Thanks to the current series on PBS by Ken Burns, America’s talking about the Vietnam War more than usual this month. If you want to see something distinctly local concerning the war effort, it’s pretty close at hand, in the front yard of the City County Building. Though I suspect days pass without anyone looking at it up close.
It was April, 1973. The Paris Peace Accords three months earlier had resulted in a cease-fire that ended U.S. combat involvement in the unpopular war, but there were still American forces in South Vietnam.
At first, the Knoxville statue was claimed to be the first Vietnam War memorial in America. It wasn’t. Still, in 1973, with the war still not wholly settled, Vietnam memorials were rare. Most cities didn’t have one.
Knoxville, under the administration of Mayor Kyle Testerman, needed something for a special occasion. Col. Norman C. Gaddis, a former Knoxvillian who after being captured on a bombing mission over North Vietnam had been a Prisoner of War for over five years, was coming home. McDonald’s hamburger tycoon Litton Cochran stepped forward to fund it, and the city contacted a local architecture firm called GSW, and asked them what they could come up with in a week or so. The folks at GSW weren’t sculptors, and certainly weren’t short-order sculptors, but they said they’d give it a try.
It was an interesting challenge. They came up with an idea that could be hastily executed, involving interlocking five flat pieces of marble that would form a three-dimensional structure. They ordered pieces of pink Tennessee marble from Candoro, which was still in business in Vestal, and had them cut to order.
What they came up with was a semi-abstract sculpture depicting an eagle, its head and beak the most recognizable part of the angular design. By some accounts, it was an eagle taking off. Others saw it as an eagle with a broken wing.
Knoxville’s Vietnam War Memorial stood on City Hall grounds—the front yard of what’s now Lincoln Memorial University Law School—for several years. It had already been there for two years when the last U.S. personnel withdrew from Vietnam, and casualties ended.
Just a few years later, city government found a new home in the City County Building. It had been front-page news in 1973, but after that the sculpture was forgotten about for a while. When Cochran expressed interest in re-installing it, he contacted modernist architect and artist Arnold Schwarzbart. The S in GSW, and part of the statue’s original design team, Schwarzbart was an immigrant originally from the Soviet Union who had moved to Knoxville with his family as a kid. GSW was no longer in business, and Schwarzbart was no longer working in architecture, but he took it on as a personal project.
Schwarzbart found the statue, or what was left of it, in pieces in the city garage. Dismayed to find it had been damaged in transit, irreparably in his view, he looked for the original plans for it, and didn’t find them. He did find a model, though, drew up his own plans based on that, and went back to Candoro—which was, fortunately, still in business—for some more pink Tennessee marble to reconstruct the Vietnam Memorial.
The memorial eagle finally landed in a permanent home in the City County Building’s sculpture garden, the slightly offset sunken sanctuary alongside the Main Street sidewalk. Since then, it’s had some company, in the form of an obelisk honoring, by name, everybody who was killed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and, more recently, a small bench with inscribed bricks honoring Knoxville murder victims.
Schwarzbart died in 2015, but his modern religious art has been the subject of an exhibit at the Arnstein Jewish Community Center.
People tend to be in a big hurry when they’re walking near the City County Building, but next time you’re on your way to a meeting on Main Street, allow yourself a little extra time to get there early and have a look at this unusual statue, with an unusual story behind it.