At the funeral of Deputy Fire Chief Charles W. Kruger in 1908, Bishop Henry Cadman Potter suggested that a monument be created in honor of the many firemen who lost their lives in the line of duty. A committee was formed and using a $40,000 grant from the Board of Estimate and more than $50,000 raised through private donations, sculptor Attilio Piccirilli and architect Harold Van Buren Magonigle were commissioned to design the memorial. The pair also worked on the Maine Monument at the Columbus Circle entrance to Central Park.
The Firemen’s Memorial was originally intended for the north end of Union Square, but is now located at 100th Street and Riverside Drive. The memorial itself is a 19 foot long by 8 foot wide sarcophagus erected on a granite plaza, with a fountain and a bronze bas-relief tablet portraying three galloping horses pulling a fire engine on the side facing the park. Symbolic marble sculptures representing the firefighter’s motto, Duty and Sacrifice, flank the sarcophagus; Sacrifice on the north end, Duty on the south. The figure of Duty is a mother seated next to a fire hydrant, holding a fire helmet and raincoat across her lap as she shelters her young son standing next to her. Sacrifice portrays a partially draped woman supporting the limp body of her husband, a fireman killed in the line of duty. Benches, a broad staircase, and a terrace overlooking Riverside Drive complete the design. Underneath the foundation of the monument is a small copper box containing letters from the architect as well as the badge and firebox key of Fire Chief Edward Croker,who saw Deputy Fire Chief Kruger fall into a blazing cellar in a Canal Street fire in 1908, the incident which inspired the monument. The memorial was completed in 1912. In 1927, the ASPCA added a second tablet to the sarcophagus in memory of fallen fire-horses.
By 1989, water seepage between the marble and its brick foundation had caused the large marble stones of the monument to shift and chip off most of the mortar holding them together. In the early 1990’s, NYC Parks & Recreation embarked on an ambitious $2.1 million restoration of the Firemen’s Memorial. In addition to water damage, graffiti, and the normal aging process, according to the architect in charge of the restoration, the original architect of the memorial neglected to include some important supports. In the course of restoring the monument, those supports were added, graffiti was removed, the landscape was rearranged for a better view of the Hudson River, and the fountain on the side of the monument was repaired. Riverside Park Conservancy Grassroots Volunteers maintain much of the landscaping on the Riverside Drive Island (97th – 104th Street) where the monument is located.
Every autumn, hundreds of New York City firefighters and their families crowd the streets surrounding the Firemen’s Monument at 100th Street and Riverside Drive. At this time, a memorial service is held to honor all the members of the department who died in the preceding year. The Department Medal of Valor and the Medal of Supreme Sacrifice are awarded to the families of those firefighters who died in the line of duty.