Tuesday, January 31, 2012

January, 2012

To the editor of the Post-Standard:

In regards to the much talked-about war memorial, I would like to say, like all other projects in the city, I am afraid it is going to be too small. It may be alright for the city of today, but 20 years from today it will be like the U.S. Post Office built 20 years or more ago, too small.

Look around at some of our buildings in recent years, MacArthur Stadium, too small; post office, too small; NY Central Station, too small; State Tower Building, too small, and a lot of other projects which were big enough when built, but too small now. 

Now, 9,000 seats are too small for boxing. I saw a few boxing matches at the ball park last summer, and they say the ball park seats 12,000. Well, I had to sit on the concrete steps, because I could not get a seat. That would give you an idea just how many seats you would need if let’s say, DeJohn fought some top flight boxer like Tony Zale or Marcel Cerdan and others. Why, you have to turn them away.

While we are at it, let’s build it big enough, or let’s not build it at all....Syracuse is going to be a pretty big city in a few years to come, and a small coliseum is going to be just too bad.
Anyway, in conclusion, I will say here’s for a bigger coliseum, one that you will not have to try to make larger later.

William J. Ganeau, Syracuse February 17, 1949

Post-Standard, April 23, 1976
What was that I wrote in my last entry about “back to school, back to work, back to activities and appointments that often seem to continue non-stop through year’s end”?

Yes, this blog has been on the quiet side, but Sean Kirst’s article about the musical history of the War Memorial inspired me to revisit the archives. To be honest, I haven’t been inside the War Memorial in over thirty years, and the closest I’ve come to a rock concert at the venue is a clown parade at the Shrine Circus. But as the article made clear, most War Memorial memories are well entrenched in the past, leading many commenters to debate the future of the facility:

johnsyracuse: Sorry guys....I am a veteran myself...but the War Memorial is a sh##hole. It's a building, like many before it and many after it whose designed function has gone the way of the dinosaur. Replacing it no way disrespects our veterans. In fact; I think it is more disrespectful NOT to replace it. That being said...who wants to pay for it? The state needs to focus on the infrastructures that benefit everyone for the right reasons; not rebuild a worn out building. Syracuse has not been a mecca for rock bands for a long time. I travel to Rochester and near Albany to hear anything relevent. Seems unnecessary to me.

Michelle Klukiewicz: totally disagree John....I think if the War Memorial is spruced up a bit, many of the bands today that I am sure are fans of the past bands that graced the stage at the WM, would be honored to play in the same place....I would LOVE to attend a show there...somethings are sacred and should be treated as such..it honors the Veterans as well as the music that in my opinion..keeps us all sane..." let the music keep our spirits high"....

The conflict is obvious: the War Memorial has a dated form tied to timeless function. Yet why had such a decision been made during a time when obsolescence was linked with progress?

“The pace of obsolescence is growing more rapid,” Mr. Grimm said. “We must make things more susceptible to obsolescence in order to make way for progress. If dresses were designed to so that women wore them until they fell apart, the dress industry would die. There will be more acceleration in change of design." (Post-Standard, February 26, 1955)

If city leaders envisioned a 21st century downtown Syracuse with "modern structures of glass and steel," then why did they decide upon the construction of an arena as a war memorial, which would certainly be a target for demolition as it aged? Is this another case of the post-WWII generation fulfilling an immediate needmuch like the highways and suburbsand leaving future generations to sort out the inevitable conflict of interest? Or were there Syracusans who foresaw these 2012 comments in their own impassioned letters over 60 years ago?

To the editor of the Post-Standard:

Will Syracuse ever get out of the one-horse town class?

Imagine a city the size of Syracuse thinking of building an auditorium that will only seat 8,800 maximum!

That is what you would look for in a village the size of Baldwinsville.

Don’t they ever expect to have any large conventions in Syracuse?

Maybe they are only planning on a peanut vendors’ convention.

It looks as if the major veteran organizations will never be able to hold another convention in Syracuse. What they have planned now is not suitable to veterans and the whole of Syracuse.

What a war service memorial!

Why not get smart and put up a memorial everyone will be proud of and not ashamed of.

Why not go two or three levels underground if they want a squatty building, and have the entire main floor for an auditorium only, with offices, meeting rooms, etc. on the floors above?

It might be well for some people to get out and visit other cities and see what is needed in such a building. Let’s not throw our money away on something that will be useless!

Member of VFW and American Legion
March 12, 1948

Economy had been essential during the World War II years, so not surprisingly the War Service Memorial committee saw a multi-use memorial as a most ideal solution:

For some time prior to the appointment on January 10, 1945, of the original six members of the Onondaga County War Service Memorial Committee by [Onondaga County Board of Supervisors chairman] Mr. [Edward] Yackel and Thomas E. Kennedy, then mayor of Syracuse, there had developed considerable sentiment and need for a civic center. This sentiment and this need were promptly visualized by the committee as the ideal solution to the primary problem of what type of memorial should be adopted. 

We saw and grasped the opportunity to realize in one move two long-hoped-for ambitions...a fitting war memorial and a community center with unlimited possibilites for general public use. Having reached this decision we began planning for the time when the citizens of the city and the county would have their own civic center adequate for any social, cultural or athletic indoor activity, and simultaneously, a memorial to those who gave their lives, those who served in the armed forces and those who served on the home front. (from War Memorial Progress Report given by Hurlbut W. Smith, chairman of the Onondaga County War Service Memorial, Inc. to Onondaga County Board of Supervisors chairman Edward O.Yackel and Frank J. Costello, Syracuse mayor, on February 15, 1947, reprinted in Syracuse Herald-American, February 16, 1947)

Yet it quickly became clear to the parties involved that one building could not be all things to all people:

“A sports arena, and a music hall, and theater can never under any architectural plan be housed in the same hall. Love of theater, music, dance or beauty must not come in a poor second again when a civic enterprise is under consideration. Whatever the final decision, it should be representative of both athletic and cultural groups. Perhaps the amount should be increased so that the plans might include two complete and separate units under one roof. If it is impossible to raise such an amount, let’s do one or the other and create a memorial of which we we all may be proud for many years.Dorothy Kelly Carr, Mary F. Lynch, Marydee Richards, directors of Children’s Theater group of the Museum of Fine Arts

“The civic center should be in two complete units, one as an auditorium to seat about 3500 in permanent designed seating, including all necesssary facilities for stagethe other an arena type for sporting events, conventions and the like. Each unit could then operate independently of the other. To us, the idea that one auditorium could be used for a hockey match one night and a symphony concert the next in the same hall seems highly impractical. It is up to the people to see that one center is built to satisfy the needs of the various civic enterprises, even if necessary to allot more money in bonds. It must be built right to serve many years.”David B. Salmon of Dave Salmon, Inc.

(as quoted in Syracuse Herald-Journal, March 11, 1947)

A year earlier, the War Memorial commission had plans for such a “2-in-1” building, and retained L. Andrew Reinhard, an architect who worked on Rockefeller Center, to design a building with “two separate areas, one a music hall, one a sports arena,” and left the decision to Reinhard to “put both under one roof or erect them separately” (Post Standard, March 23, 1946) Yet as there was only a limited amount of land for the building, sports enthusiasts quickly saw the flaws in this proposal:

Here we go again on the proposed sports arena. The county memorial committee has revised its plans again, this time to evolve some method of satisfying both the sports fans and the so-called cultural group. I would like, at this time, to emphasize again that the plans better be good....

It is my personal opinion that the Putnam school site for the proposed memorial building or buildings isn’t big enough for two auditoriums, providing the sports arena, which would be part of the building, is to be big enough for profitable operation.

Many fans want more than 7,500 seats for sports events , but any rate, that should be the minimum, and worthwhile promotions could not be attracted to Syracuse if the seating capacity were less. (“Keeping Posted with Bill Reddy,” Post-Standard, March 23, 1946)

To the editor of the Post-Standard:
Bill Reddy is right (Keeping Posted, March 23) and more power to him! The county war service memorial committee can’t please everyone, but if this is to be a war memorial, let’s have what the veterans want, a first class sports arena.

...If it is to be a war memorial and the money is to be raised by public subscription, let’s give the veterans what they want and not camouflage about it. The veterans want to be entertained, they don’t want to be “cultured.”

If those who want an auditorium for conventions and a music hall are in earnest, let them go out and raise money independently for it, and not try to ride in on the backs of the veterans.

There’s only one location in the city that would be big enough for a sports arena with an eye to the future when Syracuse will be much larger. That is the old New York Central railroad station property. Close up that one-block extension of West Washington Street and use the entire space and then a sports arena seating 12,000 to 15,000 could be erected.

Let’s either drop the whole thing or give the veterans what they want. Ask them, they’ll tell you quickly enough, you memorial committee members.
Peter Piper
(March 26, 1946)

Not only was lack of space a concern, but lack of budget as well. An initial shortage of building materials in the years immediately following the war led to higher costs, which led some to question whether a more substantial arena could be built if the project was held off for a few years:

While a large number of veterans are pressing for action, others are said to be taking the same view the board has taken thus far, that it would be unwise to undertake erection of the building under present conditions.

Because of the prohibitive cost of materials and labor and difficulties in procuring many items at any price, it is said if a decision to begin this year should be reached, it will not be possible to carry out the plans, for the sort of memorial building that has been proposed. There is fear that if a building of the sort that could be built is erected, regrets are likely to be heard a few years hence. (Post-Standard, January 28, 1948)

This point became further emphasized one year later, when none of the construction bids submitted to committee came within the 3.5 million dollars appropriated for the project:

Since the bids were opened, architects and engineers have been figuring substitutes and alternatives and otherwise wearing out their pencils in an effort to make $3,680,000, plus architects’ fees, plus extras not included in the contracts go into $3,500,000.

How far the architects and engineers can go in recommending substitutions is another question. The memorial has been “sold” to the public on the basis of the plans and specifications on which bids were submitted, and to cheapen it to a point where the public might suspect that a “shoddy” memorial to the county’s war heroes would eventuate could result in trouble, a possible situation that board members are keeping in mind. (Post-Standard, July 24, 1949)

By the time construction began in late 1949, nearly every facet of the building had come under criticism. Ninety-two Syracuse University Architecture students signed a petition calling the auditorium’s design by Edgarton & Edgarton “a disgrace to any progressive city...with all of its superfluous ornament resembles a colossal wedding cake.” (Post-Standard, March 10, 1948).  Several Post-Standard editorials lamented the lack of dedicated theater space, and worried that Syracuse would always lose valuable performances to other upstate cities:

Recently many of  the city's music lovers went to Rochester for an opera performance with the famous tenor Tagliavini. Many more will go to Utica on the first of April for another opera with this famous tenor.

It is always away from the  city— never here that we can attend and enjoy events of this kind.

While Syracuse certainly is not as much of a musical city as Rochester, it seems pathetic, to say the least, that Utlca could get the drop on us and take its place as a Central New York gathering place  for the many people who like the opera and the legitimate stage.

The proposed sum to be spent on the county war memorial will do very well for a sports arena.  But we might as well forget about a theater thrown in to boot. It would take more than that for a suitable theater alone. By suitable we mean a permanent theater seating at least 3,000 in comfort, acoustic excellence  with a perfect view of the stage from every seat in the house, the very best in all stage  technical requirements, and a simple and dignified exterior. That names a few of the specifications in  general.

If people in this area are going to listen to opera and orchestral music, and maintain a love for the legitimate stage, they are going where those needs in their lives are available.  If they can't come here, they will go to them.

Is Syracuse going to admit defeat in this matter, or is it capable of taking the bull by the horns? (Post-Standard, March 23, 1948)

And the complaint as old as downtown and cars themselves, parking:

The question is, of coursewhere are those 8,000 or more persons going to park around the proposed sports arena, provided it is located on the site given out in the elaborate publicity.

Your paper editorially and otherwise, and committees concerned with parking facilities in Syracuse, have been asking the same question over and over againwhere are people going to park?  (from a letter to the editor signed “Curious,” Post-Standard, March 13, 1948)

from Post-Standard, August 7, 1949.
"Death of a Landmark: Written by Progress and Staged in Syracuse...
these four photos trace the destruction of the old Syracuse post office
and the transition of the historic site into a parking area."] 
Planners actually had considered the downtown parking shortage, and had an inspired solution: tear down buildings!

"Unusual measures" will have to be taken to get smooth operation of traffic in Syracuse, with prewar conditions soon to be reached and passed, worsening due to increases in large trucks and semi-trailers, William F. Kavanaugh, city lighting-traffic engineer warned as a highlight of his 1945 annual report released yesterday.
Buildings will either have to be removed or remodeled if parking space convenient to the retail center is to be acquired. Old New York Central terminal site and old West Shore site at E. Belden Ave. and N. Salina Street suggested “for serious consideration.” The Hills Bldg. block (S. State, E. Washington, Montgomery and E. Fayette Sts.), if closed, would not interfere seriously with traffic and would also eliminate a bad five-point intersection. [Plan called for “abandonment of all the rest of the Hills Bldg. Block to provide multi-deck parking space.”] (Post-Standard, January 27, 1946)

Post-Standard, Decemeber 31, 1950
Which is to say, perhaps this is why, at a time when the landscape of downtown was about to undergo its most radical transformation, city and county leaders planned for a living war memorial. There’s a fine line between history and nostalgia, but neither had saved the vaudeville theaters and movie houses, the homes of prominent figures or countless other buildings that faced the wrecking ball as the city viewed its “scaffolding-scarred face...the mirror of prosperity” (Post-Standard, December 31, 1950).  Yet by establishing their arena as a living memorial, the War Service Memorial Commission could possibly ensure that the War Memorial would be spared in the future precisely because it would have the ability to evolve. As a Post-Standard editorial noted on the day of the building’s groundbreaking, the War Memorial “will not be a statue or primarily any object of art for all to look upon and pass by. It will be a living part of the community’s life...it will not have the quality of a museum, but a homea county community home where we can enjoy ourselves as each of us sees fit.” The editorial continued:

The dead no longer care what we think about them. That would be impossible in the face of that vision of eternity which they now contemplate. But we are living and bounded by the finite world of human emotion, idea and thought. We cannot escape reacting in that sphere. (October 22, 1949)

Considering the outpouring of letters and comments that always accompany any discussion about the War Memorial and its future, this element of the building's history appears to be the most timeless of all.