Why do smiling faces stare out from Tidal Basin bridge?


Sculptor Constantine Seferlis with a half-scale plaster model of a carving commemorating Christmas telecasts from the Washington Cathedral. (Cyrena Chang)
John Kelly
Columnist July 20, 2013

While on a photography tour, I noticed gargoyles with the face of a man and the body of a shark or dolphin on the Tidal Basin Inlet Bridge. Whose face is depicted, and why?

Scott Colburn, Bethesda

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

A 1990 Washington Post article about those two distinctive sculptures likened them in appearance to Congressman Bob Forehead or Darrin Stephens — respectively, the cartoon creation of Mark Alan Stamaty and Samantha’s husband on “Bewitched.”

But while those characters were fictional, the man who inspired the bridge gargoyles was real. His name was Manus “Jack” Fish.


A bronze grotesque on the Ohio Drive bridge near the Tidal Basin depicts Jack Fish, former head of the region’s National Park Service. They were created by Constantine Seferlis and erected around 1987. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

Jack Fish was the regional director for the National Park Service’s National Capital Region, a domain that included the Mall — and the Tidal Basin. Fish’s family moved to Washington when he was a boy. He attended St. John’s College High School, served in the Army and earned an engineering degree from Catholic University before joining the Park Service in 1952.

He rose through the ranks until he had the top spot locally, managing 3,000 employees and overseeing a budget of $100 million.

Among the projects that came to fruition on Fish’s watch were Constitution Gardens and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the addition of accessible entrances to many memorials, and the rebuilding of Wolf Trap’s fire-ravaged Filene Center. It was Fish who ordered Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park closed to vehicles on weekends.

Fish was awarded the Interior Department’s Distinguished Service Medal. He retired from the Park Service in 1988 and died in 2010 at age 81. He was survived by 12 children, 42 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. In all, he was a wonderful Washington figure.

It was about the time Fish retired that his legacy intersected with another wonderful Washington figure. His name was Constantine Seferlis, and he was a stone carver.

Seferlis was born in Sparta, Greece. He took to art at a young age, carving his own chess set out of wood when he was 12.

“When I was a boy, always I had a little knife and a piece of wood to carve,” he told The Post in 1985. (He died in 2005.)

Seferlis moved to New York in 1957 and Washington a year later, where he became a carver at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. In 1960, he began working on the Washington National Cathedral. Over the next 18 years, he created more than 200 works for the Gothic building, including the heads of Helen Keller and Pope John XXIII.

Seferlis was especially adept at rendering animals for the cathedral: a bulldog, a poodle, a praying mantis, a praying pig. . . . He was known for a sly sense of humor. One gargoyle at the cathedral is carved in the form of a hippie. Another is a dentist working on the tusks of a walrus.

The bronze sculptures on the Ohio Drive SW bridge at the Tidal Basin were commissioned about 1987 in honor of Jack Fish’s forthcoming retirement from the Park Service. They are more correctly called grotesques, because they don’t have the rainspout that defines a gargoyle.

“We thought it would be a good idea, since the chief of the park was retiring, to play a little joke,” Seferlis told The Post.

These little fish near a big pond honor a big Fish from an even bigger one.

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Have a question about the Washington area? Write answerman@washpost.com. For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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