A statue of a strong, fearless woman—the Roman goddess of arts and war, Minerva—stands at Brooklyn’s highest point. She wears armor decorated with snakes and a helmet that puts Julius Caesar’s to shame. But perhaps her most compelling characteristic is the angle of her gaze. Her eyes lock with that of another legendary woman, the Statue of Liberty, who stands tall some three and a half miles away in New York Harbor. The two sculptures have a special relationship—one that is currently in danger of being broken.
“I don’t know of another relationship like this that exists between two sculptures,” explains Jeff Richman, the resident historian at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, where Minerva is located. “But it’s not just the connection between their eyes and their gestures that makes it unique. It’s also the interaction between two historic statues—who also happen to be women—commemorating two incredibly important historical moments.”
The Statue of Liberty, as many of us know, was a gift from France to the United States. Erected in 1886, it was unveiled with fanfare to commemorate the 100th anniversary of U.S. emancipation from British rule in 1776. Since then, she’s become one of the most symbolically powerful statues the world has ever seen, inextricably linked with the country’s pledge of “liberty and justice for all.” The 151-foot-tall copper figure has also been a galvanizing emblem for immigrants the world over—a piece of art that symbolizes democracy and served to welcome those who arrived in the U.S. through New York’s Ellis Island, as they entered a new home they heard was filled with opportunities that had eluded them elsewhere.
When Charles Higgins, an Irish immigrant turned prominent Brooklyn businessman, conceived of Minerva, he had Lady Liberty—and a statue’s power to bring awareness to history—in mind. At the time, in the early 1900s, Higgins lived not far from Brooklyn’s Battle Hill, the land on which the Battle of Brooklyn—the first and biggest Revolutionary War battle after the signing of the Declaration of Independence—took place in 1776.
But according to Higgins, this historic tract (then, and still, owned by the sprawling Green-Wood Cemetery, where the likes of inventor Samuel Morse, composer Leonard Bernstein, and painter
rest) wasn’t getting the recognition it deserved. “Higgins was an Irish-American and immigrant who took tremendous pride in the American story, and he was kind of depressed that the people in Brooklyn didn’t share his enthusiasm for preserving battlefield land and the story of this pivotal historical event,” Richman says. “He ultimately got fed up with the lack of support he was getting for the cause, so he took matters into his own hands.”
It was then that Higgins decided to purchase 10 plots of Green-Wood’s most coveted real estate: the highest point in Brooklyn and the site of one of the most important moments in New York history. There, he’d forge his family mausoleum and, more importantly, honor the site’s past with a statue that would not only commemorate the battle, but also connect it to its more prominent sister, the Statue of Liberty.