Thursday, October 20, 2011

Permission sought for new John F Kennedy memorial in Birmingham

A planning application has been submitted to re-erect the President John F Kennedy memorial in Digbeth, Birmingham. The target date for unveiling has now been agreed as 29th May 2012 – the 95th anniversary of the birth of John F Kennedy.

The new location for the re-erecting of the John F Kennedy memorial is on the corner of Digbeth High Street and Floodgate Street. The planning application number is 2011/06383/PA.

I attended a meeting on Tuesday 18th October to finalise the design of the memorial, which I will explain in detail later in this note. At the meeting was Oliver Budd, son of Kenneth Budd who designed the 1968 memorial, a representative from the Irish Welfare Information Centre and various Council officers.

The History of the memorial

The memorial was originally located in the middle of St Chad’s Circus traffic roundabout in Birmingham city centre, next to the Roman Catholic cathedral of St Chad’s.

Originally unveiled on 8th July 1968 the memorial cost £5000, raised solely by public donation through the Birmingham Irish Catholic Committee..

The memorial remains one of only two in the United Kingdom dedicated to the memory of former President John F Kennedy. The other memorial is at Runnymede off the River Thames .

Whilst the Runnymede Kennedy memorial is widely known, the Birmingham Kennedy memorial has been largely forgotten. It is hoped the new high profile location in Digbeth will change that.

In hindsight, the St Chads Circus location was never suitable. It was hidden low down in the middle of a busy traffic roundabout, where the only way pedestrians could see it was by walking down some very dark and imitating pedestrian subways. For car drivers, it was only viewable by a quick sideways and downwards glance as you drove around St Chads Circus.

The original Birmingham memorial consisted of a number of elements, these being:

  • A 12metre long by 3metre high mosaic designed by Kenneth Budd (1925 – 1995) – I’ll provide further details on this mosaic below.
  • Two 2.55metre wide by 3metre high panels at either end of the Kenneth Budd mosaic. The panels were made of green quartzite stone. The panel at the left side of the mosaic (as seen if facing the mosaic) said “In tribute to John F Kennedy, President of the United States 1960-3”. The panel at the other end of the mosaic said "There are no white or coloured signs on the graveyards of battle". This quote was chosen by Kenneth Budd from memory and according to his notes subsequently could never find evidence of the actual quote. The actual quote is “there are no white or colored signs on the foxholes or graveyards of battle.” – so he was pretty close. The quote reflected the central theme of the mosaic of Kennedy’s attempt to integrate the black and white communities in the USA.
  • In front of the mosaic, was a still water feature which stretched the width of the mosaic. The water feature represented the Atlantic Ocean. The either end of the water feature was a small rockery which represented America and the British Isles.

The Kenneth Budd mosaic is the most important feature of this memorial. The mosaic contained the image of President John F Kennedy surrounded by a crowd of people of all creeds. Two of the faces in this crowd are Martin Luther King and Senator Edward Kennedy. Behind President Kennedy are images that represent parts of his Presidency. These include:

  • The United States Presidential Seal
  • The Cuban Crisis
  • His wife and First Lady, Jackie Kennedy

The central theme of the mosaic according to Kenneth Budd “should be Kennedy’s attempt to integrate the black and white communities, with some indication of the background of international strife, his Irish ancestry and family life.”

The mosaic was created in Kenneth Budd’s studio in Penge, South London. A full-scale drawing of the memorial was first created and hung on one of the walls of the studio. To get the pose of President Kennedy correct, Kenneth created a two thirds scale clay replica of Kennedy’s head. Both the model and drawing still exist in the studio, which is now run by his son Oliver in East Sussex.

Once the drawing of the mosaic was finalised it was protected with a polythene sheet and aluminium mesh was put over the drawing. The Smalti mosaic, imported from Italy, were then applied to the mesh with a flexible adhesive. Once completed, the aluminium mesh, complete with the mosaic was transported to St Chad’s Circus, Birmingham, where it was fixed to the walls.

The dismantling of the memorial in 2007

The entire memorial was dismantled in 2007, when St Chads Circus was reconstructed to form a ‘surface level only’ road junction.

The only parts of the Kennedy memorial that were salvaged were:

  • The face of President Kennedy
  • The face of Martin Luther King
  • Five faces from the crowd scene
  • The two green quartzite stone panels are either end of the mosaic.

Such small amounts of the mosaic were salvaged, since it was agreed with Oliver Budd, that it was easier and more cost effective to only salvage a small part of the mosaic. Oliver has the original drawings used by his father and will be able to make an exact replica of the 1968 mosaic.

The new Kennedy memorial in Digbeth

The new location for the memorial is at surface level, on top of a 1.5metre high plinth, easily viewable to pedestrians and car drivers. It is also a very high profile location, on one of major throughfares into the city centre. It is also in the city’s Irish Quarter and directly across the road from Birmingham Irish Centre.

The Kenneth Budd mosaic will be recreated exactly as it was in 1968.

The decision has been made not to re-used the original green quartzite stone panels are either end of the mosaic, but instead created new metal bookends. This decision has been agreed with Oliver Budd based on the following:

  • The total weight of the original green quartzite stone panels is 1.5 metic tonnes. There is concern that the bridge that the memorial is on will require strengthening to take this weight.
  • The original panels were designed as tombstones, with writing carved into stonework, since people were still mourning the death of John F Kennedy in 1968. The mood is now different and we are reflecting on the life of John F Kennedy.
  • The Irish community were not happy with the "There are no white or coloured signs on the graveyards of battle" quote, since it reflected more about what was happening in the USA in 1968, than on how the Irish community in Britain felt.

The following has been agreed:

The plinth will be constructed of stainless steel, with sections bolted on. The middle section will have engraved onto it an interpretation panel of the mosaic. At each end of the plinth will be a ‘Birmingham Irish roll of fame’ where Birmingham residents of Irish origin will be remembered.

The two new bookends will be constructed of corten steel, with the lettering cut out. The lettering will be highlighted in one of two ways to be finalised: stainless steel as a back plate, or an illuminated back screen

The letter on the left hand panel (as seen if facing the mosaic) will say “In tribute to John F Kennedy, President of the United States 1960-3”.

The quote for the right hand panel will contain a quote from one of John F Kennedy’s speeches and will be finalised by the Irish Welfare Information Centre. There is a debate ongoing as to whether the original quote "There are no white or coloured signs on the graveyards of battle" is still relevant.

The re-erection of the Kennedy memorial is being funded by Ballymore , the property developers behind the office development enabled by the new road layout at St Chad’s Circus.


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