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Offner to Create Firefighters' Memorial
On March 10, 1941, 13 firefighters in Brockton, Massachusetts, lost their lives while attempting to douse the flames that razed the city’s historic Strand Theater. Though that tragedy represented one of the largest firefighter losses in the country -- the second largest until September 11, 2001 -- no monument or memorial has ever been created to honor those who died. The mayor’s office and the city’s firefighters want to change that.

When Elliot Offner, Andrew M. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and Art, received a visit last May from a troop of firefighters from Brockton, a suburban city south of Boston, he liked them right away.

Offner had been asked to assist the mayor’s office and the city’s firefighters in coordinating the creation of a monument to honor its 13 firefighters killed in the tragic Strand Theater fire, and the group had come to view some of Offner’s works.

“I had half the fire department here,” says Offner in his Hillyer Hall studio. “They were inspiring. My wife and I just love these guys.”
When the city asked Offner to consider creating a sculpture to honor the fallen firefighters, he accepted. After seeing a few renderings of the proposed sculpture, city officials settled on one with a lone, grieving firefighter sitting amid 13 empty helmets strewn about black granite steps.
“They claim they were thrilled with this drawing,” says Offner. “This has been a very moving experience.”
For now, the city is attempting to raise the funds necessary to create the work, soliciting residents and businesses in Brockton. Offner estimates it will take around $150,000 to pay for costs, such as a concrete base sheathed in granite with bronze sculptures.

Once a design is approved and funds are raised, the monument would take Offner about a year to complete, he says.

Offner, who serves as president of the National Sculpture Society, often accepts commissions from groups or people who have seen his works around the country. Some of his works are in the permanent collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., and the Brooklyn Museum. His public sculptures include the Holocaust Memorial at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York City and the National Association of Letter Carriers Monument in Milwaukee.
But the Brockton monument is different, he says. Anne McCormack ’88, an Ada Comstock Scholar and a former student of Offner’s who is the city’s director of cultural affairs, spearheaded the effort to involve him. His fondness for McCormack played a big part in Offner’s acceptance to create the memorial, he says. “Anne is a very nice person,” he says, “a wonderful person.”

Though it happened more than 60 years ago, the Strand Theater fire still evokes emotion among the city’s residents. The fire seemed under control, according to reports, until the roof and a balcony of the building collapsed, trapping the firefighters underneath. Twelve firefighters died in the fire, and another a few days later.

“When you talk to people who were alive at the time of the fire, they remember it as if it were yesterday,” said McCormack in the Brockton Enterprise newspaper. “The memorial will honor all former firefighters and those who are firefighters today.”

When completed, the Brockton memorial will be 17 feet long, 8.5 feet wide and more than 6 feet high. The city intends to construct the memorial near its City Hall building, which is close to where the Strand Theater once stood.

 
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