When Memory Fails, Part 2: Answers

DSC_4072Last week, I published a blog post about a mysterious abandoned monument on the northbound side of Route 1 in New Brunswick, NJ. The monument is a dilapidated granite obelisk in an overgrown clearing just before the Morris Goodkind Bridge spans the Raritan River, accessible only by snaking along a narrow path right on the edge of the highway. It is missing almost all of its identifying inscriptions, with only the haunting legend “THEIR BODIES REST” carved into the rectangular slab at the base of the obelisk. The monument initially caught my attention as a paradoxical memory space, a memorial that has forgotten the reason for its existence. At the end of my last post, I vowed to find out more about how this site came to be, and I have spent much of the last week thinking about it.

But it appears that I was not the only one intrigued by this monument’s story! Last week’s post was one of the most widely read of any that I have posted so far on this blog, and it seems that many of you are also hungry for more information. And as of today, I have much to report, thanks to the assistance of Dr. Robert Belvin, Director of the New Brunswick Free Public Library, who contacted me last week to share what he knew about the monument. Special thanks also go to my father, Donald Beetham, who spent a lot of time poring over old maps to figure out the early history of Route 1.

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World War I memorial photographed by George Pound (courtesy of Robert Belvin)

I can now reveal that the monument is a World War I memorial, dedicated on October 13, 1930 in conjunction with the celebration of the city of New Brunswick’s 250th anniversary. The architect was Alexander Merchant, and he worked with designer George B. Howell and sculptor F. Luis Mora. Originally, the obelisk bore a plaque listing the names of 74 New Brunswick soldiers who died in the war. The names were placed below the inscription “THEIR SPIRIT LIVES IN LIGHT.” This completes the thought remaining on the memorial today that has so haunted me: “THEIR BODIES REST” is carved upon a stone meant to represent a sarcophagus (once decorated with bronze swags), while the plaque bearing the names would once have represented an upper register in which the names of the fallen could live on. The tablet was once illuminated by a beam of light emitting from a cast bowl meant to symbolize the “cup of life.” This bowl was missing by 1979, when the Home News published an article decrying the dilapidated state of the monument. The area across the highway that I noticed on my visit to the monument last week was originally laid out as a parking area for visitors – which means that the planners intended for pedestrians to cross Route 1! I don’t think I’ll be attempting that anytime soon.

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Postcard depicting the monument as it once appeared, acquired from eBay (Author’s collection)

I was able to confirm much of the information I learned about the monument’s original appearance with a postcard that I acquired from eBay that shows the obelisk with all of its original decoration intact. The seller listed this postcard as dated 1910, but there is no date on the card, and as I now know for certain that the monument was erected in 1930, I know that the listing date is impossible. Once again, a reminder to treat all eBay purchases of antique material with a healthy degree of skepticism!

DSC_1299So what happened in the nearly fifty years between the monument’s dedication and the 1979 article in the Home News decrying its dilapidated condition? I don’t have any direct evidence yet, but I can speculate. Route 1 is a major north-south highway that runs from Key West, Florida, to Fort Kent, Maine (I once visited Mile 0 of Route 1 in Key West!). Its predecessor was the Atlantic Highway, an auto trail laid out in 1911 that was marked as Route 1 beginning in 1922. The current path of Route 1 through New Brunswick was not possible until 1929, with the completion of the College Bridge, now known as the Morris Goodkind Bridge after its designer. Before the completion of the bridge, this part of New Brunswick was mostly farmland, and a spot along the new highway must have seemed a prime location for residents seeking a site for their World War I monument. Clearly, no one making decisions about the monument at that time predicted the high-speed superhighway that Route 1 would become. This tension between vehicular traffic and monumental siting has become increasingly prominent in the last several decades, as monuments placed in traffic circles and at major intersections have proved to be an obstacle to the pace of modern cars. This juxtaposition is dangerous for the monuments, also, as many memorials are brought down every year due to motor vehicle collisions. In the case of the Route 1 monument, it seems that this site became more and more isolated as the highway widened and cars picked up speed, making it inaccessible to most visitors and ripe for mischief and vandalism.

DSC_4124This is the most likely explanation for the monument’s current state. But thanks to information provided by Robert Belvin, I now know that the monument’s original function as a memorial to the dead of World War I has not been entirely lost. In 2000, Belvin was involved in an effort to rehabilitate the memorial’s bronze plaque and to give it a new home in a space where it is accessible to visitors. The new site is in the center of downtown New Brunswick, where Jersey Avenue splits off from Route 27 (French Street), creating a triangular park. Here, the plaque has been placed on a columnar monument that recalls the original obelisk still moldering on Route 1. The shaft is carved with the same torch an wreath also present on the first version of the monument. And beneath the plaque is a rectangular base carved with the words “THEIR BODIES REST”: thus, the full verse, “THEIR BODIES REST / THEIR SPIRIT LIVES IN LIGHT” is reunited. DSC_4121On the rear of the monument is an additional plaque dedicated to the memory of veterans of subsequent American wars. The plaque has been cleaned and repatinated, and the names of the fallen are once again clearly visible. And the park itself is a bustling hub of activity, a major site for workers’ transportation in and out of the city. If many of these passersby do not necessarily have war memory on their minds – then indeed, in its new site, this memorial plaque faces many of the same challenges of war memorials in town centers across the United States. The memory of these particular soldiers is no longer marooned by highway activity, but instead left to compete for the divided attention of today’s citizens. This is the fate of most war memorials under ordinary circumstances.

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But the Route 1 monument retains it emotional pull. Originally dedicated with great fanfare, the site has been so thoroughly stranded by the highway that the decision was ultimately made to abandon it rather than to attempt to rehabilitate it. With the removal of the inscription and plaque to a new location and a replacement column, the memorial function of this site has been transferred elsewhere. Left behind, the obelisk is a haunting relic, a palimpsest of lost hopes and intentions, an anti-monument. And yet, its crumbling stones continue to tug at the mind.

 

5 thoughts on “When Memory Fails, Part 2: Answers

  1. I was intrigued reading your fascinating article on the mention of “designer George B. Howell,” as I am an architectural historian researching the history of the Symen Van Wickle House (an 18th-century house on the Raritan River just west of New Brunswick) and came across a reference to “architect George Howell,” as responsible for the restoration of the house in the 1930s. He evidently was a graduate of Rutgers (class of 1919). Do you have any additional information about him that you might share, or direct me to possible sources? Rutgers Special collections has a file on Howell, which I plan to look at today.

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    • Hi Dennis,

      Alas, I imagine that you might know more than I do at this point! I just started delving into the circumstances surrounding this monument about a month ago, and I haven’t yet followed all of the possible research paths to their conclusion just yet. Interesting that Howell was involved in other historically-minded projects in the immediate area around the same time that the monument was erected. Good luck with your research today!

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  2. Greetings Sarah –

    More than 20 years ago I followed the same trail as you – without the ultimate reward of finding the restored plaque ! One of the names Jay Pollins, was the only North Brunswick resident to serve in aviation the having enlisted in the Royal Air Force. Jay was killed in a flying accident just a week after arriving at his front line squadron.

    His name is just one of 761 I’ve compiled biographies for who were NJ residents and who served as air crew during the war. Having live in North Brunswick for 20+ years, Jays story is of hometown interest. Ironically, he’s not listed on the monument at Sabella Park. IIRC that monument makes no reference to the First WW casualties…

    Great job on this though – and thanks for making your finding available on line… I may have spent another 20 years wondering what ever became of the monument and memory of the fallen.

    Mike

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  3. I know this post is 2 years old, but so happy I stumbled upon it. Especially appropriate with the centennial of WWI almost upon us. Thank you for your efforts.

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