The years have not been kind to the “Memorial to Peabody Soldiers” by sculptor Frank Vittor. The sculpture of Victory is missing part of her arm and her laurel wreath. Photo by Ann Belser.

World War I hit Peabody High School hard.

The East Liberty school, which is now Obama Academy, had 4,000 students enrolled during the second decade of the 1900s. Five hundred of those young people were called to war and 16 of them were killed.

While other Pittsburgh high schools have plaques honoring the students who fought in what was then called “the Great War,” Peabody’s alumni went further and commissioned the “Memorial to Peabody Soldiers” by sculptor Frank Vittor to serve as the base of the school’s 100-foot flagpole at the North Highland Avenue site.

Time has not been kind to the war memorial.

The monument had a 3-foot granite base, and bronze plaques listing the 500 students who went off to war, with a center section containing the names of those who died overseas.

Above that, as it was dedicated in 1924, were six figures: Columbia, calling the young people to fight for their country; a young man going to join the fight while his mother embraces him before he goes; a returning soldier who is about to be crowned with laurels by Victory, who is clutching the wreath in her hand; and Immortality, who is mourning the deaths of those who did not return from the fight.

The returning soldier in the “Memorial to Peabody Soldiers” no longer faces the street, the flagpole is missing (which has allowed water to cause the sculpture to deteriorate), and the 3-foot granite base is now covered by concrete. Photo by Ann Belser.

Now 99 years old, Victory is missing her arm and her wreath is gone, the bronze is severely oxidized, the flagpole is gone and the granite base, if it remains, is encased in the concrete risers that create an outdoor classroom. The monument is now even facing backward. Previously, the returning young soldier, who is holding a sword, was facing the street. Now he is facing the wall of the high school.

But the monument to the boys lost from Peabody High School has found an unlikely champion: James Hill, who calls himself a proud Schenley Spartan, wants to restore the Peabody monument to its former glory in time for its centennial.

Hill’s high school alma mater is now apartments, but the boxes of records that make up the remains of Schenley reside at Obama Academy.

The “Memorial to Peabody Soldiers” by sculptor Frank Vittor was dedicated in 1924. Photo courtesy of Preservation Pittsburgh.

“I’ve come to love it,” he says about his former school’s rival. “It’s a secret architectural crime what they did to the school in the ’70s.”

One of those architectural crimes was to cover the high school’s main entrance. That also left the monument, which was central to the approach to the school, off to the side when a new main entrance was built.

“I’ve been staring at this war memorial for 15 years,” Hill says. “It has been sitting there oxidizing. Next year is its 100th anniversary.”

Hill, who is also a member of the City of Pittsburgh’s Historic Review Commission, is working with Preservation Pittsburgh to raise the $100,000 needed to restore the monument, including recasting Victory’s arm and wreath, cleaning and restoring damage to the bronze that occurred over time, replacing the flagpole, and designing landscaping that would include the area’s existing mature trees to provide a shady spot for students.

Hill is not the first to raise money for the restoration of the sculpture. A few years ago, Robert Creo, a 1970 graduate of Peabody High School, raised a few thousand dollars. Hill says that money will be put toward the restoration.

The money also will replace the flagpole and relocate the statue so that it faces the right way. Hill says some of the damage to the bronze has come from inside the statue because the loss of the flagpole left a hole in the top that allows water and snow to seep inside the structure.

The “Memorial to Peabody Soldiers” by sculptor Frank Vittor was dedicated in 1924 and includes figures of a mother embracing her son before he joins the fight. Photo by Ann Belser.

“It’s such a beautiful piece,” Hill says about the Peabody war memorial, which he calls the most significant piece of public art at any of Pittsburgh’s public schools.

Vittor also created the sculpture of Honus Wagner that stands outside of PNC Park, as well as the statue of Christopher Columbus, which remains covered in Schenley Park while the city decides what to do with it.

Hill says he was framing photographs from Peabody yearbooks to hang in the school when he saw the memorial dedication in the 1924 yearbook, which alerted him to the centennial.

And so he says he is left wondering, “What made those children at Peabody go so much further than anybody else did? What made the kids at Peabody go to this Nth degree? Frank Vittor? He was very renowned at that time.”

At the bottom of the plaque that contains the names of the 16 students who were killed, is the quote “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” which is taken from the Roman poet Horace and means “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”

Or as Hill says, “That’s a lot of heaviness to put on one’s children.”

Ann Belser is the owner of Print, a newspaper covering Pittsburgh's East End communities. After receiving a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she moved to Squirrel Hill and was a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 20 years where she covered local communities, county government, courts and business.