I saw this the other day and meant to post it. Enjoy.
A World War I Memorial in Kansas City Is a Tribute to Giving
By JOHN HANC
NOV. 3, 2015
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When John Totaro and his wife, Lynn DeLeo-Totaro, visited here in August, it didn’t take them long to spot the National World War I Memorial.
“I saw it from the front of our hotel,” recalled Mr. Totaro, who lives in Manhattan and works in public relations. “It reminded me of the Washington Monument.”
Soaring 217 feet into the skyline, the tower — originally called the Liberty Memorial and now part of the National World War I Museum and Memorial — is hard to miss. Built from 1923 to 1926, it is a bold reminder of the conflict in which 53,000 Americans died in combat, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans Day (formerly Armistice Day), on Nov. 11, was established to commemorate it.
While the memorial honors this city’s residents who served in World War I — in particular, the 441 who died — it is also a tribute to local residents who, during two weeks from late October to early November 1919, raised more than $2.5 million (roughly equivalent to $34 million today) for the memorial. About 83,000 residents, more than a quarter of the city’s population at the time, donated an average $30 each (about $413 today) to the fund-raising drive, much of it done by children going door to door.
When parts of the memorial began to deteriorate in the 1990s, city residents voted twice more to honor those it represented. In 1998 voters passed a limited-duration half-cent sales tax that raised $30 million, and in 2004, a bond issue helped create an expanded 115,000-square-foot museum and research center under the memorial’s courtyard.
It opened in 2006, and that year Congress designated it the National World War I Museum. As it nears its 10th anniversary — dovetailing with the World War I centennial — attendance is growing: up 15 percent in 2014, to 235,271 visitors. Museum officials said they were on track to exceed that in 2015.
Visitors come to see exhibits that tell the complex story of the so-called Great War in images, old films, recreated scenes and around 3,000 artifacts, many donated. And, of course, they marvel at the nearly 90-year-old tower, as did Mr. Totaro, Ms. DeLeo-Totaro and Chris Silko, from Birmingham, Ala., who visited the memorial and museum while in Kansas City on business in February. “I didn’t know it existed until yesterday,” said Mr. Silko, who read about it on TripAdvisor. “It’s really neat.”
Despite the memorial and museum’s resurgence, a question often asked is why the United States’ official museum about the First World War is in Kansas City, the country’s 37th-largest city.
“We get that question a lot,” Doran Cart, the museum’s senior curator, said. “But people forget that Kansas City was the heart of America in 1920. All the railroads came through here. It also didn’t hurt that Pershing was born nearby. He was one of the important people in the country at the time, and he wanted it here.”
Gen. John Pershing, who led the American Expeditionary Force during the war, grew up in Laclede, Mo., about 90 miles northeast of here. The general, known as Black Jack, was on hand for the dedication of the site in November 1921, along with top military commanders from other Allied nations.
(Also in the crowd that day, in an honor guard with the newly formed American Legion, was a veteran from Independence, Mo., named Harry S. Truman.)
The architect chosen was a New Yorker: Harold Van Buren Magonigle, whose works include the U.S.S. Maine Monument at the entrance to Central Park, at Columbus Circle in Manhattan.
Built on the top of Vinegar Hill — one of this city’s highest points — and overlooking Union Station, which opened in 1914, the memorial consists of the cylindrical tower, connecting the original museum building with the new one. The tower is laden with symbolic extras, including four 40-foot-tall “Guardian Spirits” surrounding the top of the tower; and two Assyrian sphinxes — part lion, part bird, part human — at the tower’s base. One, called Memory, faces east toward France, where most of the fighting took place. The other, Future, faces west, to uncertainty ahead.
Along the north wall of the memorial is an 18-foot-high, 148-foot-long sculpted frieze that depicts the transition of American doughboys from war to peace.
“It’s so grandiose, so gigantic, it almost feels like it’s overcompensating,” said Steven Trout, a professor of English at the University of South Alabama, in Mobile, and the author of “On the Battlefield of Memory: The First World War and American Remembrance, 1919-1941.” “It’s working so hard to proclaim that the war was meaningful, that sacrifice is necessary, because the aftermath of the war was so ambiguous.”
Carol Herselle Krinsky, an art history professor at New York University, said: “In the 1920s, a conservative architect who wanted a contemporary look for his building would make it simple and geometric, and yet adorned with historical imagery to evoke ideas of eternity and permanence. You want to make sure to represent heroism, sacrifice and great purpose, even if not everyone believed that there was great purpose in our participation in the war.”
In the post-World War II period, the memorial’s stairway and courtyard began to decay, along with the neighborhood around it. A nadir was the memorial’s closing on Veterans Day, 1994.
“A growing consensus emerged that we had to do something,” said Derek Donovan, author of “Lest the Ages Forget,” a history of the memorial.
As in 1919, local residents came through, voting to tax themselves to help restore the museum.
These acts of giving were virtually anonymous, Mr. Trout said. “You don’t get a sense of folks jockeying for position to get their name on this thing.”