Starr Gazing
   


Dr. Dan Starr
Retired Director of Athletics and Professor Emeritus of American History at Canisius College.
starr@canisius.edu

   

The Oliver Perry Monument
Where is it?

The grand statue/monument to Commodore Oliver Perry is in the news again. Not many people know where is this statue celebrating the famous hero of the Battle of Lake Erie, and that is the problem! Perry was the American hero of the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812. The British controlled Lake Erie at the outset of the war. On September 10, 1813, Commodore Perry, on board the Niagara (he had left his wrecked flagship Lawrence), defeated the British at Put-In-Bay, near Erie, PA. At the battle’s conclusion, he sent this famous dispatch to his superior, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” Perry secured Lake Erie for the Americans.

Oliver H. Perry was honored a century later by a towering monument erected at Put-In-Bay. At 352 feet high, this Doric column was much taller than the monument to Lord Nelson in London’s Trafalgar Square (169 feet). Around about the same time in Buffalo, the statue honoring Perry was erected in Front Park. Today, not more than a handful of people likely know much about the Perry statue and that is the problem with Oliver’s statue!

David Sherman, editor of the Amherst Bee, addressed this issue in a column a month ago. Sherman’s work reminded me of a column I did a few years ago at the prompting of Charles Yeager, a well-known Buffalonian. I had noted in 2013 that the decaying statue led a Buffalo News reporter to note “the building of the Peace Bridge and Thruway has diminished the Front Park and left the Perry Monument isolated and forgotten.” Yeager and I both felt strongly that Perry’s memory would be much better served if the statue were refurbished and the monument relocated to the head of the Buffalo Harbor.

The Olmsted Conservancy took care of the reconditioning of the statue. The Conservancy did an excellent job. Nevertheless, the beautifully refurbished statue stands alone and isolated. Front Park is not like the Front Park of a century ago, definitely not like Olmsted envisioned it. It is a shadow of its illustrious past.

Hundreds of Americans and Canadians pass near the Perry statue each day without even knowing it exists. It stands in a large plaza in the middle of Front Park and two large 19th century cannons sit nearby pointing toward Lake Erie. New approaches to the Peace Bridge recently opened, making it more difficult than ever to find the entrance to the present day park. Local school kids playing soccer use the park as well as occasional picnickers during the summer. However, not many others use it, visit it, or even know of the existence of the Perry monument. In fact, when I asked a random sampling of acquaintances to identify the statue, responses (e.g., guesses) ranged from George Washington to Mayor Griffin to “some Colonel,” either McNicholas or Dickerson, of another war.

There was a time when Front Park was a key part of the Olmsted landscape. In 1900, the park really did serve as an impressive front doorstep to the city of Buffalo, a kind of vestibule for anyone approaching Buffalo from the west. A handsomely landscaped promenade ran along the river (Front). Strolling, fashionable women and relaxing picnickers abounded there a century ago. They also saw Commodore Perry in his entire splendor looking over the merging of the Niagara River and Lake Erie. The postcards from the Bieron collection give us a wonderful glimpse of Front Park in its glory days in the early 20th century.

Then the New York State Thruway was constructed. David Sherman stated succinctly in the Bee editorial, “A change of venue is in order. Relocating the Perry statue to a venue that is more visible, accessible, and popular would be an excellent move.” Agreed! Moving the statue would require funding and a replacement, something to occupy the prominent site in the middle of the very large circle of the existing Front Park. Perhaps a life size replica of a buffalo or even a small herd of buffalo would be fitting. Have a contest! The Buffalo citizenry are good at that and it will create awareness

Then where to put Commodore Oliver? With the expert help of photographer Lisa Hassett, a few good possibilities were constructed. The first possibility we thought of was “Monument Row,” that splendid area that runs alongside the navy ships in the harbor. That site is beautifully landscaped and features large memorials honoring Korean, Pearl Harbor, and Vietnam veterans, as well as many smaller monuments designated for quite specific groups of heroes.

Perhaps a more ideal site would be on the narrow stretch of grass land that extends from the Hatch, more or less across from the Erie Basin Marina. One of the photos herein would show where the Perry statue might be placed. It would be near the entrance to the harbor across from the 1933 legendary lighthouse. Indeed, the two iconic monuments would serve as bookends or as counterpoints at the entrance, an impressive balance. No longer would Commodore Perry be a recluse; now, he would be readily seen by boats, cars, joggers, walkers, sightseers, and plenty of pigeons. As a result of encountering him, Buffalonians, young and old, would inevitably learn more about our local history and heroes.

Indeed, the Perry Monument would be a welcome addition to the magnificent and continuing evolving Buffalo waterfront.


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