Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, May 29, 2017

New York's Con Ed Tower of Light World War I Memorial


New York, NY, Con Ed Tower of Light (NYPL)

By Mark Levitch, Founder and President
World War I Memorial Inventory Project

Consolidated Edison’s “Tower of Light”—as the New York power company dubbed it in its corporate literature—is a top contender for the title of “most impressive World War I memorial little recognized as such.”

Erected in 1929, the 26-story tower at the corner of East 14th Street and Irving Place was dedicated to the 3,053 Con Ed employees who served in World War I, especially the 74 who perished. Designed by celebrated architects Warren & Wetmore—best known for Grand Central Terminal—the tower was also intended to be an iconic symbol of one of the nation’s leading purveyors of power and light. 

Detail, Memorial Latern

The tower at first glance may not seem particularly memorial-like, but several elements of its decorative program at or near the top speak to its commemorative function.  The sculpted burning urns set on tripods that flank the clock faces, for instance, recall the Greco-Roman practice of cremation and the display of ashes. Above the clock, a bell chamber is treated as a colonnaded temple modeled on the Hellenistic Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the most famous funereal monuments of classical antiquity (and the model, too, for Indianapolis’s great World War I memorial building). Obelisks, which are widely associated with funerary monuments, frame a bell-capped roof, which in turn supports a colossal bronze lantern.

The dual role of the tower in symbolizing power and light and creating a memorial was also served by an elaborate program of nighttime illumination, first inaugurated on 3 July 3 1929. The lantern emitted a brilliant beam of light upward and, through its sides, horizontal beams that marked the cardinal points of the compass.  As one critic noted at the time, the lantern’s light program “beautifully expressed” the tower’s commemorative function, sending “to the heavens and to the four corners of the earth…its message of memory and inspiration.”

Con Ed Tower
(1939 etching, colored, by Carl Abel)

The Con Ed Tower is no longer as prominent a feature of the New York skyline as it was in 1929, but it is still plainly visible from many parts of lower Manhattan, and it is still dramatically illuminated at night (now with colored LEDs).

3 comments:

  1. Can't wait to look for it on my next visit to NYC.

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  2. Great post, Mark! News to this NYC native.

    Did the WTC Tribute in Light explicitly reference this as inspiration?

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