Monday, June 17, 2024

Over the Top on Memorial Day in Long Lake

Long Lake War Memorial.

As summer began in Long Lake with Memorial Day, veterans raised a flag and honored those who served in the two World Wars. As they have for the past 63 years, two stone men watched the ceremony from the top of plinth of cut native blocks. Known around town as The Doughboys, the unnamed men stand for all the horrors of war. The ceremony took place at a monument that most people probably don’t see as they travel through the Adirondacks on Route 30. They are part of a sculpture by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney titled Over the Top and are worth studying, both as an example of the work of an internationally-known sculptor and art patron and for the tale they tell about relationships and recycling in this small town.

The sculptor was a member of two of the wealthiest families of the early twentieth century. Born in 1875, Gertrude Vanderbilt married Harry Payne Whitney in 1896. They had a town home in New York City, an estate on Long Island, and Whitney Park in the Town of Long Lake. The latter was much loved by the first three generations of Whitney men to own it. His father William C. Whitney told Harry Payne in 1898, “this is one property I wish always to remain in the Whitney family.” Harry and Gertrude had two daughters and a son, Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, known as “Sonny.” Sonny’s widow Marylou left the Park to her third husband, John Hendrickson, who has put it up for sale.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney began taking art and sculpture lessons shortly after her third child was born. She had studios in Paris and New York. Auguste Rodin helped her and felt she was serious about her art and had real promise. She struggled all her life to be known as a sculptor, not just a rich lady, and in some circles she succeeded. Her best known piece is The Scout, mounted at the entrance to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming. She also designed a memorial to those who went down with the Titanic which stands in Washington, D.C., and founded the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Gertrude loved Paris, the center of so much Western art at the time, and when she heard the news of war breaking out in 1914 while staying at the camp on Forked Lake, she vowed to alleviate the suffering in France. In November she went to Paris and headed to the front in search of a location for a hospital close to the fighting. In an empty former boy’s school in Juilly she financed and oversaw establishment of a 225 bed hospital staffed with doctors, nurses, and support staff, purchased ambulances, and stayed for a month, helping on the wards. Between 1917 and 1919, Whitney processed the pain and grief she had seen and felt by creating more than
twenty sculptures in her New York studio. She called them “emotions gouged in clay.”

Woman working in a studio

Jean de Strelecki, “Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney Working at Her MacDougal Alley
Studio” circa 1919. The model in front of her is Over the Top. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress. Photo provided by Hallie Bond.

One of these sculptures Whitney titled Over the Top. It depicts a soldier hauling his comrade over the earthwork of their trench for a charge against the enemy. Not for her the victorious leap forward; the leading man seems to already have his arm in a sling, and the other is either reluctant or badly wounded. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was one of the few artists of the time who depicted the true horrors of World War I. Whitney had made the war sculptures for herself, not as commissions, and she exhibited them in a gallery attached to her Manhattan studio in 1919 in a show she titled Impressions of the War. (The gallery later became the Museum.) She felt that her war sculptures were her first in which she truly expressed herself in her art.

Whitney typically worked in clay and then the piece was scaled up and cast in bronze or cut in stone. We know that a few of her war pieces were cast and became parts of other memorials. Long Lake’s Over the Top was one that did become a full-sized sculpture, although it may never have been on public view. It was cut in limestone and when the Town of Long Lake acquired it, it was on the Whitney estate in Old Westbury on Long Island. The name of the stonecutter is unknown.

Long Lake was conscientous in commemorating its soldiers. Between the wars they had a plaque cast which listed all the First World War service members. During World War II, Fred Burns, a local man whose skills included building guideboats and painting pictures, maintained a plywood sign in front of the Post Office. Every time someone joined the services he would paint his or her name on the sign. After the war, townspeople discussed a more permanent memorial that would include the existing plaque honoring those who served in the first war.

WWI memorial about 1940.

WWI memorial about 1940. Photo provided by Hallie Bond.

In 1977, Barbara Jennings wrote about the decision to seek one of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s pieces to replace the simple concrete plinth of the WWI monument. She remembered that Howard Seaman, a veteran of the Second World War, commander of American Legion Post #650, and a man with connections among caretakers, had heard that the Whitney Long Island estate was for sale and knew that several sculptures were located on the grounds. He approached the Long Island caretaker in 1959 who talked with Sonny and his sister Barbara Whitney Headley, who agreed that one of the four statues on the grounds could be given to the town. (The plaque on the monument mentions only Barbara. One wonders what the other statues depicted and what happened to them.)

Howard and a group from Long Lake including the longtime principal of the school, Professor Daniel Hughes, drove to Long Island in the fall of 1959. Hughes had served in World War I and was greatly respected in town, so they let him choose the statue for their memorial. Hughes felt that that of those available, Over the Top best showed the agony and horrors of all wars. The Long Lakers loaded the sculpture onto a truck and drove it back home and stored it in Barbara Jennings’s father’s garage for the winter. He was in Florida for the winter and nobody told him about the new tenants. He had quite a surprise when he returned.

Sketch of war memorial

Fig. 4 Sketch by Frances Boone Seaman for the base of the new war memorial, April,1960. Photo provided by Hallie Bond.

The base for the sculpture was designed by former Town Historian and amateur artist Frances Boone Seaman and built by McKinley Hanmer and Joe Burnett from stone reclaimed from a bridge abutment which had been replaced. The sculpture was installed in a downpour and the ceremonies were abbreviated, but everybody in town had seen it during preparations. These days, the passers-by in cars are properly watching for pedestrians at the top of the hill on which the sculpture stands and not looking at statues, but they might pull over in the town hall parking lot and study what is probably the only work of this internationally-known sculptor and art patron in
the Park, and one of the few visible to the public anywhere. The stone under it was cut for another project and the sculpture itself was apparently unwanted, but together in this little mountain town, they are honored and bring honor to our war veterans.

war memorial during total solar eclipse

The war memorial during the 2024 total solar eclipse. Photo by Jim Swedberg.

Photo at top: Long Lake War Memorial. All photos provided by Hallie Bond.

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Hallie Bond is Long Lake’s Town Historian. She was curator at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake for nearly thirty years and was responsible for the world-renowned boat collection. She is the author of Boats and Boating in the Adirondacks and co-author of A Paradise for Boys and Girls: Children's Camps in the Adirondacks, and The Adirondack Cookbook. She and her husband Mason Smith, a writer and boatbuilder, raised two children in town. Hallie has a B.A. in History from the University of Colorado, an M.A. in Medieval Studies from the University of York (England) and an M.A. in American History & Certificate in Museum Studies from the University of Delaware.

4 Responses

  1. Andy Coney says:

    Thank you, Hallie! I have always wondered about that statue.

  2. Angie Fink says:

    Thank you Hallie for this wonderful article. It gives a whole new perspective on this monument that resides in this special place that I grew up in and love.

  3. drdirt says:

    facinating story ,.,.thanks. Never stopped before, but sure will now.

  4. Martin Boudreau says:

    Wonderful article.

    I grew up in Long Lake and knew the folks mentioned in the article.

    My father raised the stream ship the Butter Cup

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