The pedestal of the flagpole
An aerial photograph taken in 1944 of the flagpole at the center of Union Square Park
Charles F. Murphy (1858-1924). Photograph taken in 1912.
Backstory and Context
Charles Francis Murphy was born to Irish-Catholic immigrant parents on June 20, 1858 in New York City’s East Side. He received some formal education before the family’s dire financial situation forced him to find employment. The young Murphy held various odd jobs before eventually becoming a horse-drawn trolley driver, a position given to him by Tammany. Over the course of two years, he worked diligently and saved $500. Murphy used the money to open a saloon at East 19th Street and Avenue A, which became a popular gathering place for dockworkers and other workingmen. By 1890, Murphy was the owner of four successful saloons. His charity work (he sponsored baseball and rowing teams) and good reputation in the community garnered him a political following. In 1892, Murphy became the Tammany leader for the Gas House District and, several years later, a dock commissioner, a position from which he profited handsomely. In 1902, when Richard Croker resigned, Murphy became the leader of Tammany Hall, a position he held until his sudden, unexpected death on April 25, 1924.
Soon after his death, Tammany moved to dedicate a memorial in honor of its longtime boss. The location that the society chose for the memorial was Union Square Park, adjacent to the site of its new headquarters at Union Square East and Seventeenth Street. James A. Foley, Murphy’s son-in-law and surrogate, suggested that the memorial not be a statue, for fear that it would draw public criticism because it would place Murphy on equal footing with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and the Marquis de Lafayette, who already had bronze statues in the park. Tammany circumvented the problem by settling on a flagpole, a type of memorial erected by the political machine in previous years. Subsequent public opposition to any memorial to Murphy in Union Square Park, however, led Tammany to abandon its original plan. Instead, the political machine reconceived the project as a commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Tammany commissioned Italian-born sculptor Anthony de Francisci to design the flagpole and decorative features, and architect Perry Coke Smith to design the pedestal and small surrounding plaza.
In the late 1920s, subway construction delayed the project further. To accommodate the construction of a new underground platform, the park was entirely demolished. Fortunately, Union Square Park was redesigned and reopened soon after. Dedicated on July 4, 1930, the flagpole became the new center of the park. Composed of a steel core with a copper sheathing, the flagpole rests on a massive granite pedestal. Two bronze bas-reliefs and two bronze plaques featuring the text of the Declaration of Independence, emblems from the thirteen original colonies, and allegorical figures representing democracy and tyranny adorn the pedestal. Capping the flagpole was a liberty cap finial, a symbol of Tammany Hall.
By the 1980s, Union Square Park had fallen into disrepair and become a popular gathering place for drug dealers. The flagpole had been toppled and the bas-reliefs and plaques on the granite pedestal had become covered in moss. During the decade, however, the park underwent major renovations. In 1987, the flagpole was restored. The restoration came with not only a hefty price tag, but also a minor change: the original liberty cap finial was replaced with a gilded sunburst.
Huthmacher, J. Joseph. "Charles Evans Hughes and Charles Francis Murphy: The Metamorphosis of Progressivism." New York History 46, no. 1 (January 1965): 25-40.
"Independence Flagstaff." New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. The City of New York. Web. 11 January 2021 <https://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/union-square-park/monuments/766>.
Merwood-Salisbury, Joanna. Design for the Crowd: Patriotism and Protest in Union Square. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2019.
Miller, Tom. "The Independence Flagpole - Union Square." Daytonian in Manhattan: The Stories Behind the Buildings, Statues and Other Points of Interest that Make Manhattan Fascinating. <http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/2017/07/the-independence-flagpole-union-square.html>.