World War I and the Mystery of Albany’s Lady in Memorial Grove

4A century ago in 1918, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the Great War ended. The War defined a generation. For the first time fathers, brothers, sons and uncles had gone off to battle in a place faraway across an ocean. It was the first time technology – tanks, airplanes, and chemical weapons – had been used to kill.

In early 1919 most of the men from Albany returned from the brutal war.* Black soldiers Henry Johnson and Alfred Adams (both from Orange St.), who fought with the Harlem Hellfighters 369th “Negro” regiment returned, after having been awarded the Croix de Guerre by France. (Johnson was just recently awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.)

But others did not. Approximately 75 men from the city of Albany were part of the 116,000 men who died during the War. (Parker Dunn** – Medal of Honor recipient- was one of those Albany men killed in combat.)

Albany, like other cities, towns and villages across the country, considered how best to honor those men. Some places erected traditional monuments which often took the form of a statue of a “doughboy” – the term for American soldier in World War I – or victory arches. Others established parks and spaces that would benefit the living. Albany took a different approach, based in part upon one of the forgotten aspects of the aftermath of World War I.

Military and government leaders refused to allow the American dead to be buried at home***. There would be no funerals and burials in family plots. Many men had been buried on the spot where they were killed. Others ended in huge military cemeteries in France. This horrified most Americans.

2Albany’s response was to create a memorial that resembled the peace and greenery found in a cemetery, dedicating the ground in the name of those who died.  It would be called Memorial Grove. By 1920 the City decided to use land it already owned, on the corner of New Scotland and South Lake, just south of the Dudley Observatory, west of Albany Hospital and opposite the newly built Troop B Armory. Families, especially the Gold Star mothers**** would have a place to go. It would be a calm and serene area, screened from the streets. In an area where there was not much development.

Today the land is mostly level, but when the Grove was established it was much different. There was a large hill and then moving down the slope was a “bowl” of sorts; a natural amphitheater. At the top of the hill was Observatory and the Grove, much larger than it is today, below. The grounds of the Grove were centered around the “bowl”. Oak trees (one for each man who died) were planted (planting trees in honor of those who died was a common post-World War I practice). The Grove was landscaped with azaleas, rhododendrons and poppies. There would be a “Mound” to represent the graves of those killed in the War. The Grove would be a memorial to “serve both the living and the dead”.

And this is where our Albany history becomes murky; we’ve tried to piece together the sequence of events as best as we can.

In late 1920 the U.S and the Allied countries relented and agreed to return serviceman’s bodies from overseas, which would allow them to be buried in family cemetery plots. This meant that the design of the Grove would change. In late 1921 the Albany Common Council appropriated $40,000 for completion of the Grove, with something other than “The Mound”. This is where the mystery begins. Common Council minutes indicate that the City Board of Contract and Supply was authorized to erect a monument/memorial in the Grove. But then the trail grows cold.

4.1 (2)There is nothing more in Albany official records and sparse detail in the newspapers of the time. A 1921 article refers to an “altar or a small monument” to be erected, inscribed with the names of those who lost their lives. Veterans groups wanted something else and opposed the plan. But at some point it’s clear the Gold Star Mothers became involved and played a major role in the decision making. The November, 1922 Armistice Day ceremonies in Memorial Grove include a “dedication of the laying of the foundation of the shrine”.

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4.1What is unveiled on Armistice Day 1923 by the Gold Star Mothers is the statue of the lovely lady of the Grove that remains today. We don’t even know if she has an official name. She’s variously referred to as “Our Lady of Peace”, “The World War I Memorial”, “The Mother’s Monument” and “The Mother’s War Memorial”.

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We know she was sculpted (and probably designed) by a very famous sculptor and stone cutter, Attilio Picarrelli. He was one of 6 brothers who were superb marble carvers in great demand in the early 1900s. While Daniel Chester French designed the Lincoln Memorial, the brothers cut the stone. The stones were cut so well, piece by piece, in their studio in the Bronx that when they arrived in Washington D.C. all the sections fit together perfectly. The brothers are also responsible for the beautiful lions, Patience and Fortitude, that flank the entrance to the New York Public Library. Of all the brothers, Attilio was the most talented and a remarkable sculptor in his own right. He was responsible for the Maine Monument in Central Park in NYC and the Fireman’s Memorial, also in NYC on Riverside Drive. (President Roosevelt award the Jefferson Medal to Picarrelli in 1932 for his contribution to American art.)

However, we still have no idea how he was selected and why the memorial took the form of the lovely lady, whether city funded and how much she cost.

8.2BUT, we do have pretty good evidence that we know who served as the model. Audrey Munson was called “The American Venus”; she was the model for at least 60 major sculptures by over 20 American artists including Picarrelli and Daniel Chester French. She was the “It” girl of American art in the early days of the 20th century. (There’s a new book, “The Curse of Beauty” that tells the story of Audrey, the world’s first “supermodel”.) If you look closely at those statues, you can see the resemblance to the Lady in the Grove. Audrey even appeared on U. S. currency- the Winged Mercury dime and the Walking Liberty Half-dollar. The names of those killed in World War I were never inscribed on the foundation behind the Lady in the Grove as originally intended (we don’t know why). But the base in back of a statue, referred to sometimes as the sarcophagus, reads, ” That the memory of those who made the supreme sacrifice in the world war may remain forever fresh in the hearts of a grateful people”.

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9.1It appears there was a sense in the years after the statue was dedicated that she was not entirely sufficient as a memorial and we needed something more. In 1933 the City sponsored a competition for an additional memorial. A design for a large flagpole, inscribed with the names of the men from Albany who died in the Great War and embellished with symbolic Albany beavers was selected. The woman who won the competition was Gertrude Lathrop, an Albany native and well respected artist.***** Several years later the Fort Orange Post of the American Legion erected a new building on New Scotland Ave. and the Grove was complete.

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10Today the Fort Orange post building is gone; demolished for the Psych Center circa 1970, as are most of the oak trees; and there haven’t been poppies in 80 years and the azaleas have been gne since 1969. The flag pole can still be seen on the corner. Off to the side is the Lady of the Grove, almost out of sight.

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11 (2)For decades, into the 1980s, there were Veteran’s Day ceremonies in the Grove, but with the building of a multitude of monuments by the Empire State Plaza, their venue changed. But every Veteran’s Day you will find a memorial wreath placed in front of the the Lady of the Grove.

Despite her age, the Lady is is still beautiful – an example of womanly courage and fortitude in the face of the horrors of war. The sword, sheathed and pointed downward, denotes peace and is twined with laurels representing honor and glory. She holds a palm frond, representing victory.

We can find nothing similar in the country; although there are some Gold Star Mother monuments. there appears to be nothing like the Albany Lady of the Grove anywhere else in America. There are a few Gold Star Mother monuments remembering those from World War I, but nothing as beautiful as Albany’s Lady. She’s very very special; you should go take a look at her.

Another place in Albany where there should be an historic marker and she should be on the National Register of Historic Places.

And if you have any information about her, please message us so we can add to her story.)

*Several of the men from Albany died during the period 1918-1920 when an American force was sent to Archangel, Russia (north of Moscow on the Barents Sea) to fight the Bolsheviks after the Revolution.

** The bridge over the Hudson, the Dunn Memorial, is named after Private Dunn.

*** U.S. military leaders balked at a recovery effort. Initial estimates suggested that more than 70,000 men had been buried in temporary battlefield graves. U.S. allies, meanwhile, were horrified at the idea of Americans digging up their dead and shipping them home. The British government worried that its own people would demand the same for its more than 700,000 dead. French leaders envisioned ghoulish trains packed with bodies crossing their countryside, and argued that France had to concentrate on rebuilding, they banned removal of bodies for three years.

****During World War I the symbol of a service flag with a gold star was established, identifying families who had lost soldiers. Grieving women became known as “Gold Star” mothers and widows.

***** Gertrude was the sister of Dorothy Lathrop, the award-winning illustrator and writer of children’s books (we told you about her several months ago).

Thank you to Paula Lemire, Andrew Mace, Paul Nance and Rob Eaton who contributed to this article.

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

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