A project to renovate a World War I memorial at a Pittsburgh school in time for the 100th anniversary of its dedication is out of the trenches and charging ahead after earning a key approval.

The Pittsburgh Public Schools board Wednesday gave the go-ahead to an effort to rehabilitate the Peabody High School WWI memorial and the outdoor classroom where it is located outside what is now Obama Academy in East Liberty. 

“We are so excited to have reached this milestone,” said James Hill, restoration campaign chair and longtime volunteer at the school. “I’m grateful to the board of public education for their approval. Our public schools are not just places of education but in many cases time capsules of the neighborhoods that surround them. This project preserves that history and benefits so many students today.”

Hill said the plan is to hold a rededication ceremony for the memorial on May 30, the 100th anniversary of its original dedication on Armistice Day in 1924. But before that, more help from the public is required. 

Donations from foundations, school alumni and private individuals have garnered about 80% of the $175,000 needed for the project, according to Preservation Pittsburgh, one of the organizations involved in the effort. 

Preservation Pittsburgh continues to seek donations for the project at a webpage that can be found here

“We could not be more thankful to those who have contributed thus far,” said Matthew Falcone, president of Preservation Pittsburgh. “This sort of project is an exciting new endeavor for us. We’ve had remarkable success over the years landmarking important buildings and parks in Pittsburgh. Now, we’re so close to preserving this memorial for generations to come.”

The organization is also seeking information from relatives of the 543 Peabody alumni who served in the Great War and whose names are listed on the base of the memorial. Community members who had family members who attended Peabody from 1911-18 and who served in the war are encouraged to send an email to info@preservationpgh.org.

In addition, Obama students are searching for a long-lost film reel of the memorial’s original dedication ceremony. Newspaper reports from the time noted that a film of the ceremony was shown at “The Regent Theater” — today the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty — during the week of June 1, 1924. Students are hoping the reel could still exist, and they are seeking any clues to the location of it or a copy.

The memorial, designed by famed local sculptor Frank Vittor, is considered to be “the most significant piece of public art at any Pittsburgh school.” It originally sat atop a granite pedestal and features seven figures representing various roles of Americans at wartime.

The project will include the full restoration of the 1924 memorial, including a flag pole and the recasting of a long-missing piece — a wreath initially held by one of the seven figures but missing since at least 1961 — by Pittsburgh’s Fine Art Conservation Services. 

Peabody students, alumni and faculty sold Liberty Bonds in the early 1920s to raise the $10,000 needed to construct the memorial, according to Preservation Pittsburgh. The monument is unique as other Pittsburgh schools had plaques made to honor their alumni who served in the war.

Preservation Pittsburgh said the project will also re-establish the school’s connection to East Liberty Boulevard — lost in a previous school renovation — and create a new quad area for Obama students.

“We are so excited for this project,” said Yalonda Colbert, principal of Obama Academy. “It gives our students a dynamic new outdoor space for learning and connects them to the students who have walked these halls before them. We are proud ‘Obama Eagles’ today, but our ‘Peabody Highlanders’ family are always welcome home.”

Andrew writes about education and more for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at agoldstein@unionprogress.com.

Andrew Goldstein

Andrew writes about education and more for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at agoldstein@unionprogress.com.