By Raanan Geberer
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division officially rededicated the shuttered and deteriorating Brooklyn War Memorial yesterday. City officials gave little hope that the inside of the long structure in Cadman Plaza Park — which contains the names of 11,000 Brooklyn soldiers who died in World War II, would reopen anytime soon.
Yesterday, soldiers in full dress uniform, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Michael Kirkpatrick, played taps, laid a wreath, and held conversations with several elderly veterans.
While the Parks Department and other organizations have offices and storerooms in the basement, the main auditorium — whose walls bear the names of Brooklynites who paid the ultimate price — is closed to the public. Previously, it was a public space used at least sporatically for events by veterans and other groups.
A reporter who covered yesterday's rededication ceremony and sought to enter the memorial was barred by a Parks Department official.
“We’ve tried to get bus tours to stop here, but it never happened,” says Roy Vanasco, a World War II veteran and lifelong Fort Greene resident.
In the meantime, the veterans keep getting older and fewer in number.
Martin Maher, chief of staff for the Brooklyn Parks Department, has been utilizing volunteers to do some refurbishing of the interior space with the help of volunteers, It's still a “work in progress,” in the words of Harold Engelmann, a member of the Jewish War Veterans who attended yesterday's ceremony.
The Parks Department failed to respond to the Eagle's query about when — or if — the facility might reopen to the public.
Even if the main hall is refurbished, the building itself is not in good shape.
“There’s no air conditioning, the steps are crumbling, it’s not ADA-compliant, there’s no elevator, there are no bathrooms [in the main hall],” said Brooklyn Heights resident Toba Potosky, a founder of the recently formed Cadman Park Conservancy.
An elevator, in particular, is a must for aging veterans who often find it difficult to walk up a flight of stairs.
“I would guess that the building needs about $20 million worth of work,” Potosky said.
The history of the building is one of disappointment and broken promises.
The memorial was built after Brooklyn Daily Eagle publisher Frank Schroth formed a committee of distinguished Brooklynites to plan a memorial to the war dead.
The winning plan, however, was never fully built because of lack of funding. The memorial as it now stands is a scaled-down version of the original. The male and female figures at either end, designed by sculptor Charles Keck, are largely ignored by the soccer, softball, touch football and frisbee players nearby.
“It was supposed to be run by the community,” says retired Justice Jerome Cohen, who served aboard a destroyer in the Pacific during World War II. “But instead, it was taken over by the Parks Department, and a lot of it was used as storage space.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, Vanasco remembers, the building was actively used by committees of Community Board 2, ceremonies by veterans’ groups, musical groups, theater groups, exercise classes and more.
The last active use of the building may have been by Brooklyn College for art exhibits. In May 2006, however, former Brooklyn Parks Commissioner Julius Spiegel evicted the college’s MFA art show because of sexually explicit artwork. Spiegel cited an agreement with the college, made six years before, that all exhibits in the building must be “suitable for families.”
Efforts to renovate the building over the years have been constantly stymied by bureaucracy.
For example, Vanasco says that in 1987, when he was chairman of Community Board 2, the board signed an agreement with the Parks Department allocating $540,000 for an elevator and other improvements. “The money disappeared and was used elsewhere in the system," he said.
Marilyn Gelber, president of the Brooklyn Community Foundation, says that when she was chief of staff to Borough President Howard Golden in the early 1990s, “Howard, a World War II veteran, was really focused on restoring the War Memorial and making it usable for veterans.
“He had a dream of creating an educational and cultural center so people would learn about Brooklyn’s role in the war, but would learn about peace as well as war,” she says.
However, “All of this would start with making the building handicapped-accessible. We put money in the capital budget to put in an elevator.”
While the Borough President’s office put in “a big chunk of money” to fix up the building, after Gelber left Borough Hall in 1994, “I was told that the Parks Department ended up reprogramming money to help with restoring the fields in front of the War Memorial.” Those fields were developed primarily for use by private schools in and around Brooklyn Heights.
Golden didn’t give up on his dream of restoring the War Memorial, and after leaving office in 2002 he approached Gelber with the aim of educating people about its importance.
According to Mark Zustovich, spokesman for Borough President Marty Markowitz, Golden “did request that our office allocate $500,000 for the project in FY 09. The money was budgeted but later cut when the project wasn’t moving forward.”
The huge cost of rehabilitating the building — “not only the elevator, but other costs, plumbing, electricity” — was what stalled the project, says Gelber. “Parks didn’t have the budget.”
Today, says Robert Perris, district manager of Community Board 2, “the War Memorial continues to be one of our highest priorities. It’s been on our list of fiscal budget priorities since 2006.” However, he says, it’s never been funded.
Potosky says his Cadman Park Conservancy is in the processing of forming a board to raise funds to renovate the memorial. “We’re in the early stages,” he said, adding that the group also hopes to interview and document veterans so that visitors can watch their stories on DVD players inside the exhibit-in-the-making.
“It would be great to find a way to honor our surviving World War II vets,” he said.