Monument stands sentry for Atlantic City, guards childhood memories

As a young boy, I looked forward to the family vacation in Atlantic City. It was the highlight of my summer. When our car reached the peak of the Albany Avenue Bridge and the World War I monument came into view, it was official.

My father would point out the monument and tell stories about the days when he was stationed in Atlantic City during World War II. He was quite a storyteller. He would go as far as telling us that he was held captive inside the monument.  My 5-year-old imagination ran amok, picturing him crawling in sand with his helmet and bayonet, then being taken prisoner. Really dad?

That was in the 1960s. This summer, I set out to capture the 96-year-old monument before any more major changes happen to the landscape.

You get a glimpse inside the monument while waiting for the traffic light to change on Ventnor Avenue, but, to see the details, you have to walk around the rotunda. Within, you see a bronze statue by the artist Frederick William MacMonnies, named “Liberty in Distress.” A nude Lady Liberty draped in a French flag cries to the heavens while holding a dying soldier. The names of battles in which Atlantic City men fought are carved in the top along with medallions of the armed forces.

The Greek Temple Monument, as it is sometimes called, was actually planned in 1907 as a decorative addition to the booming resort city. Construction was delayed by the outbreak of World War I. When the project resumed, it was decided that it would be a monument to Atlantic City’s war heroes, according to The Atlantic City Experience, a website of the city’s Free Public Library.

The monument was nearly destroyed in 1962, when city commissioners voted to remove the statue and demolish the building to improve traffic flow. That plan was abandoned because of the high cost, and the monument was left alone, vandalized and neglected, until the 1990s, when the city’s Urban Beautification Committee made improvements, according to The Atlantic City Experience.

The World War I Monument on Albany Avenue is seen from the Atlantic City boardwalk.
The World War I Monument on Albany Avenue is seen from the Atlantic City Boardwalk. (Anthony Smedile for WHYY)

Today the monument stands in the midst of another building boom. Construction of Stockton University’s new campus, across the street on Albany Avenue, is nearly completed and will open to 1,100 students this fall.

Each time I come over the bridge on Albany Avenue, seeing the monument with its fine detail, I think of my father and the stories he would tell. Without them my attention would not be on that monument. I am reminded not only of those who saw the horror and sacrifice in “The Great War,” but in all wars. Thanks, Dad.

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