Veteran journalist Carl Hoffman believes he’s solved one of the great mysteries of the 20th century. In 1961 at the age of 23, Michael Rockefeller – son of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and a member of one of the richest and most powerful families in America ¬– travelled to remote New Guinea in search of primitive art for his father’s new museum.
Demolition Of Veterans Memorial Would Follow National Trend
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The future of the Franklin County Veterans Memorial complex remains a mystery. Last month media reports suggested that the venue might be torn down in an effort to revitalize downtown Columbus’ western peninsula.
It’s hard to pin city or county officials down on the future of Franklin County Veterans Memorial which sits on the west bank of the Scioto River across West Broad Street from COSI. The Columbus Dispatch reported last month that there’s a $50 million plan in the works that includes tearing down the memorial. No county commissioner would respond to WOSU’s request for comment. But Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman did, somewhat reluctantly, on WOSU’s All Sides with Ann Fisher.
“Because it’s really not soup yet it’s kind of hard and difficult to talk about,” Coleman said. “So I will just refer back to what’s already been disclosed. And that’s a different idea for what Veteran’s Memorial is; a true memorial to veterans.”
Coleman says the goal of the project is to reinvigorate downtown’s west peninsula. By adding features such as an arts venue and a zoo, the project would make the area, in his words, “world-class.”
“This is not a secret, it’s just not. It’s an evolving scenario,” Coleman said.
Some people know Vets Memorial only because it’s home to the Arnold Classic. But the original intent for the building, which opened in 1955, was to honor the men and women who’d served in the U.S. military.
“This room is really meant to give honor and a place of serenity and so it’s beautiful, it’s attractive, and it serves those men and women that sacrificed their lives,” says memorial general manager Rodney Myers.
A lesser known room
Vets Memorial features a 3,900-seat auditorium. But there’s a smaller hall that few people visit. On the walls of the Memorial Room are the names of local men and women who perished in wartime. Myers stands beneath the 25-foot-high ceiling, looking out through a wall of windows, at a breath-taking view.
“It’s probably the most beautiful view looking at the skyline of Columbus. City Hall is directly in front of us and you have the AEP tower just north of us to your left and the Santa Maria right in front and so as I said it is the most attractive view in downtown Columbus,” Myers says.
Maybe too attractive not to redevelop and use that real estate for something else. But that thought riles some veterans.
“I don’t want to see the Vets Memorial be torn down,” says Grove City’s Glen Hickman.
Hickman is the National Vice-Commander of the American Legion. The legion post he belongs to meets monthly at Veterans Memorial.
“I guess Les Wexner wants to donate money there and he wants some kind of art deal down there in place of the Vets Memorial,” Hickman says. “I’m all in favor of art but that’s the veterans’ memorial and we need to have the Veterans Memorial there in downtown Columbus for all the sacrifices the veterans made throughout the past years.”
There are all sorts of 20th century buildings across the U.S. that were erected to honor veterans. Some are auditoriums, others are sporting facilities. The idea, says historian Ed Lentz, was to get away from the 19th century notion of erecting statues or even tombs.
“I think that they wanted to get away from the idea that these were simply mausoleums,” Lentz says. “Most veterans have a long life ahead of them. But if you’re really trying to do something to express what Americans think of veterans and their service, it really makes more sense to have something living rather than something static.”
Other memorials falling
It’s not the case in Columbus, but elsewhere all sorts of memorial structures are falling apart. In Greensboro, N.C., the façade of World War Memorial Stadium, dedicated in 1926, is literally falling off. That bothers UNC-Greensboro professor David Wharton.
“The fact that it’s a world war memorial means a lot to me,” Wharton says. “I really feel that allowing this monument to deteriorate is disrespectful to the World War I veterans who were killed in that conflict and I think are being forgotten.”
In Greensboro, finding funds to restore the stadium is the problem. Buffalo, New York had a War Memorial Stadium which fell into such disrepair that it earned the nickname The Rockpile. Once home to the Buffalo Bills, The Rockpile closed in 1987 and was demolished a year later after the city built a new venue. Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium hosted the Orioles and the Colts. That stadium was demolished in 2002.
Other veterans’ memorials are barely hanging on. In Worcester, Mass., the Worcester Memorial Auditorium, built in 1933, has been shuttered for several years. But in its heyday, it hosted all sorts of events.
“It could hold performances of a symphony orchestra just as well as a basketball game.”
That’s Preservation Worcester’s Susan Ceccacci. She says business for the auditorium began to dry up when the city renovated a concert hall dating back to 1857. Then came the final blow.
“The city also built an arena where lots of sports events and large events like circuses and the Ice Capades and so forth were held,” Ceccacci says. “And gradually the auditorium sort of fell by the way.”
Even with Columbus’ convention center and Nationwide Arena, Franklin County Veterans Memorial seems to be holding its own. Last year the county set aside $3 million for repairs and upgrades. Shows at the memorial are said to be booked for several years to come. General Manager Rodney Myers believes that whatever is decided, Central Ohio’s veterans won’t be left behind.
“Our county commissioners, this is their land, their venue, they’re going to make the right decision and we’re going to do everything that we can do to honor our veterans,” Myers says.