Columbia Professor Leads Restoration of Local World War I Memorial

Gary Shapiro
November 09, 2018

Every working day for the last 20 years, Rudolph L. Leibel has peered down from his sixth-floor window in the Russ Berrie Medical Science Pavilion onto a small triangular park. He likes the view of a bronze statue there that commemorates soldiers from Washington Heights and Inwood who gave their lives in World War I.

Leibel, the Christopher J. Murphy Memorial Professor of Diabetes Research, cherishes the memorial as a veteran himself and an avid student of military history. He served as a major in the U.S. Army Medical Corps from 1969 to 1971. “I count it as one of the most significant experiences of my life, not only my medical career.”

The sculpture, the Washington Heights-Inwood War Memorial in Mitchel Square, features a group of enlisted men cast in bronze and granite. A Marine and an Army soldier are coming to the aid of a wounded Navy sailor.

“I walk by the statue twice a day. I come close enough to touch it. It’s personal,” said Leibel. So two years ago, when the bronze bayonet on the rifle slung over the Army soldier’s shoulder disappeared for the third time since 1998, he took action. He reached out to U.S. Rep. Adriano Espaillat, whose district includes the Columbia University Irving Medical Center, and Jonathan Kuhn, director of art and antiquities in the New York City Parks Department, and asked how the statue could be repaired. Leibel and a few colleagues then contributed money to restore the bayonet to its rightful place.

“The monument was originally erected through citizen contributions. This is in that tradition,” said Kuhn, who also noted that a grant from the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission provided additional support for the repair. Parks Department art and monuments conservation staff, under the direction of Kuhn and conservator John Saunders, worked with the Bedi-Makky Art Foundry in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, to cast a replica of the bayonet. The team also repointed all of the stone masonry and applied a protective wax coating to the bronze elements. 

Leibel was among the speakers on Nov. 7, when elected officials, soldiers, veterans, community leaders and a color guard attended a ceremony at the park marking the restoration and the centennial of the end of World War I.

The monument was erected on Memorial Day in 1922 at the intersection of St. Nicholas Avenue, Broadway and 167th Street, in a spot now called Mitchel Memorial Park. The park is named for John Purroy Mitchel (CC 1899), one of the youngest mayors of New York City, who after serving his term (1914-1917) joined the Army Aviation Corps and died in training.

Sculpted by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a noted artist who later founded the Whitney Museum of American Art, the monument includes 20 bronze tablets listing the names of 357 men from Washington Heights and Inwood who gave their lives in what was then called the Great War.

Leibel, who is co-director of the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center and heads the division of molecular genetics in the Department of Pediatrics at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, said the statue is a physical reminder of those who gave their lives for their country. “Neither side appreciated the enormity of destruction that would follow the declarations of war. The bayonet exemplifies the violence of this conflict.”

Growing up in Washington, D.C., Leibel became enamored of that city’s famous statuaries as a youngster. The Mitchel park statue “inspires us to care for others; that’s what physicians do.”