Green patina has formed around much of the World War I memorial outside of Obama Academy in East Liberty.
It has made many of the 526 names on the statue — the alumni of what was formerly Peabody High School who served in the Great War, including the 15 who died — difficult to read.
But otherwise, the nearly 100-year-old statue is in good shape, save for a piece missing from the hand of one of the seven figures that encircle the statue that once served as the base of the school’s flagpole. And now, less than a year away from the memorial’s centennial, an effort is underway to refurbish the piece to its original glory.
“It’s the biggest, most notable — essentially, only piece of public art at any of the city schools,” said James Hill, a longtime volunteer in the Pittsburgh Public Schools who’s leading the effort to rehabilitate the memorial.
“Most of the schools just did plaques [dedicated to the war], whether it was in the lobby or in a hallway. But these Peabody kids really went all out for it and designed what is a nearly 7-foot-tall statue.”
The memorial was created by Frank Vittor, the acclaimed sculptor known in the Pittsburgh area for his statues of Christopher Columbus and Pirates great Honus Wagner. The statue features seven figures, each depicting a different stage in the life of a soldier, from being called to war to a triumphant victory, according to Hill.
The only original part of the statue that is missing is a wreath that one of the seven figures once held aloft. That wreath, which would be replaced as part of the project, has been missing since at least the 1950s, Hill said.
Below the figures, a plaque lists the names of the 526 Peabody students who served in the war. The names of the 15 students who were killed in battle are front and center, along with the phrase “Dolce et decorum est pro patria mori” — a translation from a Latin poem that means “It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.”
The project — it would ideally be completed before the 100th anniversary of the memorial’s dedication on May 30, 1924 — involves more than just the refurbishing of the statue and adding a new flagpole.
Hill said he’s hoping to raise $100,000 — enough money to make upgrades to the outdoor classroom space surrounding the memorial, including concrete repairs, and the addition of spotlights, benches and potted plants. A set of stairs also would be built, reconnecting the space with East Liberty Boulevard for the first time since the school’s renovation in the 1970s.
“The idea for the kids is to give them a nice plaza to hang out at, make better use of the outdoor classroom space,” Hill said. “Then the central desire of this is to restore the memorial to soldiers on the occasion of its 100th anniversary.”
Just shy of $10,000 has been donated to the project so far, according to Hill, and conversations with Peabody alumni, foundations and other supporters are ongoing as fundraising continues.
The fundraising will be the most challenging aspect of the project, said Hill. He estimated that the actual construction work that needs to be done shouldn’t take more than a month, if that.
“None of this work is dramatic,” he said. “It’s all repair work, and the district has long accepted the help of others who wish to help spruce things up. Think of it as a more history-focused playground renovation. It’s about that caliber of a thing, and they do those everywhere all the time.”
This is not the first attempt that has been made to raise funds for the memorial.
Bob Creo, a 1970 Peabody graduate, took interest in restoring the memorial in the run-up to his 50th high school reunion in 2020.
Creo worked with the Military Community Support Project to raise between $5,000 and $6,000 to refurbish the statue as well as another memorial in Lawrenceville. When the COVID-19 pandemic started, though, the project was halted.
That money has now been pledged to the renewed efforts to restore the memorial, Creo said. And he said he anticipates more money to come.
“I expect most of the alumni are going to be donating,” Creo said. “We have thousands of alumni in groups on Facebook.”
The effort is being supported by Preservation Pittsburgh, which is serving as the 501(c)(3) entity in the fundraising process.
Matthew Falcone, board president of Preservation Pittsburgh, said the organization not only wants to see the memorial restored but also have it landmarked in the city’s registry as one of Pittsburgh’s historic places. That means the city would view the memorial as having historical value and that any changes made to the piece in the future would have to go before the city’s Historic Review Commission.
“What really caught our attention with this particular project is it wasn’t necessarily something like the doughboy [statue] in Lawrenceville, which is another iconic war memorial,” Falcone said. “This one was really intended to reflect a particular community — those who went to Peabody school — and at the same time meant to serve as a public art piece. So that way, you’re honoring those who lost their lives to help us remain free, and at the same time it’s supposed to be inspirational as a work of art.”
As historically valuable the piece is, Hill said there is another reason the memorial and surrounding area should be refurbished.
“The kids in our schools deserve nice things,” he said. “They deserve nice spaces, they deserve nice outdoor spaces, they deserve lovely things. The present condition is not lovely, and I don’t think that’s befitting of our children.”
Donations toward the restoration project can be made here.