Sunday, June 17, 2012

The USS Maine Monument, Central Park

Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain!

The USS Maine was the US Navy's second pre-dreadnought battleship (with the USS Texas); these warships were the first in the US fleet to dispense with the full masts of Civil-War-era ironclads and rely entirely on advanced, coal-fed steam boilers for propulsion. Both warships were built in response to the alarming naval might of Brazil, which had commissioned several battleships from Europe, most notably the imposing Riacheulo, delivered in 1883. As a result, Brazil stood far and away as the dominant sea power in the Americas in the 1880s.

The Maine and the Texas were the first modern warships built in the United States, at a time when the country lacked sufficient technological prowess and industrial infrastructure to bring such an ambitious project quickly to fruition. Planning and specifications were drawn up in the early 1880s; Congress authorized construction in 1886 and the Maine's keel was finally laid down in the Brooklyn Naval Yard in 1888; construction took nine years (3 years alone were wasted waiting for the steel armor plate to be produced from one of Andrew Carnagie's companies), and the ship was finally commissioned in 1895, entering active service the year following.

With nearly 15 years between conception and actual service, the Maine was flagrantly obsolete upon delivery. Its en échelon main guns, cantilevered out over the hull, were already found to be ineffective by European navies years before it had entered service; its ramming bow was a quaint leftover from a prior epoch of naval warfare dating back to Roman triremes, its heavy armor had been superceded by innovative lightweight armor, and it had neither the firepower to face true battleships nor the requisite speed to serve as an effective cruiser.

In short, the Maine was the offspring of a white elephant and a sitting duck.

Enter colonial Cuba and its uprising against Spain

In January of 1898, less than two years after entering active service, the Maine was ordered to Havana harbor as a show of American might during the Cuban War of Independence. Weeks later, on the evening of 15 February, a massive explosion ripped through the forward third of the ship and the Maine sank within moments, taking with it 266 crewman. 

In the words of Captain Charles D. Sigsbee:

I laid down my pen and listened to the notes of the bugle, which were singularly beautiful in the oppressive stillness of the night... I was enclosing my letter in its envelope when the explosion came. It was a bursting, rending, and crashing roar of immense volume, largely metallic in character. It was followed by heavy, ominous metallic sounds. There was a trembling and lurching motion of the vessel, a list to port. The electric lights went out. Then there was intense blackness and smoke. The situation could not be mistaken. The Maine was blown up and sinking.

The fore-ship, torn by the massive explosion, sank nearly instantaneously; the stern, where Sigsbee's cabin was located, settled more slowly. Neighboring ships immediately launched rescue parties to search for survivors. "Chief among them," Sigsbee noted, "were the boats from the Alfonso XII. The Spanish officers and crews did all that humanity and gallantry could compass."

The Maine's wreck was coffer-dammed in 1911 and a Naval inquiry held, and a second forensic inquiry was conducted by Admiral Hyman Rickover in 1974. Both definitively documented that the cause of the Maine's destruction was not a Spanish mine or bomb but the detonation of the forward gun magazines. 

Rickover's enquiry attributed the detonation to the spontaneous ignition of highly volatile bituminous coal (which the US Navy had recently adopted as fuel as opposed to slower, cleaner burning and far less volatile but more expensive anthracite coal) in the bunker abutting the forward gunpowder magazine. A spark or heating from the coal fire traversed the bulkhead and ignited the gunpowder in the adjacent magazine, dooming the ship. However, the actual cause of the explosion is still a subject of debate and may never be satisfactorily resolved for history.

Yellow Journalism

Of course this forensic science was carried out far too late to satisfy William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, who were in a frenzied war for domination of New York's lucrative daily newspaper market. The infamous era of corrupt, manipulated, exaggerated and patently false reporting known as "yellow journalism" reached its sordid apex with their jingoistic, frenzied dispatches, detailing non-existent cannibalism, torture and war atrocities committed by Spain against Cuba—all in an effort to drag the United States into war against Spain in a bout of newfound American expansionist brinkmanship.

Hearst managed to outdo even Pulitzer in audacity, and famously sent his star delineator, Frederick Remington, to Havana to document Spanish atrocities. After several uneventful weeks, Remington cabled Hearst, "There is no war. Request to be recalled." Hearst wired back, "Please remain. You furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war."

Hearst was true to his word. In the weeks following the Maine disaster, his New York Journal often devoted eight or more pages a day to the tragedy and speculated wildly about Spanish duplicity. Pulitzer rivaled Hearst in war mongering (though privately he said that "nobody outside a lunatic asylum" believed the Maine had been sabotaged by Spain). Nor were the country's lesser editors to be underestimated in their jingoism, and together the "yellow press" stoked a groundswell of war fervor with editorials demanding vengeance for the sinking of the Maine and the defense of American honor.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The USS Maine Monument was also a Hearst publicity vehicle, just as the Spanish-American War had been "his" war, and he browbeat his readers with a relentless subscription campaign, underpinned by his own donations—even though the proposed monument had no official site and was shunted from location to location until finally accepted for the Merchant's Gate of Central Park, facing Columbus Circle at Central Park South.

The monument itself was designed by Harold Van Buren Magonigle, a student of Calvert Vaux (Frederick Law Olmsted's assistant in designing Central Park) and an apprentice in the august offices of McKim, Meade & White. Magonigle made a name for himself designing beaux-arts monuments—he also authored the McKinley memorial in Canton, Ohio and the Liberty memorial in Kansas City, Missouri—and the Maine Monument was certainly his most elegant, successful design.

The massive, chamfered pylon evokes ancient Egyptian temple architecture, and the various beaux-arts sculptural groups embellishing the scheme were executed by Attillo Picirilli and his atelier, an Italian stonemason and master carver who emigrated from the famed Carrara quarries in Tuscany to New York, whereupon he and his sons dominated sculptural stonework in New York for decades.

The wonderful gilded bronze sculptural group atop the pylon, Columbia Triumphant (our watercolor appears as this post's first illustration), is unfortunately virtually impossible to view clearly from any angle, one of the design's major flaws. Nonetheless, the groupreminiscent of that crowning Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, the triumphal Quadriga of St Mark's Square in Venice, and the ancient tradition of celebratory sculpture crowning victory monuments that stretches back to the triumphal arches of Imperial Romeis superbly conceived and masterfully executed, and was reportedly cast from bronze recovered from the Maine's own main batteries. 

The allegorical eagle prow (seen above in our watercolor profile elevation) is quite remarkable as it encapsulates and predates Art Deco by a full decade. The other allegorical sculptures are of equal quality and none of them have a hint of the saccharine or the substandard about them, in either their conception or their execution. 

In all, the USS Maine Monument is a masterfully executed memorial, but unfortunately it seems we have become perfectly indifferent to the beaux-arts aesthetic today. Consequently, it ranks among the most-overlooked and under-appreciated architectural and sculptural ensembles to reside in the heart of Manhattan.  


  1. Who else knows that a port window from the Maine graces a war memorial in the city park of Raton, New Mexico? Wonderful recounting of the Maine history, roommate! M Adler P83

  2. Hi Mike and thanks for stopping by and great to hear from you! Hope all is well with you and yours, A

  3. The USS Maine was never the sister ship of the USS Texas. They were totally different internally and externally and they were built totally independent of each other. They were similar in size but not at all in appearance. They were built to different purposes (the Maine was not intended to be a battleship--it got re-designated as one as no one quite knew what to do with it). The Maine was a mess in terms of design and construction and it is not at all surprising that she blew herself up (it wasn't a mine or a coal bunker fire--proponents each theory have refuted the other quite effectively). The Texas was a better design but also had construction issues as the Navy was still on the wrong side of the curve in building big ships but the Texas and Maine did help industry get experience to quickly build bigger and better ships. We have one predreadnought era ship left, the USS Olympia, and ware about to lose it due to apathy, ignorance, and neglect.

  4. Thank you very much for your detailed comment--it's very much appreciated as we're not naval historians but nonetheless find these questions quite fascinating, and we've updated the original post to reflect your information.

    In your opinion, what was the cause of the explosion, if not the coal bunker hypothesis?