Just who or what does Memorial Park memorialize? The popular spot serves as a tribute to Floridians killed during the First World War. The Jacksonville Rotary Club was the park’s biggest backer as it was planned and built during the early Twenties.
Memorial is located two blocks east of the Five Points shopping district. It occupies a location formerly known as “the picnic ground,” where African American church congregations occasionally baptized members on the sandy riverbank. Memorial Park was designed by the Olmsted Brothers, sons of America’s foremost landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, who laid out New York’s Central Park and the gardens around Florida’s Singing Tower.
“Life,” the sculpture at the heart of the park, was created by renowned sculptor C. Adrian Pillars, who lived in St. Augustine from about 1919 to 1932. [His home and studio at 16 May Street, “The Pink Castle,” still stands as a St. Augustine landmark.] “Life” represents the best known work by Pillars. He also created two statues that grace Washington, D.C. One is of the Confederate general Edmund Kirby Smith, a St. Augustine native, and the other depicts Dr. John Gorrie, an Apalachicola resident often credited with laying the groundwork for refrigeration and air conditioning. Today, the sculpture is a much-beloved feature of the park, but when it debuted, its reception was anything but smooth.
SCANDALOUS! — Nowadays, the opening of a strip joint or adult video store might trigger a neighborhood uproar. About ninety years ago, it was a nude male statue in Riverside’s Memorial Park. The bronze image made its debut not long after World War I, or “The Great War,” as people called it prior to the even greater horrors of WWII. Unveiled on an overcast Christmas Day, 1924, “Life” depicted “the winged figure of youth,” a muscular character rising valiantly and victoriously above “the mad maelstrom of earthly passions.” Its message, though, flew over some heads of some Riverside residents. These critics felt that the figure’s undress proved too distracting, mocking community standards of decency. Although the statue is not nearly as graphic in detail as it could be, they believed that the figure went “the full monty,” in modern terms. Other opinions prevailed, however, and the sculpture has made its silent pleas for peace until today.
Surrounded by a fountain, “Life” memorializes the 1,200 soldiers from Florida who made the supreme sacrifice during the First World War. Two little girls unveiled the monument: Mary B. Burroughs was the niece of Edward Cantey DeSaussurre, killed in the Argonne Forest, and Mary Danto Bedell was the niece of Miss Bessie Gale, a YMCA worker who died on duty near Bordeaux, France. A St. Augustine sculptor, C. Adrian Pillars, began work on the statue in 1922. He drew inspiration from a sentimental war poem by soldier-poet Allan Seeger, a young New York native who enlisted in the French Foreign Legion and lost his life in WWI.
In spite of the statue’s obvious maleness, gossip claimed that a female had posed for most of it. Other rumors insisted that the model had been a driver for General John J. Pershing, the commander-in-chief of the American Expeditionary Force during WWI. Actually, the figure was based on the likeness of a 16-year-old high school football end from St. Augustine, Percy Reginald Palethorpe, Jr. His father, who hailed from England, was a retired busker, someone who sings, dances, or plays music in public, usually for donations. Percy’s mother was born in Kentucky, as was he. The 6’3”, 180 pound boy received $1 per hour for posing for “Life,” or about $10 in today’s money. Percy didn’t attend the unveiling. (Six years later, according to the 1930 census, he still lived in St. Augustine and worked as an engineer on a steam locomotive. He died in St. Johns County in 1965.)
The Memorial Park statue has proven quite popular, popping up on numerous postcards for several decades after its dedication. The monument is also depicted on the logo for RAP (Riverside Avondale Preservation). And it might’ve also inspired some Lee High School students who swam nude in its fountain during the mid-Thirties, according to George Hallam’s book Riverside Remembered.
During the spring of 2001, by the way, a five-foot replica of Michelangelo’s David sparked controversy in Lake Alfred, a Florida town near Lakeland. Some residents there objected to the unclothed masterpiece, which stood outside of a local business. The unhappy owner backed down, placing a loin cloth on the figure. The situation drew national attention.