A Cultural History of
Outdoor Sculpture in
The Nation's Capital

Hames M. Goode
(Johns Hopkins)
Editor Goode tells us there are over 500 outdoor sculptures in Washington, D. C. although at times it may seem like there are many more. He is generous, though, for he not only includes the equestrian statues and those national heroes with swords and busts, he brings in cemeteries, inner courtyards, hidden nooks ... and parts of Virginia and Maryland, too.

They are gathered in this definitive volume, all are given at least one picture (sometimes several angled shots) and the whole weighs in at a ton or so (the book, not the busts). Washington Sculpture runs almost 800 pages.

It's a heroic effort and it is hard to stop leafing through it to see what other silly figures are to be commemorated in the traffic circles, parks, courtyards, sidewalks, cemeteries ... and sometimes right out on the city streets. One is tempted to try to make sense of all these colonnades and fountains and memorials and the only way I could figure out to do it was to list them by official scientific category:

  • MOST OBSCURE #2: "Privilegium Obligatio" (Justice Department Building). The translation is, roughly, "Where there is a privilege, there is an obligation." God wot that the likes of John Ashcroft and John Mitchell studied this pediment daily: alas, to no avail.
  • MOST CONFUSED: The Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial (West Potomac Park). Oscar Wilde said that the problem with participatory democracy was that "it took too many evenings." Evidently the design of the Roosevelt Memorial was democracy with a vengeance: it took sixty-two years to complete, and it's a hodge-podge, spread over four open-air "rooms," taking up altogether too much space. This book devotes ten pages (502 - 512) trying to explain it all, and one turns with relief to page 513 to find
  • MOST BUSTY: The Ericsson Monument (Independence Avenue). "Vision," "Adventure," and "Labor" --- all ample in the mammary department --- peer out over three directions from a high platform. The Swedish inventor John Ericsson huddles in a chair below, clutching his jacket to him, in the frigid Washington winter.
  • MOST BORING: Roof (National Gallery of Art). Nine domes. Four hundred tons. If you are in the gallery during an earthquake, "Roof" will most probably brain you.
  • MOST POMPOUS: General John A. Logan (Logan Circle). We labored long and hard over this one, because sometimes it may seem oxymoronic to look for a statue in Washington D. C. that could call "pompous." But we think, in all fairness, that Logan takes the cake.
  • MOST LURID: Wedlock (Lafayette Center). Nothing filmy or shy about this one --- completed in 1980. The two figures evidently Just Married loom up almost twenty feet above the bemused spectator.
  • MOST TO BE MISSED: Capital Garage Automobile and Tire (Capital Garage). An Art Deco relief panel from 1926 with ancient car radiator grille and headlights, perched on a winged tire. The building was razed in 1974 by Parking Management, Inc. Thanks, Parking Management.
  • LEAST TO BE MISSED #1: The Discoverer (Central portico, U. S. Capitol). Columbus is shown striding forth in a suit of armor as a shy Indian maiden "shrinks back in surprise." Fortunately Columbus was dismantled and hauled away and hidden, which he should have been from the first.
  • LEAST TO BE MISSED #2: Noyes Armillary Sphere (Meridian Hill Park). Nine cast-iron spheres, representing the great circles of the heavens (with a tiny angel in the middle). Was taken away for repair in 1980 by the National Park Service and it disappeared; just like that, vanished, poof.
  • MOST CRYPTIC: Ascension (George Washington University, Ashburn, Virginia). Several bars of stainless steel welded together in apparently hapless and random disorder.
  • SILLIEST #1: Bearing Witness (Ronald Reagan Building). Looks like the top of a shoe-horn. A forty-foot shoe-horn.
  • SILLIEST #2: "Herb and Muggs" (Herdon, Virginia). According to the notes, "Herb" was Herbert N. Morgan, Chairman of the Board of Webb-Sequoia Co. "Muggs" was his beloved dog. Herb is throwing a Frisbee, Muggs is catching it. Evidently Muggs sat in on the board meetings too. Thus great corporate decisions were made.
  • MOST CHARMING: Cap't Geo Mumford Gravestone (Christ Church Graveyard). This is graved in stone. Mumford looks like someone sat on his head. His gaze is solemn. He rests on the outline of a scythe.
  • WORST SCALE: General Dwight Eisenhower (Alexandria, Virginia). All six feet of him on a four-foot pedestal, looking earnest and boring, as indeed he was.
  • MOST DISNEYESQUE: Whitney Museum Eagle (U. S. Court of Appeals Building). Eagle-on-Wheels.
  • MOST BEFUDDLED: Epoch (9th and G Streets, NW). Sheer confetti.
  • MOST EXASPERATED FACE: Thomas Jefferson (Jefferson Memorial).
  • MOST SERENE FACE: Masonic Sphinx of Wisdom (Scottish Rite Temple).
  • --- Richard Saturday
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