Thursday, February 25, 2010

They Got Lincoln . . . Again and Again

Months ago I wrote of my surprise at seeing an exact replica of Chicago’s Standing Lincoln across the street from The Houses of Parliament. No altruistic act is simple, straightforward or without conflict, but the partnership that was formed between England and the United States to place Lincoln’s statue on London’s Parliament Square would have made Basil Fawlty and his crew look like five-star innkeepers.

By way of review . . . way, way outside the empire, back in provincial Chicago, old Eli Bates kicked off in 1881 and left enough money behind to erect a statue of Abraham Lincoln. Augustus Saint-Gaudens, an Irish immigrant and the foremost sculptor of his day, conceived and executed the work, which was dedicated in 1887 and which still stands at the head of Dearborn Street in Lincoln Park.

To get to London, though, we have to go by way of Cincinnati, a city that had a fair shot at becoming the mid-continental superstar, if only the City with the Big Shoulders hadn’t muscled all the other players out of the way by getting the canal built first, hogging the title of Stacker of Wheat and Player with Railroads.

Just as old Eli Bates had done in Chicago, a wealthy Cincinnati department store and hotel owner, Frederick H. Alms, left a $100,000 legacy to place a statue of Lincoln in a place of prominence to honor the centennial of Lincoln’s birth n 1809. Mrs. Alms established a committee of five influential Cincinnati citizens to choose a sculptor.

Everyone agreed on George Grey Barnard – except for Mrs. Alms, who wanted her husband’s gift to underwrite the work of Gutzon Borglum. But what does a woman, especially a woman stricken with grief, know about such things? Borglum only went on to wrest Mount Rushmore from the Dakota badlands.

As The New York Times reported on December 17, 1910 . . . “Rather than have any further wrangling over who should give to the City of Cincinnati a monument to Abraham Lincoln, Mr. and Mrs. Charles P. Taft, the former a brother of President Taft, volunteered on Thursday to give the $100,000 necessary for that purpose.”

Barnard, the beneficiary of Taft’s generosity, was born in Kankakee, trained at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Ecole de Beaux-Arts in Paris and, like Saint-Gaudens 20 years earlier, had found success in a conspicuous space, having finished the sculptural work for the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg.

Once chosen to execute the important work, Barnard’s plan was to sculpt Lincoln in a way that portrayed the president as a workingman who had risen to greatness. In a sense the work was to be about the country as much as it was the president – a country in which even a farm boy from the hinterlands of Illinois could become the head of state. So the statue, necessarily, was as much prairie farm boy as it was savior of the union.

It wasn’t until March of 1917 that the benefactor’s brother, the former President of the United States, William Howard Taft, unveiled the statue in Cincinnati. In the elation that ensued Charles Taft made an announcement that he would pay for a replica of Barnard’s Lincoln, that statue to be sent to London where it would stand outside the Houses of Parliament.

The former President’s brother had reason to believe that his gift would be accepted. Some years earlier the American Peace Centenary Committee had been established to figure out ways in which the hundred years of peace between the United States and Britain, formalized in the Treaty of Ghent in 1814, could be celebrated.

Anticipating that the love you take is equal to the love you make, the American and British Peace Centenary Committees agreed to mark the century long love-in by exchanging statues. Saint-Gaudens’ Standing Lincoln, the work of Augustus Saint Gaudens, was chosen for America’s gift, and the British government agreed to provide a site in Parliament Square between Westminster Abbey and the House of Parliament. For its placement. []

But World War I interrupted the plans, and Standing Lincoln didn’t make it across the pond. And this is where the last and most amazing part of They Got Lincoln, Again and Again begins.

Monday, February 22, 2010

No Right Turn

For the first time in our lives, Jill and I have spent January and most of February in the tropics, bunking down beneath the palm trees on Florida’s Treasure Coast. The weather was unseasonably cold, and Floridians were on high alert, guarding against the almost certain hypothermia brought on by nighttime temperatures in the high 40’s.

Weather forecasters, especially, were in freak-out mode. Each newscast brought an updated set of reminders. Keep your pets indoors. Watch how you use those space heaters. Outfit the car with survival gear in case of breakdown.

Still, almost every day the sky was a deep blue and the sun was shining. As I tried to explain to almost anyone who would listen, warm weather is unimportant if you’ve got a shot at wearing shorts and a short sleeve shirt and standing in the sunshine. They’ve got that going for them down there in the Land of the Hanging Chad . . . it’s a rare day when you can leave the sunglasses on the wicker whatnot as you head out the door.

Anyway, we were showing houseguests around the area just south of the Gulfstream Gulf Club, coming into Delray Beach, when the onboard navigator told me that I needed to turn right on George Bush Boulevard, a street on which, as it turned out, a turn to the right was the only option.

Which I did.

Turned to the right, that is. Onto George Bush Boulevard. In broad daylight.

Me. One of only 17 people in the entire United States of America who voted for both Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.

At that point I knew it was time to start thinking about coming back to the frozen northland.

Which we did.

But not until we watched the televised implosion of the 30-story hurricane-wrecked condo building up on Flagler Drive. As the dust settled and the wealthiest five percent walked their jewelry back into the adjoining properties, we loaded up the car and headed out of town.

It took the better part of three days to cover the 1300-plus miles between the land of the foolish grin and Chicago. Three days on the interstate system through Gainesville and Atlanta, on through Chattanooga and Nashville and Bowling Green and Indianapolis.

Georgia, among other things, is the Imperial Valley of billboards. Jill spotted the best one, an advertisement for dental implants . . . two words, 50 feet tall . . .


Tennessee is mercifully free of outdoor advertising, but the waterfalls of ice frozen all along the mountain passes above Chattanooga were enough for Jill to start snapping cell phone photos. The session continued until I suggested that we were traveling at 75-miles-an-hour through heavy shade, and odds were not in favor of an Ansel Adams day.

The rolling hills and pastures of Kentucky, so lovely in the summer, are largely forgettable in the winter.

And Indiana, well, Indiana, in summer or winter, is . . . Indiana. There is a moment of excitement when you pass Seymour, but even with Little Pink Houses, it’s still Indiana.

Then, finally, as the sun dropped closer and closer to the horizon we were through what historian William Cronon called “the sweet pungent odor that was Gary.”

Cronon opened his book, Nature’s Metropolis, with a description of a similar entry into Chicago. A long car ride – his was as a child traveling in the backseat on a trip from southern New England to Wisconsin – and then after all those miles . . . the Big City.

His child’s impression was of how brutish it all was. “Chicago,” he writes, “represented all that was most unnatural about human life. Crowded and artificial, it was a cancer on an otherwise beautiful landscape.”

I thought of those words as we surged out of the toll booth on the Skyway, after giving a few ducats to help out our Australian and Spanish brothers with their 99-year lease. We crossed the Calumet River and, with the skies around us darkening, off in the distant northeast was the bright and shining giant, the City of Big Shoulders.

The blue-tinted crispness of its glass and steel buildings stood in high contrast to the blurred smudge of soot and grime that we were driving over. It was like reaching down for another fistful of popcorn while watching the beginning of The Wizard of Oz and looking up to find that the film was filled with fantastic colors.

A dozen miles later, the sun set as we rolled down Lake Shore Drive and across the Chicago River.

We were home.

Back in a big, beautiful, ass-busting city, a place with a guarantee that you will never have to turn right onto George Bush Boulevard.