D.C.’s Poetry in Bronze

Book Lauds Area Sculptures

Posted February 23, 2009 at 4:37pm

I don’t know how to describe “Washington Sculpture: A Cultural History of Outdoor Sculpture in the Nation’s Capital,” an update to author James M. Goode’s 1974 text of similar name.

It’s not a coffee table book — there aren’t any glossy pictures with breezy captions. There are, however, hundreds of modern-day and historic photos, even models of sculptures still in the planning phases.

It’s also not a guidebook to D.C. — you can’t exactly carry 5.9 pounds in your pocket. At the same time, if you could throw it in your bag and had days to wander through the 16 neighborhoods captured, it would make a fantastic guide.

Especially because the first edition of the book went into multiple reprints, I guess the target demographic for this book are those, like me, who take great pride in their Washingtoniana knowledge and are always wondering about the history of that landmark that they walk past on a daily basis.

For instance, take the two seemingly out-of-place bronze cranes trapped in barbed wire that are the showcase of the Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II (so that’s what it is!). Located just across from Upper Senate Park, they symbolize the paradox of freedom and oppression for the Japanese American internees.

The idea for the original book came about after a popular tour of several outdoor sculptures that Goode gave when he was a Smithsonian staff member. After many requests for “mimeographed copies” of his notes from the 20-sculpture walk, he thought to expand the project. Four years and 325 works later, he had created the first book of its kind, which includes everything from sculptures on fountains to bridges and cemetery treasures.

The update, which hits shelves this week, is double the size of the first edition. Now the guide features more than 600 open-air sculptures and has expanded from the D.C. neighborhoods covered in the first book to include parts of Maryland and Virginia suburbs.

Goode said he updated the book because friends and strangers alike asked him for an updated edition and “because I live here, and I love the city, and I think it’s exciting to go looking for new sculptures.”

So on the weekends, he would drive hundreds of miles around the city and its suburbs, discovering the plethora of new art and architecture built in the past three decades.

The city’s recent renaissance and building boom has subsequently, he said, led to more sculptures, as well as the renovation and preservation of ones already in place.

Goode, who was the curator of the Smithsonian Castle for 17 years and is considered an authority on the art and architecture of D.C., makes the descriptions of the sculptures interesting by not only including the background and discussions leading up to the creation of the works of art, but also discussing the subject that is encapsulated in bronze (or cement or marble). You learn about the person in a way that makes you want to know him personally.

The author’s 1974 “The Outdoor Sculpture of Washington, D.C.” was the first of three books about the District that Goode has written over the years.

“Washington, D.C., is a city of great beauty,” he writes. “An important part of its beauty may be found in the hundreds of outdoor sculptures. … Even though many of these sculptures are significant for their stylistic designs, they deserve equal attention for their historical messages. A study of the individual history of each work often contains rewarding insights into the numerous great people and events that have molded our culture since Columbus first landed in the New World.”

Goode calls the General Ulysses S. Grant Memorial, which sits at the base of the Capitol at First Street Northwest, “the most exciting outdoor equestrian sculpture” in the nation.

He uses six pages of his tightly edited book describing the memorial’s grandeur. It’s “full of action and movement,” he said, “and the story of the sculptor spending his whole life on it is really interesting.”

That sculptor, Henry M. Shrady, was a very controversial pick for the project because it was the largest ever commissioned by Congress and Shrady was only 31 years old at the time. But the young artist meticulously studied Civil War uniforms that the secretary of war loaned him and even joined the National Guard for four years to get firsthand knowledge of military practices, just to get the sculpture right.

At the center of the scene, Grant sits in his characteristically calm pose on his charger, Cincinnatus, surrounded by four guard lions. Two dynamic sculptural groups at each end of the memorial — to the north, seven cavalrymen charging into the fray, and to the south, a group of artillerymen and three horses struggle to pull a caisson carrying a cannon — show movement in a way that Goode refers to as “dramatic suspense,” a term not usually given to bronze works.

The sculpture was dedicated in a ceremony on the centennial of Grant’s birth, April 27, 1922, and it was a memorial to Shrady just as much as the general, as the artist died two weeks prior because of strain and overwork.

Though Goode says one of his favorite places to view sculptures in the city is the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden, he admitted that he didn’t include the 50 or so sculptures in the book — because of page limits set by the publisher — which tended to be more of the abstract pieces that “don’t say anything.”

On the other hand, Goode showcased works in many of the earlier cemeteries in the area, calling them “an untapped museum” and saying they tell a lot about the people who built Washington. One of the most interesting pictures in the tome is a 1914 photo of John Joyce in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery standing next to his gravestone, which he had sculpted while he was still living and engraved with a poem that he plagiarized. That cemetery, Goode said, has a lot of “interesting and bizarre” monuments.