The April 16, 2015 Preservation Cafe featured conservator and Capitol Hill neighbor, Justine P. Bello. Justine conserves and restores architecture, sculpture and monuments both around Washington, DC and around the country. This month’s talk focused on the public monuments of Capitol Hill.
Justine briefly introduced the topic of public monuments at large, a vast subject with a long and colorful history extending to ancient Greece, Rome and beyond. Washington, DC boasts an unusually large number of public works of art in a variety of materials (aluminum, steel, stone) and typologies (mural, sculpture, etc). The majority of public monuments in this city are bronze sculptures, which was a focus of this talk.
Justine selected four examples of bronze monuments around Capitol Hill that, although united by their common material, demonstrated a range of subject matter, style and message. These include: the Nathanael Greene monument in Stanton Park; the proposed Francis Marion “Swamp Fox” monument, for possible installation in Marion Park; the Mary McLeod Bethune monument in Lincoln Park; and the Grant Memorial at the far eastern terminus of the National Mall.
Justine described the Nathanael Greene as a prototypical “equestrian” monument of a military figure in a heroic pose, towering over park-goers. Many are surprised to learn that a park named after a Civil War-era secretary of war (Edwin Stanton) hosts a sculpture of a Revolutionary War-era officer! Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox,” is another Revolutionary War figure but his future on Capitol Hill is hazy at best. Since the idea for this monument was first publicized, the monument has received some public support but its fair share of criticism from concerned citizens. Arguments against the monument include critiques of Marion for fighting against Native Americans in the French and Indian War and for being a slave owner; others simply do not want to cede any portion of their modestly-sized neighborhood park to a monument at all.
Justine contrasted these two monuments with the Mary McLeod Bethune monument in Lincoln Park. The newest monument of the four, completed in 1974, the monument celebrates a female African American educator, organizer and political activist. Depicted with two children, the composition is highly fluid and textural and thoroughly modern in comparison with the more traditional heroic male monuments.
Finally, Justine addressed the Grant Memorial: a large-scale, highly complex and visually stirring memorial at the foot of the Capitol. Also fairly non-traditional, especially for the time of its construction (1902-1922), the Memorial depicts an equestrian Grant who is war-weary but still dignified. Justine showed how the cavalry and artillery sculpture groups depict the chaos and tumult of war. Justine added the sad post-script that after working on the memorial for 20 years its sculptor, Henry Merwin Shrady, died a mere 15 days before its dedication.
Justine’s talk highlighted the grandeur and the modesty, the beauty and the sadness of the public monuments on Capitol Hill.