There are many different ways people remember and publicly memorialize the past. As Memorial Day approaches, it is well worth taking a moment to think about how we remember veterans and those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
All over the city there are monuments to those who served. From the squares in every neighborhood honoring veterans to the Civil War monument on the Common, perhaps the most impressive war memorial in the city is the long-shuttered Memorial Auditorium at Lincoln Square.
After several years of neutrality, the United States entered World War I in April 1917. In August the 26th Yankee Division was established, including four infantry and two field artillery companies from Worcester. The division incorporated elements of the Massachusetts State Militia (predecessor to the National Guard) that date back to the Revolutionary War. It was the second U.S. division to arrive in Europe as part of the American Expeditionary Force.
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The war effort, according to news reports, relied on city residents from “all walks of life.” Some served in uniform and others in Worcester’s factories that powered the war effort. Many of those killed in combat exhibited great courage and were awarded honors by both the United States and France.
Private John Turano was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Croix de Guerre for shielding his wounded captain from enemy fire. Aviator 1st Lt. Warren Hobbs was awarded the Croix de Guerre after being shot down over Ypres, Belgium, in June 1918. Capt. Walton Danker, a chaplin, was recognized with the Silver Star and Croix de Guerre for being shot while taking care of the sick and wounded. In total, 355 from Worcester County were killed in uniform during the war.
Celebrations erupted all over the city when news of the armistice was announced in November 1918. Worcester’s returning soldiers marched through a wooden replica of Paris’ “Arc de Triomphe” constructed on the city Common.
Plans for an auditorium were made in the weeks following the armistice to serve as a lasting memorial to the men and women who gave their lives during the war.
Construction did not begin until September 1931, but once shovels hit the ground they quickly made up time. Almost $160,000 — the equivalent of about $2.5 million today — was raised by the Memorial War Commission to pay for the construction. The commission leveraged the large number of available laborers during the Great Depression to put up the building in only seven and a half months. It was an astonishingly quick turnaround for a project of that scale.
The main auditorium is adorned with art deco elements and has a seating capacity of 3,000. The chairs on the lower level were removable in order to create an 18,212-square-foot dance or exhibition space. The 116-foot by 44-foot main stage opens in the rear to the smaller Little Theater. Both auditoriums could be used simultaneously, with the Little Theater offering an additional 704 seats. The main auditorium features a one-of-a-kind, 6,719-pipe Kimball organ.
The most awe-inspiring feature of the auditorium is the second-floor Memorial Chamber with the names of those who died in WWI embossed in gold on the stone walls. Large floor-to-ceiling windows look out between the building columns toward Lincoln Square.
Three of the walls are adorned with murals created by the artist Leon Kroll. They were composed to be more than just “banal wall decorations,” in order to remember the many aspects of the community touched during the war. Kroll’s three panels cover 2,500 square feet and include individuals and composites of people who lived in Worcester. When completed they were the largest ever attempted in the United States.
Due to the financial strain of the Great Depression the murals were not completed until 1941, nearly 10 years after the rest of the auditorium. In the intervening years Kroll recognized just how much of the world had changed:
“In the three and a half years which have elapsed the world has suffered much. It has been no easy time for an artist to compose and execute a great memorial theme. First Munich, then the successive outrages of the Totalitarian powers seemed to conspire against the creation of a War Memorial. The three panels were scaled up and the charcoal sketches laid in starting September 1, 1939, when Poland was invaded.” –Leon Kroll
The weight of the renewed conflict in Europe that would lead to World War II and the economic crash worked themselves into his World War I murals.
Just as the war memorial must be viewed through the historic lens of those who built it, it must also be viewed through the cultural history it left behind.
For many in the community it was where they took their first dates, saw their favorite play and attended concerts. According to a list compiled by Preservation Worcester, musicians from Chuck Berry to the The Rolling Stones to Primus played the Aud. Holy Cross once held its basketball games there, as well as countless graduations.
The last regular public events were held in 1997.
For many of us now, the Memorial Auditorium is just a closed-off building inaccessible to the general public. This was not the intent of the building’s architects and those who supported its construction. Francis Henry Taylor, the then director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wrote that “whatever the terrible consequences of the years ahead of us, the Memorial Chamber will maintain its placid dignity.”
1941 booklet by the War Memorial Commission (from archive.org):
As the city formulates its long-term plans for the auditorium it should make every effort to re-incorporate it into the public space.
The city manager’s interim plans announced last week are a good start in that direction. A potential pop-up art installation this summer and a food truck zone will add vitality to Lincoln Square and introduce a new generation of city residents to the Aud.
Doing so will help preserve a monument to those who gave their lives for the country, and offer back a space that contributed to Worcester’s cultural legacy.
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This article was originally published in the May 22, 2016 edition of the Sun.
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