A Tribute to AIDS Victims

By Carl-Johan Henry Karlsson


In the shadow of the old St. Vincent’s Hospital stands an 18-foot steel monument painted in white. It is the New York City AIDS memorial site,  dedicated on World AIDS Day on December 1, as a tribute to the more than 100,000 New York City men, women and children who have died from AIDS, and to the people who fought vigorously to defeat the crisis.

The memorial sits at the gateway to a new public park adjacent to the former St. Vincent’s Hospital, which housed the city’s first and largest AIDS ward. The hospital was the epicenter of the disease during the 1980s, and has figured in dramatic plays and films such as “The Normal Heart” and “Angels in America”  that tell the story of the plague that haunted New York.

“It was important that the memorial was built here,” said memorial co-founder Christopher Tepper. “So many people went here to die or to get treated. It also became kind of a community center where people would come to visit their loved ones.”

After he read “And the Band Played On,” a famous book that chronicles the spread of the HIV virus, Tepper said he decided to take action, alongside fellow urban planner Paul Kelterborn, and build a memorial to the victims of the virus.

In November 2011, Tepper and his colleague launched an international design competition to generate ideas for the  memorial park design. Out of the nearly 500 architectural firms from around the world that submitted designs, Brooklyn-based Studio a+i won the contest. The result is a white canopy structure comprised of three intricate triangles, under which a beautiful granite circular island glazed with a thin surface of running water marks the center.

At night, the ceiling’s spotlights illuminate the sheltered venue, where black paver stones engraved with a spiral shaped text from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” cover the ground.  Squeezed into the pointy tip marking the very end of the monument, the last line of the text reads “Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, Missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you.”

“One of the beauties of the text selection is that it was from someone who was LGBT and lived way before the AIDS epidemic,” Tepper said, “But the work is really a celebration of the human existence — he speaks as a man, as a woman, as a child. Ultimately it’s about the beauty of life.”

The total cost for the memorial, including an endowment for maintenance and programming, is over $6 million. Approximately $4 million came from city and state public sources, with the remaining funds contributed by generous private donors. Their names are found engraved on the memorial’s stone benches.

Tepper and Kelterborn will continue to raise money for public programming, such as traditional tours, education and partnerships with other organizations. The architects didn’t want to create a sculpture that people would eventually forget, but a destination where people can gather to reflect and learn.

“Back in 81, we didn’t have this acceptance, and there were a lot of people who died alone in that hospital,” said Eric Sawyer, who sits on the memorial’s board. “Families would abandon them because they had AIDS. As a long-term survivor of HIV, and someone who has had a lot of friends die in St. Vincent, it means a lot to have a monument that will make people remember them and pay tribute to their lives.”