New-York Historical Society

The Tale of the Wandering Washington, No. 2

This post was written by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian.

Last year at this time, we commemorated George Washington’s birthday by following a wooden statue of the general and President in its convoluted journey from city monument to private hands to mythologizing.  It would not be the only sculpture to share such a fate, and this week we consider yet another wandering Washington likeness.

 

Thom statue of George Washington; photo by Robert Tontaro

In 1838 the self-taught Scottish stone carver James Thom fashioned a Washington statue from the stone quarries of his adopted home in Little Falls, New Jersey.  It is the same red sandstone stone he would promote in the building of the (current) Trinity Church facade in the next decade.  The press called the statue “colossal,” but if that conjures the Colossus of Rhodes, we need to scale back a bit, as it was meant to indicate that, at about eight feet, it was larger than life size.  Thom did well at promoting the statue, getting positive reviews from some cultural arbiters who suggested that it was “admirably suited for a public square in an American city.”  After touring the piece through New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, he sought a buyer for $4,000, but the statue remained standing like a sentinel outside his new home in Nanuet, New York, unsold.

 

After much legal dispute over whether the statue belonged to the property, Manhattan dentist Stephen A. Main came to own it and arranged to place it in New York’s City Hall Park in 1857.  There the New York Times opined that the statue would have a beneficial effect on fiery open- air speakers “while the calm and dignified head of WASHINGTON is staring upon them, and his right hand holds out a scroll representing the Constitution.  It would have been better if the statue were bronze or marble; but, such as it is, it is better than none.”

 

Having died in 1850, sculptor Thom did not live to see his statue’s decade in the New York City sun, but he was also spared the snarky comments that followed.  The colossus had more than its share of detractors among the chattering classes.  When one group of citizens petitioned the city to purchase the statue, still owned by Dr. Main, another group concurred for different reasons, saying the purchase price (now $2,000) would be well worth paying in order to remove what they believed to be an eyesore.  Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper went on to suggest, “When the Aldermen have concluded the bargain, we suggest that it should be placed in the cupola on top of the City Hall.  It will be there privately secreted under the figure of Justice, and if that blind lady is true to her instincts she will keep her foot upon it for ever.”

Abraham Lincoln's funeral through City Hall Park, Pictorial Lettersheet Collection, PR 144

The transaction occurred just as South Carolina seceded from the Union, so perhaps patriotic feeling stalled its removal.  We have this visual evidence that the statue remained to watch the mournful obsequies for Abraham Lincoln as the funeral train passed through New York in April 1865, but in 1870 the statue made the transition to Trenton, New Jersey.

Closeup; Lincoln's funeral at City Hall Park

In Trenton, Washington was installed prominently in a niche at the Washington Market building on December 26, 1870, in a ceremony marking the anniversary of the great surprise victory at Trenton in 1776.  After the market was torn down in 1928, the statue remained on private property near Washington’s Crossing until rescued for preservation in 1995 and brought to the headquarters of Janssen Pharmaceutical in Titusville, New Jersey.

 

In its current home outside the Janssen cafeteria, the statue is accompanied by a helpful label recounting that some Trentonians doubted that they had the good fortune to have Washington in their presence at the marketplace.  Drawing on press reports, the label suggests that the skeptical wondered if the sculpture was really of DeWitt Clinton or Horace Greeley.

Horace Greeley, engraving, Portrait file PR 52

Horace Greeley?  The eccentric, courageous, and influential editor of The New-York Tribune of the mid-19th century would not have been wearing 18th century costume.  Did someone have a sense of humor or irony here?  Nobody hated the Washington statue more than Horace Greeley:  When the city fathers sought to purchase and move the statue in 1860, Greeley, who referred to it as “What Is It” and “a daily deformity to the Park,” suggested that it could be set up in “one of our dirtiest thoroughfares” as a monument to a corrupt and incompetent city government.  The main target of his barb, an Alderman Boole, was in surprising accord, and offered a resolution that the statue be moved to the offices of the Tribune, since that fit Greeley’s description of the “filthiest locality in the city.”

 

So, it appears that a certain class of New Yorkers thought they were too sophisticated for the brownstone statue, while a number Trentonians wondered if they were worthy enough to harbor an authentic representation of George Washington in their market.  What that says about the respective attitudes of a New Yorkers and New Jerseyans we leave for the reader to decide.

 

 

 

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