Damaged and broken, a war memorial grove comes back to life

Six years in the making...elected officials cut the ribbon on the renovated war memorial grove in Van Cortlandt Park.
Photo by David Cruz

A once desecrated war memorial grove is back to its former glory.

Local vets were joined by city Parks officials and lawmakers for the re-opening of the Van Cortlandt Park Memorial Grove on 246th Street and Broadway.

The memorial grove, established in 1949, received a $250,000 facelift that went towards replacing several bronze plaques honoring 39 fallen WWII and Korean War servicemen who died in Europe, North Africa and the Pacific.

“This will remain a place of reverence for generations to come,” said outgoing Department of Parks commissioner Adrienne Benepe.

Much of the renovation work included the replacement of 15 original plaques, which stand at the foot of large oak trees.

Herb Barret, a Riverdale resident and veteran, led the campaign to restore the site for the past six years. Cycling along the verdant pastures in 2006, Barret noticed the grove was completely trashed.

“The place was so shabby,” said Barret.

Years of barbecuing left the grove heavily strewn with “garbage, branches, and charcoal.”

Several of the bronze plaques also disappeared, according to Barret. “When I first looked at it there were about eighteen.”

Seeing a need to honor the veterans the right way, Barret teamed with Don Tannen in forming the Memorial Grove Restoration Group.

“Pestering” local lawmakers for help, the group found it from Councilman Oliver Koppell, who allocated $250,000 in city capital funds to spruce up the grove.

The project had a more personal link for Koppell, the son of refugees from Nazism.

“These servicemen helped protect my family, and prevent the spread of Nazism,” said Koppell.

But even as Koppell signed off on the allocations, the project dragged for years.

“It was a small contract,” said Bob Bender with Community Board 8. “There were not a lot of companies that really wanted to bid on it.”

Adding to delays were the missing plaques. Bad record-keeping forced researchers to sift through old documents to make sure their final count was accurate, according to Bender.

Work on the project finally began in 2011. Besides the plaques, contractors installed a new fence, trees and benches for people to sit and reflect.

The project has sparked interest for families of other fallen soldiers to be honored in the park. Anyone interested can call the Van Cortlandt Park Conservancy at (718) 430-1890.

Reach reporter David Cruz at 718-742-3383 or dcruz@cnglocal.com.

David Cruz can be reach via e-mail at DCruz@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 742-3383

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