Arts and Leisure

William Wetmore Story Tries To Save the Washington Monument

When the unfinished Washington Monument was still but an eyesore on the National Mall, William Wetmore Story tried to prevent it from becoming an example of American bad taste.

The Washington Monument about 1860

The Washington Monument about 1860

Story was the Massachusetts-born son of a famous American judge. He had given up a promising law career to become a sculptor in Rome.

He visited the United States in 1877, when controversy raged over what to do with the Washington Monument. Story had the best solution, but it was ignored.

How the Washington Monument came to sit on the Mall like a tree stump for 20 years is a story about changing tastes and rage against immigrants.

Washington Monument

Robert Mills' original design for the Washington Monument

Robert Mills’ original design for the Washington Monument

Work had begun on the Washington Monument in 1848 after $28,000 was raised for its construction. Architect Robert Mills designed it as an obelisk surrounded by a circular colonnade, with a statue of George Washington on top of it – in a chariot.

Hatred of immigrants — back then, German and Irish — stopped the project in 1854 when the obelisk reached 152 feet.

In the early morning hours of March 6, 1854, a memorial stone contributed by Pope Pius IX, called the pope’s stone, was destroyed by anti-Catholic Know Nothings. By then, money had run out for the Monument, and Congress refused to pay to finish it amidst the Know-Nothing controversy.

Work stopped for nearly two decades. In 1868,  Mark Twain commented it looked like an

ungainly old chimney that…is of no earthly use to anybody else, and certainly is not in the least ornamental. It is just the general size and shape, and possesses about the dignity, of a sugar-mill chimney… It is an eyesore to the people. It ought to be either pulled down or built up and finished.

Congress agreed to pay to finish it in 1876, and new designs were considered. Some people thought the monument should be left as an obelisk. Mills objected, saying it would then look like a stalk of asparagus.

William Wetmore Story

washington monument William_Wetmore_Story_-_Brady-HandyBorn in Salem, Mass., on Feb. 12, 1819, William Westmore Story was the son of U.S. Supreme Court justice Joseph Story and his second wife, Sarah Waldo Wetmore. Justice Story wrote the opinion freeing kidnapped African-Americans in the Amistad case.

William Wetmore Story earned a law degree from Harvard in 1840, but eight years later abandoned the law to become a sculptor. He moved to Rome in 1850, where he was considered a modern Michelangelo.

Story's design for the Washington Monument.

Story’s design for the Washington Monument.

While in Rome, he carved a bust of his father now at Harvard and a life-size statue of Cleopatra, which Nathaniel Hawthorne described with admiration in The Marble Faun. In 1877 he returned to the United States and gave a series of lectures about art on the East Coast.

After his Washington lecture, he was asked to testify about the Washington Monument before the Senate Committee on Public Buildings.

He told the committee that ‘persons qualified to pronounce judgment’ disliked the Mills design. He suggested modifying the memorial so it would be an ornament to the city.

Two Colors

“We believe the nation has now escaped the peril of having that structure made a huge specimen of American bad taste,” wrote one reporter.

Story proposed instead encasing the obelisk in marble, putting a portico at the base with a statue of Washington on one side and a statue of Liberty on the other.

The Washington National Monument Society concluded his design seemed ‘vastly superior in artistic taste and beauty’ to the obelisk.

America would be stuck with the obelisk. Wrote Mary Elizabeth Phillips in Reminiscences of William Wetmore Story, Congressmen had

pledged themselves beyond recall to the monumental work already in progress — an Egyptian obelisk — between which and George Washington it is difficult to discover any connection whatever.

Workmen above the 152-foot mark.

Workmen above the 152-foot mark.

Work on the Washington Monument resumed in 1878. Rock from a different quarry was used, so the monument is colored slightly differently above the 152-foot mark. It’s been called a testimony to anti-immigrant rage.

Another Story statue does sit on the National Mall: his statue of Joseph Henry, the scientist who served as the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.  His statue of Col. William Prescott stands in Charlestown, Mass.

To see other proposed designs for the Washington Monument, click here.


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