Original War Memorial

Original War Memorial Commission:

  • Hurlbut W. Smith
  • William B. Stark
  • Philip R. Chase
  • Harry W. Davies
  • Harold M. Day
  • Mrs. H. Paul Nelligan
  • J. Milsom Richards
  • Walter E. Sleeth
  • Harold M. Stanley
  • (Original member Samuel Sission died and was succeeded on the Commission by  Edward O. Yackel)

Veterans’ Advisory Committee:

  • H. Douglas Johnson, Jr.
  • Richard Mosher
  • Donald McChesney
  • Yale Cummings
  • Harry Dear
  • DeAlton Brooks

Original Construction Figures:

  • Excavated dirt: 65,000 cubic yards
  • Reinforcing steel rods: 2,000 tons
  • Concrete: 16,000 cubic yards
  • Lumber for form work: 600,000 square feet
  • Masonry for walls and partitions: 300,000  units
  • Area occupied: One city block
  • Size of building: 4,400,000 cubic feet
  • Total Cost: More than $4 million

William B. Stark had a dream.

He envisioned a great memorial in downtown Syracuse, paying tribute to the heroes of the two world wars.  Not content with simply erecting a monument of stone, Stark felt Onondaga County’s veterans deserved more.

On November 1, 1944, he presented his dream to a group of civic-minded Syracusans, explaining his ideas for a multi-purpose war memorial building, unlike any facility in America.

At the time, World War II was still far from over, and few were looking ahead to memorials.  But within seven years, Stark and this group of forward thinkers saw his dream become a reality.

Stark’s plan was an ambitious one, so he enlisted the efforts of some energetic people right from the beginning.  The initial meeting with William F. O’Connor, Clarence W. Hilton, Edward Eagan, Anthony A. Henninger, Harry C. Wilder, John C. Johnson, John D. Wilson and Judge Clifford H. Searl, owners of one-third of the downtown property which would ultimately be used for the project.

The group enthusiastically embraced the plan, as did Mayor Thomas E. Kennedy the following day.  They appointed civic leader and typewriter magnate Hurlbut W. Smith, President of L.C. Smith & Corona Typewriters, Inc. to serve as the Committee Chairman.  Stark was asked to be Vice Chairman.

As news of the plan reached Central New Yorkers, it met with such widespread support that the idea was expanded: Instead of being a City of Syracuse project, the War Memorial would represent all of Onondaga County.

The planning stage lasted throughout 1945, and when World War II ended, public enthusiasm rose even higher.  In March 1946, Governor Thomas Dewey signed a bill permitting the county to accept land for a Memorial site, designating that site as Memorial park, establishing a War Memorial Commission and paving the way for the Board of Supervisors to raise funds through a bond issue. 

As the plan progressed, Stark toured the United States, visiting about 60 auditoriums and noting the advantages and disadvantages of each.  The knowledge he gained proved to be extremely valuable in avoiding construction problems.

Numerous options were considered, including a two-building arrangement.  This idea was rejected for a variety of reason, including its $9 million price tag.

Early in 1948, a competition was held between 19 local architects.  The Commission elected the design submitted by Edgarton & Edgarton, Architect Engineer Associates.  By the end of the year, the official plans were approved by the state, after a thumbs-up from three chambers of commerce, numerous civic organizations and 62 veteran posts in the Onondaga County Veteran’s Council.

Having met with scores of community groups, Stark and the Edgartons had generated overwhelming support.  In March of 1949, the County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the plans and a $3.5 million bond issue.

Next came construction bids, and the awarding of contracts to W.E. O’Neil Construction Co. of Chicago.  The long awaited groundbreaking was set for October 22, 1949.

Who better to perform this historical task than the Gold Star Mothers of Onondaga County?  These courageous women had given their sons and daughters in the defense of freedom and liberty.  Now they gathered for a memorable ceremony, opening the way to construction of this unprecedented, lasting tribute.

Excavation began two days later, and finally the public could see tangible progress.  For nearly two years, construction crews worked at a feverish pace, rapidly erecting the Memorial.  On Thanksgiving Day, 1950, the cornerstone was laid in place by Hurlbut Smith and County Veterans Council Commander Edward J. Nowakowski.

A lead-lined copper box was sealed within the corner-stone, containing a number of significant documents: The resolution by the Veterans Council; a roster of the 69 posts of the council; a copy of the resolutions by the Board of Supervisors approving the War Memorial and bond issue; and a copy of the Enabling Act by the State Legislature.

This symbolic act was an important step, but there was still much work to be done.  Plumbing, electrical work, heating/ventilation, painting, decorating and thousands of other tasks were carried out, as the opening day approached.

Stark had been appointed Acting Executive Director of the War Memorial, without compensation, and he spent most of 1950 promoting the facility to the nation.  Long before the opening, he was encouraging professional groups, fraternal organizations and others to plan their conventions, meetings and special events at this outstanding arena.

Concerts, operatic and dramatic productions, ice shows, sport events, industrial shows, rodeos, circuses, pageants and expositions were just come of the planned uses for this versatile facility.

The 138’ x 250’ auditorium included innovative lighting, heating, ventilation systems and seating arrangements, with none of the vision-obstructing columns or supports so common in other arenas.  Seating could be arranged in a number of configurations, with maximum capacity of 9,000.

With separate air intake and exhaust systems, the air in the entire building could be changed every 12 minutes. Plus, through painstaking efforts, the auditorium was made as acoustically perfect as possible.  No bounce. No echoes.

The stage – one of the largest and best-equipped in the U.S. - was 102’ wide and 40’ deep.  It also included a movable 65’ wide forestage which could be raised even with the stage, or lowered to floor level to serve as an orchestra pit.

Special equipment for sports events included an ice rink, basketball floor, baskets, boxing ring with lights and a scoreboard.  Ten miles of pipe was laid into the floor for overnight freezing of the ice.

A total of 80,000 square feet was available for exhibits, with 30,000 in the auditorium and 50,000 on the floor below.  A variety of team rooms, storage areas, meeting rooms, dressing rooms, concession stands, press galleries, utility rooms, first aid station and other areas completed the facility.

On the outside of the structure, the names of 55 battles or engagements of the World Wars are inscribed in stone.  Onondaga County residents fought in each of the named struggles.  Inside, on the walls of the promenades, more than 50,000 names of Onondaga County war veterans were displayed, inscribed on parchment.

In addition, the War Memorial also included a special area set aside to eulogize the county’s fallen veterans: Memorial Hall.  The shrine to all who gave their lives in battle measures 100’ x 30’, and is finished with marble, tile and decorative windows.  Bronze tablets were inscribed with the names of nearly 1,600 county residents who died in World Wars I and II, and the Korean Conflict, which was just beginning.

Two 16’ x 24’ murals, one at each end of the hall, were commissioned to G. Lee Trimm, an artist from Westerlea, Town of Camillus.  He and his wife worked long hours for nearly two years to complete these giant, boldly colored murals.

The World War I mural, based on the poem “In Flanders Fields,” depicts a victorious scene with an American soldier holding the torch of freedom.  The World War II mural, “Freedom Under God,” shows American soldiers liberating Europe and destroying the walls of oppression.

Finally, on September 12, 1951, the historic opening took place, initiating an entire week of festivities. Veterans organizations staged a parade, formal dedication services were held for the Gold Star Mothers and members of families deceased county veterans.

Sammy Kaye and his orchestra used the site to open his nationwide concert tour.  The Freddie Martin Orchestra, starring vocalist Merv Griffin, performed at the Dedication Ball.  Eleanor Steber, Metropolitan Opera Company soprano was guest soloist at the Dedication Concert.  And the Cavalcade of Industry, a massive manufacturing exposition with 72 participants, was described in the Post Standard as “the most complete industrial exposition ever held in Syracuse.”

All this and much more was enjoyed by thousands who eagerly took their first look inside the War Memorial.

William Stark’s dream had come true.  Onondaga County veterans had a living memorial they could be proud of, and the community had a facility that would enrich their lives for years to come.