust was stolen from its niche. The monument was fully restored and relocated in 2017 to a more visible, newly landscaped park perimeter location at State and Pearl Streets, and its long-missing bust recreated by referencing historical photographs.  On May 15, 2018 the monument was re-dedicated in a ceremony attended by numerous descendants of Ambrose.

John Wolfe Ambrose Details

  • Location: South side of State Street between Pearl and Water Streets.
  • Sculptor: Andrew O'Connor, Jr. (bust); Frederick George Richard Roth (pedestal relief)
  • Architect: Aymar Embury II
  • Description: Stele with bust
  • Materials: Bust--bronze; Stele--Stony Creek granite (polished)
  • Dimensions: H: 10' W: 6'2" D: 10"; Bust H: 2'3"
  • Cast: ca. 1899
  • Dedicated: June 3, 1936
  • Donor: Mrs. George F. Shrady, daughter
  • Inscription: 1) top of stele: "1838 [space] 1899"

    2) left side of stele: "DEDICATED BY / THE CITY OF / NEW YORK TO / JOHN WOLFE AMBROSE / FOR WHOM THE / DEEP SEA / CHANNEL / IS NAMED"

    3) right side of stele: "HIS VISION. / SCIEN- / TIFIC KNOWLEDGE / AND INDEFATIGABLE / COURAGE AIDED IN / MAKING NEW YORK / THE GREATEST / SEA PORT OF / THE WORLD"

    4) bottom of stele: map of Lower New York Bay showing Ambrose Channel

    [biographical note: born in Newcastle near Limerick, Ireland on Jan. 10, 1838; brought to New York as a boy. Studied at night at N.Y.U. and Princeton, intending to be a minister. In 1860 he went into newspaper work. --"New York, The World's Capital City", Harper Bros., 1948]

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

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

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