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Where Newtown Pauses To Remember: A Monument's Intention Was To Glorify Peace



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By Nancy K. Crevier

Astride three towering pillars of granite, her stony visage gazes out over the head of Main Street. She is a striking figure carrying fronds of palms, a flag topped with a spear, and an oak and laurel wreath crowning her head, all indicating victory. She is the lady of the Liberty and Peace Monument, the Goddess of Liberty, and for the past three-quarters of a century Newtown residents have gathered for solemn ceremonies at her feet to honor the veterans of wars fought on American and foreign soils.

Known to most as the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, the memorial was the last of the gifts benefactress Mary Hawley bestowed on Newtown through the generosity of her will, according to town historian Dan Cruson. Ms Hawley, who died in 1930, decreed in her will that along with a public library built to honor her grandfather Cyrenius H. Booth, a war memorial should be erected on the triangular piece of property she had purchased, formerly occupied by the North Center District School at Hanover Road and Main Street (then called Newtown Street or The Street).

Designed by Frank L. Naylor, a noted New York memorial designer, the 30-foot-tall granite statue was executed by McGovern Granite Company of Hartford. It is on his blueprints that the official title of the monument is to be found. Two original bronze plaques imbedded in slabs of granite at the base of the monument include the names of local veterans of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, and World War I.

Although it is thought of as "the war memorial," the monument's original intention was not to suggest battle, but as stated in a May 15, 1931, Newtown Bee article, to give Newtown a memorial "symbolic not only of the three great victories of the American people, but representative, as well, of the nobler things of the spirit — it was not the actual conflict that it desires to commemorate, but rather the spirit and idealism that prompted the sacrifice of thousands of youthful lives for honor and principle."

An article from one week earlier emphasized that the monument is "to commemorate three periods in the history of our development when force of arms inspired by the spirit of righteousness and lofty ideals brought our country into being; protected it through civil strife; and raised it to the position of Champion of World Democracy and Guardian of Peace. This triple dedication inspires the Trinity as the symbolic translation of ideals to material granite."

Following through on the theme of the Trinity, triplicates repeat in the design of the monument. "Above each of the three columns is affixed a star of triple significance, Religion, Statehood, and Hope for future," read the May 8, 1931, Newtown Bee article. Carved doves, alternating with the star, signify lasting peace and happiness, and even in the Goddess of Liberty are found three ideals, explained the article: Truth, Purity, and Beauty. "The Goddess embraces the flag and palms of victory while in her hand she displaces the shattered manacles of tyranny and slavery," the article goes on to explain the designer's symbolism.

The selection of the monument was not without controversy. In an open letter to The Bee on May 29, 1931, Grace L. Conger wrote, "We share in the general gratitude to Miss Hawley's memory for our town hall, for our beautiful cemetery and for the school. [The three gifts of the benefactress prior to her death.] Now we are to have a War Memorial and we fondly hoped it would be simple and appropriate, fitting into our lovely old street. Instead, we are shown a tall, gaudy monument, not even the work of a sculptor — a stonecutter's dream or nightmare." Ms Conger went on to request a public review of "some of the other 27 models" submitted for consideration, and in return on June 12, 1931, two members of the selection committee responded through the newspaper.

"There were in reality 17 who submitted models and drawings. Of this number seven were sculptors, the rest being architects and designers," wrote back committee members Emma D. Mitchell and Orrin W. Mills. They also agreed to secure photographs of some of the other entries to be presented to the public.

Whether or not that came to be is unclear, but the McGovern Granite Co. began work, following a brief note in The Newtown Bee on September 4 that "Some crazy or vicious individual backed his auto across a section of the little triangle where the soldiers' memorial is to be erected after Mr Steck had finished grading. Some boys have been tracking the plot up, and cows have been allowed to walk across the newly graded plot."

On November 20, 1931, the monument was erected on the triangular piece of property selected and purchased by Miss Hawley before her death, at the head of Main Street.

It was not until May 1939, though, that the war memorial was officially dedicated during an extravagant Memorial Day celebration that included a parade from Sandy Hook Center to the top of Main Street, the decoration of the streets and businesses with flags and buntings, specially selected speakers, bands, poetry, and what town historian Dan Cruson said is famous actress and opera singer Grace Moore's only Newtown performance.

"At the close of this short address, Mr Hull introduced Mr and Mrs Valentin Parera and Mr and Mrs Frank Chapman, who so kindly consented to attend this dedication. Mrs Parera, together with Mr and Mrs Chapman, then led the assemblage in the singing of 'America.' Or as it turned out," reads part of a June 2, 1939, story in The Bee, "this famous trio did all the singing."

Sandy Hook resident Mrs Valentin Parera was better known by her stage name of Grace Moore. Mrs Chapman, a contralto, sang under the professional name of Gladys Swarthout. Her husband was a well-known baritone.

Up until the early part of the 1990s, the war memorial included only the names of Newtown veterans through World War II.

After more than a decade of research, the Newtown Veterans Memorial Society, formed in 1989, raised local funding to see that all of Newtown's military veterans were honored. Those names that had been overlooked from the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish American War, the French-Indian War, the Civil War, World War I and II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War were added to new plaques.

In 1998, a project organized by the Veterans Memorial Society provided two more bronze markers, installed by Carol Selvagg of Barre Granite of Stratford, commemorating the veterans from Korean and Vietnam Wars. New walkways, stone benches, and landscaping updated the small park at that time, as well, said a Newtown Bee story that year.

Like so many other outstanding features of Newtown, the monument was itself memorialized in 1999. That year, the annual pewter holiday ornament created by the Woman's Club of Newtown featured the Liberty and Peace Monument.

In the spring of 2004, a restoration and beautification project for the monument and small park surrounding it was launched. Funded by the Borough and private donations, landscape designer Brid Craddock provided a design that included night lighting for the monument, a brick pathway — and a granite and wooden fence that proved to be so controversial, that the granite posts were pulled out and a boxwood hedge planted in the fall of 2005.

On Veterans Day, November 11, 2008, the most recent addition of names was unveiled at the Liberty and Peace Monument to honor of the veterans of the Persian Gulf War, making a total of six plaques that now encircle the monument.

When gathered about the monument on Memorial Day, residents might bear in mind the intent of the memorial statue. As inscribed on the base, it honors Newtown's "sacred dead, her honored living, who ventured all unto death that we might live a republic with independence, a nation with union forever, a world with righteousness and peace for all."

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