The U.S.S. Maine National Monument
The Maine Monument stands at Merchant’s Gate, a park entrance named in 1862 to recognize the importance of commerce and business in New York City. The monument honors the 258 American sailors who perished when the battleship Maine exploded in the harbor of Havana, Cuba, then under Spanish rule. The causes of the February 15, 1898 explosion remain unclear, but by April of that year, Spain had declared war on the United States.
The Spanish-American War ended in December of 1898 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. This agreement, a landmark in the United States’ rise to international power, released Cuba from Spanish rule and ceded Guam, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines to the jurisdiction of the United States. Cuba, nominally independent after the war, was forced to include a clause known as the Platt Amendment in its new constitution. This amendment allowed the United States to "protect" Cuba whenever Congress was of the opinion that the new republic was experiencing a threat to its sovereignty. By effectively negating that sovereignty, and by the brutal suppression of the independence struggle in the Philippines, the United States ended the Spanish-American War much enhanced in territory, trade, and prestige.
The war brought rewards for the state, but quoting the words inscribed on the monument itself, the “valiant seamen who perished on the Maine by fate unwarned, in death unafraid” were mourned by the entire nation. Four days after the Maine went down, newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst’s New York Morning Journal called for a public collection to honor the sailors with a monument. Over the course of several years, the newspaper received monetary gifts of all sizes, from large grants to pennies collected from schoolchildren.
Hearst first considered the mouth of New York Harbor as a fitting site for a monument to sailors. He wrote that, “A monument standing at the mouth of the Narrows, looking out over the ocean, would form a memorial worthy of the brave fellows who died while on duty for their country.” The site eventually chosen for the memorial was Longacre Square (now Times Square), the present location of the midtown TKTS booth. Through some “clerical oversight,” however, the designers discovered that a comfort station had been hastily built on the designated spot. When the architects started looking around for another site, the obvious choice was the Merchants’ Gate, where the memorial would provide a balance to the monumental column of Columbus Circle, erected in 1892.
H. Van Buren Magonigle (1867-1935) and Attilio Piccirilli (1866-1945) were chosen to design and sculpt the massive monument. Sculptor Piccirilli and architect Magonigle also worked together on the Firemen’s Memorial in Riverside Park at West 100th Street. Attillio and his five brothers operated a studio in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx where they modeled and carved their own work and also carved for other artists some of the nation’s best-loved works, including the Library Lions at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, portions of the Washington Square Arch in Greenwich Village, and Abraham Lincoln at Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Memorial. Designed by Magonigle and created by Piccirilli, the monument is rich in allegory and symbolism. Atop the center pylon rides the bronze figure of a woman, Columbia Triumphant, drawn in a seashell chariot by three sea horses. This martial group is cast in bronze recovered from the guns of the Maine itself.
In the front of the tall shaft is an allegorical group arranged in a ship configuration, entitled The Antebellum State of Mind: Courage Awaiting the Flight of Peace and Fortitude Supporting the Feeble. The youth at the prow of the ship holds his hands in the sign of the Victory that he represents. Recumbent figures at the side fountains represent the Atlantic and Pacific, while those at the rear represent The Post-Bellum Idea: Justice Receiving Back the Sword Entrusted to War. The names of those who died on the Maine are inscribed on the pylon above the oceans, while all over dolphins, seashells, and sea creatures bring a unity of decoration to the complex allegorical composition. The sculptural program figuratively reflects America’s new position as a dominant world force just as the imposing Beaux Arts structure itself symbolizes the American conception of the bold and grandiose domination of space.
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