The Washington Monument, and Mr. Story's Design

I HAVE been surprised to find how little attention our people are willing to pay to what is really the most important artistic undertaking with which the nation as a whole has been concerned since the building of the United States Capitol. To build a monument to Washington was the loyal intention of our great-grandfathers, of our grandfathers, and of our fathers. Successive generations of Congress pledged the national government to it, and when at last the pledges were seen to be of no effect, the matter was taken up in a burst of popular enthusiasm, and on a correspondingly ambitious scale. We all know how the movement faltered and came to a stand-still; how only the persistence of a handful of men, who inherited the care of it, has at last got the momentary attention of Congress, and extracted a rather grudging dole of money for it. The curious thing about it is the apathy with which everybody now looks on who looks at all, and the paucity of those who

look. Here is the man whom our fathers delighted to honor above all men, and whom it is our tradition still to honor; his statues are in our legislative halls, his head on our money and our postagestamps, his name strewn over all the towns in the country. Here is our public, the cultivated part of it, much occupied with every form of art, stirred, in fact, with more apparent enthusiasm for art than for anything else; the people at large blazing lately with ardor, not yet spent, to cover the land with monuments, and set up statues to all their perishable celebrities. Here is the memorial, begun on such a scale that all our other monuments are toys to it, resumed in the centennial year with a general appeal for public support, taken up later by Congress, and then made the subject of a very exciting quarrel among engineers over its construction, of a warm competition among some artists of note over its design. Yet nobody outside of Washington shows any interest in it. I doubt if more than one in fifty thousand of our people has given it any serious thought, and am sometimes tempted to wonder if one tenth as many care anything about it.

There are some obvious reasons why the matter should have been neglected in the stirring years that we have passed. One is the puerile character of the design on which work was begun; another, the inevitable presumption against a belated and somewhat threadbare project. But the intrinsic importance of the project made it worth while to aim at a better design, while in the last year or two there has been every opportunity to revive it with freshness. A more controlling reason has been that the men who had the monument in charge, clinging to an obsolete idea in the midst of an unparalleled growth of interest and activity in art throughout the country, have held aloof from all who had part in this growth, and persistently refused to take counsel with the artistic portion of the community to whose greatest artistic undertaking they were giving shape. This was a fatal administrative blunder. It left them with no following, and no resource but to coax what money they could out of a Congress that had no interest of its own in the monument, and lacked the impulse which an interested public might have communicated. The case illustrates with curious emphasis the absolute separation there is between the working political class in the country and the cultivated class. It also illustrates, what is to our purpose here, a certain narrowness and wayside absorption of our æsthetic class, of which we do not see much account made, but which is a serious check to our progress in art, and is accountable to a great degree for the failure of our public attempts in it, — greatly accountable for the misguided way in which the Washington monument has made its manful struggle for existence.

But now, at least, the old excuses for indifference are removed. Congress has made an appropriation for the work, and it is resumed. United States engineers are busy with its discredited foundation, and we may assume that if they are let alone they will make it secure, whatever form is finally given it. What is most to the point, the question of form itself is at last fairly reopened. Some prominent men have interested themselves in its design. The joint committee on public buildings and grounds, which represents Congress in the business, wisely distrusting their unaided judgment, appealed for advice to Mr. Story when he was last in the country. Mr. Story took a livelier interest than his countrymen at home have shown, and made some suggestions, which seemed at first to bear little fruit. He has lately submitted a design, however, which the monument commission has approved and recommended to the congressional committee for adoption. The inviolability of the old design having been at last renounced and a new one officially proposed, it is important that the nation should not again be hastily committed to a scheme which may not, after all, be the best. The fact that Mr. Story’s design is incomparably better than the old one, or pleases the committee better than others which have, without solicitation, been laid before them, is not enough to warrant them in adopting it without further trial, and especially without subjecting it to careful criticism.

It has been described as a copy of the famous campanile of St. Mark’s in Venice; this is not accurate, but it has apparently been studied exclusively from Florentine and Venetian models. At least, it is such a structure as might be designed by a person who had never seen anything outside of Florence and Venice, and the towns on the railroad between them. This I say not to condemn, but to characterize. Mr. Story has incased the existing stump and carried it up with vertical sides to a height of three hundred and fifty feet, including its pyramidal capping. Around the base he has built a square lower story, projecting six or eight feet, against the sides of which he has set four gabled porches a hundred feet high. These porches are carried on a composite order of detached columns, and in the faces of them are niches, in one of which stands a colossal statue of Washington on a high pedestal. To the shaft above he has added small octagonal angle-turrets, as it were, like those of Giotto’s tower at Florence, which do not any more than Giotto’s rise into roofs, but, like his, stop short at the crowning cornice. The shaft is in three stories, divided by cornices: the lowest, above the porches, is short, and ornamented with a double arcade and paneling; the middle division is very high,— a hundred feet and more, — with a triple arch-headed paneling through its whole height, enriched by shafting and tracery, and cinctured at the middle by a paneled belt; the upper is a kind of belfry stage with a blind arcade, and upon it is a pyramidal roof crowned with a bronze statue of Fame poising lightly upon one foot. The whole monument is incrusted with marbles, which on the porches, on the friezes, cornices, and panelings of the upper part, are richly inlaid after the fashion of the Tower and Duomo at Florence.

Without venturing on minute criticism, it may be said that the general aspect of the design has the qualities that might be expected in Mr. Story’s work. Its outline is agreeable; it has an expression of rather dignified and elegant repose; its detail looks refined and delicate. Nevertheless, critically examined, it brings disappointment, as was, it must be said, inevitable. It is very questionable whether a design of this kind is suited to its position. There is absolutely nothing in its surroundings, or in Washington, with which it would be at all in keeping. In no city in the country have the public buildings so consistent and uniform a character as in Washington, despite some recent innovations. It is the only city of importance to which its public buildings give an architectural expression of its own. Needlessly to violate this expression would be a great injury. Mr. Story’s design would be in hopeless conflict with it, and must appear like an immense exotic, or suggest a diplomatic importation. It is more than questionable, too, whether a structure of this kind would suit with our climate, even in Washington, with our time or our people. An incrusted monument, like Giotto’s tower or the Albert memorial, which would need, as has been said of them, to be kept under a glass case, would look sadly astray in an outlying and probably neglected spot on the banks of the Potomac, A sterner style is required by its position and its historic associations. The grand severity of Washington’s character and bearing, the simplicity of the time in which he lived, would be ill commemorated by a monument of such ornate delicacy. Even Sir Gilbert Scott’s ability could not prevent the Albert memorial from seeming a tour de force, factitious and out of place, and we should hardly fare better here. The style of Giotto’s and Arnolfo’s work is not the best for a monument on such a scale. To use it successfully at all requires the richness, the delicacy, and the spirit of Giotto’s work. It is no discourtesy to say that we could not expect these here, and if we could have them the cost would be overwhelming. We have not the means or the aptitude for such work. The poverty-stricken baldness of the new front of Santa Croce, or the proposed facade of the Duomo of Florence itself, shows rather what we should be likely to accomplish.

As to the question of design there is a word to be said. In spite of the merit I have ascribed to Mr. Story’s project, it is not satisfactorily carried out. The effect is mechanical, after all, — one is almost tempted to say amateurish. First of all, it lacks scale. It is pretty sure that at any distance from which this monument could be seen as a whole, its real size would not be felt, but would be greatly underrated. There is nothing in the detail by which to guage it, and there is an unfortunate discrepancy in scale between the shaft and the porches at its base. To these porches, and to the statue of Washington under the chief of them, one would naturally look for the measure of the monument; but the statue is eighteen or twenty feet high, while the colossal porches, one of which covers it, are so proportioned that they must necessarily dwarf it to something like ordinary dimensions. They are as large as the facades of ordinary churches, and higher; being composed of few members, however, and serving only as canopies for the statues, they cannot look so, but must confuse the beholder’s idea of scale, and rob the monument of much of its effect of size and grandeur. The porches are effective in themselves, but too heavy for the slender order that supports them. The shaft, agreeable in its proportion, is badly divided. The belfry stage is not adequate for the upper story of such a tower. The junction of the shaft with the portion below it, and the setting on of the pyramidal roof, two crucial points in the design, are not accomplished without some effect of dislocation. When it comes to the detail, although it may be inferred that Mr. Story had the assistance of a professional hand, it is evident that the hand was not quite adequate to its task. The attempt to amalgamate the fully developed Renaissance with details of the thirteenth century was in fact too ambitious to succeed. The attenuated spiral shafting of the builders of the thirteenth century, and the poor reminder of northern tracery which their successors contrived in the sixteenth were not the best inventions of Italian architecture. It is not strange that the designer should fail to harmonize these, or the slender balustrades and inlaid decoration of the earlier period, with the orthodox classic orders. One cannot examine Mr. Story’s design critically without being impressed with these short-comings, or without hoping that something more successful may be the outcome of this great opportunity.

The public has reason to thank Mr. Story for giving a new life to the project, important as it is, and for relieving it of the incubus of a design that made its completion a thing to be dreaded. There is one thing more which he might gracefully have done, that he did not do. Seeing that the monument could not possibly be made a monument of sculpture, but must be one of architecture, he might have advised the committee to appeal to those men in the country — or even, if they liked, outside of it — who have made it the study of their lives to design monuments of architecture. There is no one architect among us who occupies the universally recognized position which Mr. Story occupies in his own art; perhaps because architects are so much more abundant than sculptors. But there are among them men of signal ability, of thorough training, and of great experience; the presumption of success would naturally be in favor of some of these. It may be that the only means by which it was possible for Mr. Story to clear the ground was to submit a design which should show by contrast the utter inadequacy of the first one. It was natural that a brilliant and versatile artist should be strongly impelled to try the problem himself. We may admire the boldness of the attempt, — the audacity we may fairly call it; we should call it audacity if a painter or an architect had tried to do an equivalent thing in sculpture. That he should have succeeded so far as he has is witness to Mr. Story’s exceptional ability; that he should fail of absolute success was a foregone conclusion.

It seems to me time that those in our nation who value its historic memories and those who care for the progress of its art, those even who wish to know that its wealth is spent on worthy objects, should wake up and see that one of the world’s great works is going on before their eyes; should use what influence they can to insure its carrying out in the worthiest way, and that, being worthy, it shall not fail. It belongs to those who have the direction of it to make sure, now that the question of form is open, that they are not hastily committed to what might be bettered, and that they use due means to discover what is the best thing they can build. The ultimate decision whether Mr. Story’s design or another shall be adopted rests with Congress, it is understood. Congress should not be left to such a difficult and unusual decision without all the help it can get from the opinion of those who are best qualified to judge and to propose, or from the stimulus of an intelligent public interest.

An Architect.