John Purroy Mitchel Memorial

Mitchel

Mitchel

Mitchel's career

This essay is based on the Mitchel episode in the forthcoming Guides Who Know app for Central Park.

Raise your hand if you’ve heard of John Purroy Mitchel. Mmm hmm. Suppose I told you that New Yorkers once considered razing Belvedere Castle to make space for a memorial to him? Now that I have your interest ...

For much of the 19th century, New York City government was notoriously corrupt. The consolidation of the 5 boroughs into New York City in 1898 allowed more wide-reaching and complex methods of corruption.

In 1906, a young lawyer named John Purroy Mitchel made his name by exposing incompetence, waste, and inefficiency in city government. Thanks to his investigations, the borough presidents of Manhattan and the Bronx were dismissed. In 1910, after an assassin’s bullet hospitalized William J. Gaynor, Mitchel became New York’s acting mayor. When he ran for mayor several years later, Mitchel promised to lead a struggle “between the forces of decency, honesty, and public service, and the forces of public plunder.” His supporters included William Randolph Hearst, Theodore Roosevelt, and President Woodrow Wilson.

Thirty-four-year-old Mitchel won a landslide victory and on January 1, 1914. Seven months after he was inaugurated as mayor, the “war to end all wars” broke out in Europe. Mitchel became a fervent advocate of military training. While he was mayor, he even spent 2 summers training at Plattsburg. But his constituents were not enthusiastic about Mitchel’s policies. In 1917, they cast twice as many votes for John F. Hylan, the mayoral candidate from Tammany Hall.

As soon as he left office, Mitchel joined the army. On July 6, 1918, in the final stages of his training before being deployed to Europe, Mitchel fell out of his airplane and was killed. He was 38 years old.

New Yorkers had voted him out ... but they were really sorry when he was gone for good. As 6 black horses drew the casket from City Hall to St. Patrick’s, a squad of 20 planes dropped flowers on the mourners.

The Mitchel Memorial

More enduring memorials soon sprang up. In front of the recently completed New York Public Library, 2 flagpoles were given plaques commemorating Mitchel.

NYPL flagpole with Mitchel plaque

Mitchel plaque at NYPL

An uptown park was renamed Mitchel Square. At Columbia University, Mitchel’s classmates commissioned a plaque for Hamilton Hall.

Mitchel plaque at Columbia U.

But the most prominent memorial was intended for Central Park. The memorial committee drew up plans for a full-length sculpture in an elaborate marble setting. They proposed to make it the focal point of what they called a “much-needed direct route” between the Metropolitan Museum and the American Museum of Natural History. True, the road would require the razing either of Vista Rock or Belvedere Castle. But a park commissioner dismissed the Belvedere as little used and “without value from an artistic standpoint.” Also as part of the very ambitious memorial, the nearby site of the old Reservoir was to be furnished with a swimming pool, playgrounds, a music stand, and ample seating.

When New York City appropriated the reservoir site for a memorial to all those who died in the Great War (that one was never built), the Mitchel Memorial was bumped to East 90th Street. It was dedicated there in 1928, 10 years after Mitchel’s death.