A 140-year-old Abraham Lincoln statue will soon face backwards at its new locale in Grand Army Plaza — an affront on history that one Emancipation-obsessed activist says will make the park’s co-designer, if not the 16th president himself, roll in his grave.
The Great Rail Splitter will finally return to his original spot in Grand Army Plaza after years of exile in the Concert Grove — but he will be facing south instead of north, as he was when the statue was originally installed in 1869.
“It’s highly symbolic,” said history buff neighbor Richard Kessler. “This is not how [park designers] envisioned it.”
Indeed, Lincoln-boosting Prospect Park architect Frederick Law Olmsted specifically requested that the statue face north — although the reason behind his request may not simply have been to demonstrate Lincoln’s Civil War affiliation.
Kessler’s amply footnoted theory suggests that the towering copper statue was positioned north to face the home of Manhattan’s wealthy Astor family, which hated Lincoln’s anti-slavery agenda. The goal was to show that Honest Abe wasn’t scared to confront his powerful enemies head-on.
Even today, at the site, there is still a clear line of vision from the spot at which the statue once loomed — at the very top of the plaza, facing Manhattan — to the former location of the Astor mansion, where the Empire State Building now stands.
“It’s incredible,” Kessler said, explaining the view is no coincidence.
The statue was the first Lincoln memorial erected in the Union. But in waning days of the 19th century, city leaders snatched it up and hauled it to the lower terrace of the Concert Grove, where Lincoln remains in exile.
Officially, the city claimed Lincoln had been dwarfed by the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch in Grand Army Plaza — although Kessler believes there’s more to the story: The statue was cast into exile by 19th-century officials who didn’t like what Lincoln stood for: Defeating the Confederacy, freeing the slaves and restoring the Union.
The timeline adds up: Rutherford B. Hayes became president in 1877, largely on his promise to remove Union troops from the South, ending Reconstruction and prompting reform nationwide.
A few years later, Brooklyn Park’s commissioners, whose terms and loyalties dated back to Lincoln’s days, were replaced — and by 1896, Honest Abe’s statue was moved.
That’s part of the reason that the city secured $340,000 last year to move the dead president back into the spotlight at Grand Army Plaza, noting it’s “more historically accurate.” The only glitch in the plan: This time, Lincoln would be placed on the north end of the plaza, facing the hated south.
Kessler has fought the deployment, but even he admits, “I know no one else who is concerned.”
Indeed, Robert Minsky of Grand Army Plaza Coalition, scoffed at the notion that the Lincoln’s position matters, saying his presence alone will make the plaza more charming. “I don’t think anybody cares what way he faces,” he said. “The Civil war is over.”
The city echoed that idea, saying it could not install the statue facing north, at least without moving the bronze bust of John F. Kennedy, which now occupies Lincoln’s old home at the top of the plaza.
“The new location places the Lincoln statue in an area that is prominent and appropriate in scale,” said Paul Nelson, spokesman for Prospect Park Alliance. “The statue will face south so that it will be in full sun.”
Of course, what long-dead Olmsted thinks about the whole thing is mystery — although the statue sculptor himself, H.K. Brown, would likely consider it an upgrade: Researchers discovered a letter Brown penned to Olmsted, requesting that the sculpture face better light in the plaza. Brown’s statue-direction of choice: west.