Public involvement in the design, funding, and construction of Syracuse’s Columbus Monument

In a recent letter to the editor, James Albanese—a member of the Columbus Monument Corporation—described Syracuse’s Columbus Monument as a ‘privately’ funded statue. Writing of the importance of the monument as a physical object located in a prime public space, Mr. Albanese says:

“being there connects us with our immigrant ancestors, who after a 15-year effort to privately fund and erect this work of art felt that they were finally being integrated into the local community as equals.”
[emphasis added]

Mr. Albanese chose these words carefully to corroborate the Columbus Monument Corporation’s argument that City Hall cannot remove the statue because the monument properly belongs to the ‘people of Syracuse.’ In his telling, the monument was paid for with private money, so no public body—like City Hall—can decide to remove it.

But that’s not true. Although the original Columbus Monument Association attempted to privately fund and erect the monument in the 1920’s and 30’s, that effort came up short. In the end, the purchase, shipment, and construction of Syracuse’s Columbus Monument relied on public money supplied by the City of Syracuse, New York State, and Italy’s national government, and Benito Mussolini even had a hand in designing the monument itself.

The problems started with the Depression when the dollar’s value fell relative to the Italian lira. Despite raising an impressive sum to hire Italian sculptor Renzo Baldi, the worsening exchange rate meant the Columbus Monument Corporation didn’t have enough money to actually ship the monument from Italy to Syracuse.

The Corporation appealed to the Italian government to help provide the necessary money. In 1933, they asked the Italian air force to come to Syracuse for a fund raiser.

“The occasion of the proposed visit of the transatlantic squadron here would tie in with a campaign of the monument association to raise additional funds for the Columbus monument”

The air squadron did not come to Syracuse, but the Italian national government did agree to help ship the monument. It paid half the cost of shipping the granite blocks of the pedestal. The Syracuse Herald article announcing the shipment and the Italian government’s generosity also revealed that “the inscription will be composed by Premier Mussolini and forwarded to Syracuse to be placed on the monument.”

during the 1930’s Italy’s fascist government cultivated support among the Italian diaspora, particularly in America.

When the stone reached New York, the Columbus Monument Association still could not afford to ship it from there to Syracuse. They asked Herbert Lehman—New York’s governor—to provide free passage on the Erie Canal. New York State shipped the granite over the canal on two barges pulled by a state-owned tug.

Once the pieces of the monument were all actually in Syracuse, a private firm—the Mondo Construction Company—was supposed to put them together. However, City Hall took over the job of actually erecting the monument in 1934 in order to “help defray expenses.”

Syracuse’s Columbus monument was not a purely private venture. Local, state, and national governments helped design, fund, and construct the monument, it sits in a public right of way, and it was ritually presented to the City of Syracuse at its dedication in 1934. The public put the monument up, and the public has every right to decide to take it down.