The Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch in Hartford is a unique Civil War monument that was built only after architect George W. Keller’s patriotism overcame his ruffled feelings.
Keller, an Irish immigrant born in 1842, was well known by 1881 as an architect and especially as a designer of Civil War memorials for James G. Batterson’s company. Working in what he called the “Modern Gothic” style, Keller by this time had designed the Soldiers National Monument at Gettysburg, topped by a statue sculpted by Randolph Rogers; the U.S. Soldier Monument at Antietam, with a sculpture by Charles Conrads; and the Civil War Monument in Manchester, N.H., with a statue sculpted by Caspar Buberl.
Hartford citizens had been talking for a couple years about building a monument, and in 1881 a committee led by the Rev. Francis Goodwin decided to do something about it. Keller expected to be asked to submit a design, but instead the committee decided to have a competition for ideas. Goodwin even sketched his idea of what the Civil War memorial should look like—a memorial arch as part of a bridge.
The committee chose Clarence Luce’s design as the winner out of 15 proposals submitted, but over the next year and a half the committee decided that his design couldn’t be built within the $60,000 budget. The committee explored the idea of commissioning one of the runners-up to build a memorial, but again the cost was too high. The project was in danger of being abandoned altogether in favor of a conventional granite statue to be placed in Bushnell Park.
Keller couldn’t stand it any more and finally talked to Goodwin and the committee’s secretary, Judge Sherwin W. Adams. Keller made clear that he was keenly interested in the project and had been upset not to be asked to submit a design. Adams responded that if Keller had been looking for an invitation to submit a design, all he had to do was ask for one.
“This was a novel idea that had never occurred to me,” Keller wrote later. He wrote to the committee members that if they had discharged all of their obligations to the other architects, he would be happy if they would invite him to submit a proposal. They had, they did, and he accepted. Work began in 1884 and was completed two years later. Keller built an eclectic memorial that blended Greek friezes with a Gothic Roman arch and two Norman castle towers––all within budget. Keller lowered the cost of engineering expenses by substituting locally produced brownstone and terra cotta for more expensive granite and marble.
As a memorial arch, it was the first of its kind in the United States. Two towers, each over 100 feet high, support the arch, which spans 30 feet over a roadway.
“The arch was intentionally built over a busy street in the middle of Bushnell Park,” explained Sally Taylor, volunteer tour guide for the arch. “That’s because Keller envisioned that everyone should ride under it. The ceremonial entrance is not intended to honor the generals but the everyday soldiers and sailors who fought and the many who died in the war.”
When Keller first built the monument, vehicular traffic under the arch consisted of horses and buggies. As the street beneath the arch changed to a paved, motorized roadway, the city of Hartford kept the arch open for all travelers to enjoy—at a hazard.
“Six cars accidentally struck the memorial arch in the past two years,” said Linda Osten, a board member of the Bushnell Park Foundation and an urban planner by profession. “We knew we had to take immediate steps to preserve the brownstone and terra cotta facade and ensure the safety of the many tourists who visit the arch.”
The reason why there are so many pedestrians on the sidewalk viewing the monument is because the architect designed the arch with a frieze on both its north- and south-facing sides. The friezes consist of finely carved sculptures with intricate human, clothing and object details. For example, the north frieze tells the story of warfare: sculptures of soldiers and sailors in combat. On the south frieze, a woman (who symbolizes the city of Hartford) sits on a throne welcoming back the returning servicemen. Indicating that the war is over, there are sculptures of soldiers breaking up campfires, carrying their wounded home and sailors coming in from the docks at the river. Children run out to greet them with food.
“Because of all these fine details, we want to give visitors the opportunity to look up at the arch and experience the story of the Civil War,” Taylor said. “And it should be in an environment in which our visitors do not feel threatened by the passing cars.”
In Spring 2006, the Bushnell Park Foundation announced its plan to protect the arch by widening and raising the sidewalks and slowing drivers by means of a speed table grooved into the roadway. The plan also calls for significantly brighter streetlights.
“We want to change the straightway ‘city street’ feel,” Osten said. “By using large decorative planters, we will add some gentle curves. This will turn the street into more of a lovely park byway going under the arch.”
Because the arch’s sculpted details invite visitors to look up at it for long periods of time, the Bushnell Park Foundation is also installing half walls for people to sit on. These 3-foot-high walls will run the length of the street and will likely be made of brownstone similar to that used in the historic arch.
“The Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch is important to the citizens of Hartford,” Taylor said. “From a historical perspective, it commemorates the 400 Hartford men who died in the war; that was 10 percent of our population at the time. But the arch also has important meaning in present-day Hartford. Our annual marathon race ends at the arch; our parades go through it. We are proud of the men who fought in all branches of the military, and our memorial arch shows that: an anchor for the navy, swords for the cavalry, cannonade for the artillery regiment and rifles for the foot soldier infantry.”
As for Keller, he remained immensely proud of his structure, collecting positive and negative critical reviews of the memorial arch in a scrapbook. When he passed away in 1935, his request was fulfilled to be laid to rest in the arch. In the east tower of the arch, behind a simple iron door, the ashes of Keller and his wife are interred. A plain inscription reads: “George Keller, architect. Mary, his wife.”
Yvonne Pesquera is a freelance writer in San Diego, California.
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