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George Keller: the Irish-American architect behind Hartford’s Civil War memorial

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In a season that will see tens of thousands across the breadth and width of the country don their green and process through city streets, honoring their Irish heritage and that country’s patron saint, one is apt to consider the various ways in which past generations of Irish immigrants in America have contributed to the development of their adopted land. For one such immigrant named George Keller, originally from County Cork, his legacy is evident throughout the city of Hartford in the many public buildings and monuments he created during his renowned career as a civic architect.

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Famine

During the 1840s, famine ravaged the island of Ireland, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million, and the emigration of an additional 2 million people. It was during this period that eight-year-old George Keller’s family would decide, like many of their fellow countrymen, to depart for America’s shores. He later recalled, ‘the times grew bad and from bad to worse, so the family decided to venture to America.’ However, for Keller and his younger brother John, the move would be delayed for two years.

Left behind

To make the transition to American life easier, it was agreed upon that the two junior members of the family would remain with relatives in Cork, until their expenses for passage could be procured. After their parents had secured the appropriate funds, word was sent that the two young boys were to join their family in America. After an arduous trip across the Atlantic on a ship known as the ‘St. Lawrence’, ten-year-old George Keller arrived at the port of New York City, anxious to reunite with his family and begin a new life in his adopted country.

Life in Hartford

After a brief stint as an engineer at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, Keller accepted the invitation of a Hartford entrepreneur, J.G. Batterson, to join his architectural firm as a designer. The young Keller, at twenty-two years of age, would call the capital city home for the remainder of his life. Despite the cordial nature of his relationship with Batterson, and the respect shown for his abilities, the anti-Irish sentiment of the times was not lost upon the young Keller. In one incident described in his reminisces, Keller feared he would lose his job after coming to verbal blows with a local politician who had stopped into Batterson’s office. He noted, ‘The politician spoke so infamously of the Irish in America that it roused my ire…I could stand his calumnies no longer, and broke out on him, saying I am an Irishman, and am morally, mentally and physically your superior!’ However, instead of chastising his young designer, Batterson and the others in the office broke into a fit of laughter. Batterson later confided to his brother that it was this incident that led him to believe that Keller possessed the hardiness to succeed in such a competitive market.

The Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch

In 1879, at a Hartford town meeting, a motion was put forward seeking the construction of a monument in honor of the soldiers and sailors from the city that had fought and died in the Civil War. Despite the initial enthusiasm, it would be a couple of years before the idea would come to fruition. However, in 1881 it was decided that in accordance with the common practice of the times, a competition to design the memorial would be advertised.

Exclusion and resolution

Upon hearing of the competition, Keller became offended that the committee had not sought his expertise, given his national renown for such projects. He vowed not to enter the competition, which went on as planned. Upon its conclusion, it was agreed that of the top three designs, none could be completed within the allotted budget of $60,000. Acknowledging his capability to create a suitable monument within the budget, Keller was informed by the secretary of the committee that the best way to procure an invitation to work on the project was simply to come forward and ask. Keller immediately offered his services and the project began to take form.

Architectural structure

Incorporating a number of factors that would decrease costs, Keller designed an arch that drew from a number of stylistic influences. Reflecting this diversity, visitors may notice what can be described as elements of a Greek frieze and a pointed Gothic-Roman arch connecting two Norman castle towers. The frieze, which stretches across the width of the arch, symbolically conveys the story of the war. On the northern side, the frieze is characterized by elements of conflict, contrasted on the southern side by images representing the end of the war and subsequent return of troops to Hartford. Additionally, six statues situated upon the two towers attempt to represent the varying demographics of Hartford’s Civil War participants. The figures include the ‘Farmer’, the ‘Blacksmith’, the ‘Mason’, the ‘Student’, the ‘Carpenter’, and the ‘Merchant’, which was later changed by Keller to an African American. With the exception of the African American, who is depicted breaking the chains of bondage and holding a slate with the alphabet, all of the figures are shown in transitional poses symbolizing their move from civilian to military life.

The remains of Keller

In what was possibly a lingering effect of the horrific scenes of death witnessed as a boy during the famine in Ireland, Keller’s wife once noted that he possessed a great ‘horror of cemeteries’. This aversion led Keller to conclude that in death, he would like his remains to reside outside of a traditional burial plot. Recognized as his favorite of the many public structures that he had designed, the arch was chosen as the depository for Keller’s earthly remains. Behind an unassuming iron door in the east tower are interned the ashes of both Keller and his wife.

St. Patrick’s Day

It is only appropriate that every March as the city of Hartford turns out to celebrate all things Irish on parade day, that the final stretch of the traditional route sees marchers turn left on Ford Street and proceed through the memorial arch that serves as both one of Keller’s finest works, and his final resting place.

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