“Big things seldom are beautiful, yet despite its bigness, the War Memorial easily becomes Syracuse’s most beautiful building – tastefully designed and restfully decorated” said the writer of this September 12, 1951 Post Standard ad as the city prepared to unveil the Onondaga County War Memorial to the public for the first time.
Dedicated to local veterans, the War Memorial was created to “provide a facility that will benefit the greatest number of people and provide a maximum of entertainment, relaxation and recreation.” The opening week featured many events dedicating the building, celebrating local armed forces and celebrating the success of the new 4000 sq. ft. multi-purpose facility.
Local architects Edgarton and Edgarton were chosen to design the building by way of an architectural design competition. Initial searches for more work by this practice only revealed some renovation work on the Mizpah building and a lawsuit initiated by the structural consultant relating to the work done on the War Memorial.
The War Memorial auditorium featured every amenity available at the time from movable seats, adjustable floors, curtain walls to separate spaces, adjustable lighting, electrical and ventilation and the ability to suit events from hundreds to thousands of people comfortably.
Considered a “construction miracle”, the project featured cutting edge technology for the early 1950’s. The expansive barrel vault roof was one of the first applications of the single-span thin shell roof that we have come to admire through buildings such as the Sydney Opera House.
This application worked perfectly for the entertainment facility because the design transfers structural weight from the roof to the foundation with out the need for center supports that would obstruct event views.
And even then, there was a divide in public opinion about the feasibility of one large space to accommodate every type of use and also to adequately pay tribute to Syracuse’s veterans. In this Syracuse B4 blog post, commentators relay their dissatisfaction with the proposed building, its design and misgivings and the extensive cost of construction that forced cut corners on the aesthetics.
One of the major points of contention, much like it is today, was parking. In an effort to accommodate increased downtown traffic, historic buildings such as the Post Office that used to be on South Warren Street were leveled and turned into street level parking lots. This sparked a trend that would lead to the demise of many significant buildings and the over abundance of parking lots that plague the urban fabric of downtown today.
The War Memorial today is most recognized as the home of the Syracuse Crunch. The Convention Center, Civic Center Theaters and War Memorial buildings are marketed as The ONCENTER, and are by way of separate buildings, the culmination of all of the goals of the original plans for the War Memorial to host events ranging from sports to theater and exhibits.
According to the Oncenter Complex website, the building underwent a massive renovation in the early 1990’s to re-align the building with its original goals and improve the safety and functionality of the building. Here is a list of the improvements made regarding the veteran tributes:
- A new ceremonial court – with flagpole – has been added at the northeast corner, and concrete benches are positioned along the building’s east and west sides. Battle names from Korea and Vietnam are cast into the benches, which now serve as a fitting accompaniment for the World War I and II battle names inscribed on the building itself.
- Veterans are honored in more ways than ever before, as the inside of the War Memorial now features several new, permanent exhibits. One of the most impressive elements is the Veterans Honor Roll, an 8’ x 90’ wall, emblazoned with the names of more than 60,000 County veterans.
- To be included on the Honor Roll, each veteran had to be a resident of the county when they entered the service, had to serve during specified time periods for World Wars I, II, Korea or Vietnam, and had to be honorably discharged. Veterans and their families were surveyed in an effort to make the wall as complete and accurate as possible. It also includes space for future updates.
- The wall, located in the second-floor corridor across from Memorial Hall, replaces the hand-lettered parchments which were previously on display. Many of these had been damaged over the years, and will now be preserved.
- In Memorial Hall itself, no structural changes were made, but the room has been restored to its 1951 appearance. Asbestos was removed, sprinklers and smoke detectors were installed, walls and ceilings were patched and painted, the floor was repaired, lighting fixtures replaced, doors were cleaned and repaired. The two original murals, commemorating World Wars I and II, have remained untouched. A meticulous cleaning and preserving process was begun after construction debris was gone.
- At the north end of the building’s first floor, what was once an empty corridor, now houses the new Memorial Display Gallery. Here, glass display cases containing authentic and replicated artifacts, chronicle the involvement of Onondaga County veterans through each war since the revolution. Statues representing participants in eight different wars are on display throughout the gallery.
- Two interactive audiovisual monitors are also set up in the gallery. These touch-screen computers invite visitors to inquire about various wars and conflicts, or to ask pre-determined questions of many county veterans.
- Two new 5’ x 10’ murals – commemorating the Vietnam Era and Korean Conflict – were also commissioned for this area. Artist Nancy Muncy-Rhodes painted each, using egg tempura paints in mostly greens and browns. She interviewed veterans from both conflicts to better capture the experience of battle.
- A third new mural is the focal point of yet another new display: the Medal of Honor Gallery. This second floor area will feature bronze plaques recognizing the Congressional Medal of Honor winners from Onondaga County. The highly detailed 7’ x 16’ mural, by artist Norm Roth, was created using brushes no thicker than a pencil.
- Veterans will also notice five large flags – once for each branch of the service – hanging on the north wall of the auditorium.
From the wall of names to the memorabilia from some of the nation’s greatest battles, a part of history is tucked away into a building that is designed to add culture and entertainment to downtown Syracuse. Sort of a hidden gem to many who visit the complex for sporting or concert events and are treated to tributes to our local heroes.
A great big Thank You to our service members past and present and their families for your sacrifices for our country on this Memorial day and every day!