Why is the Roosevelt Bridge missing its sculptures?

John Kelly
Columnist May 19, 2012

As the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway passes under the Roosevelt Bridge, it is flanked on both sides in each direction by protruding stone blocks that look as if they were meant to have had some sculptural element carved on them. Is that the case? If so, what was planned, and why was the work not completed?

— Paul Weinschenk, Arlington

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

Nearly all bridges tend to be controversial, but this one proved especially so. The irony is that building a bridge named for a conservationist president meant going through an island honoring a conservationist president. Nature-lovers complained that an early alignment would basically bisect Roosevelt Island. When the bridge opened in 1960, the final route nipped the southern edge of the nature preserve.

And the bridge itself? Not very interesting. Low and featureless, it pales when compared with the handsome Memorial Bridge just a few hundred yards down the Potomac, and it offers none of the stunning views that the Key Bridge up the Potomac does.


Shown from the D.C. side, the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge has four stone panels that were meant to be adorned with sculpture. (John Kelly/WASHINGTON POST)

While the bridge is relatively plain — a metal structure atop stone piers — plans were in place to enliven the abutments on the District side. Granite blocks protrude from the surface, stone palettes for an artist’s chisel. The idea was to carve the panels in bas relief with designs relating to the 26th president.

An artist named Laura Gardin Fraser received the commission. She was the wife of the better known James Earle Fraser , a sculptor with many commissions in Washington. (He did the Second Division Memorial on the Ellipse and the buffalo nickel. They met when he was her art teacher.)

Mrs. Fraser’s design called for four plaques symbolizing Teddy Roosevelt’s character traits. They were called “Courage,” “Foresight,” “Leadership” and “Power” and were in a heroic, classical style: muscled, semi-naked warriors clutching swords, etc. The designs were approved by the Commission of Fine Arts in 1959, and Fraser’s scale plaster models were shipped to Washington some time after that. And then, a published source notes, “for some reason not fully apparent to her, they were placed in storage.”

The reason may have been that the designs were, well, kind of ugly. To Answer Man they look like toy action figures, oddly ill-proportioned. The minutes from the arts commission’s September 1963 meeting note that the head of the District’s highways and traffic department was leaning against executing Fraser’s design. The plaster maquettes were subsequently lost. Fraser died in 1966 with what she considered one of her greatest works never completed.

Twenty years later, someone must have remembered that the Roosevelt Bridge was supposed to have some artwork on it, because in 1985 the District went back to the Commission of Fine Arts with a new proposal: To honor Roosevelt’s conservation work, likenesses of endangered or threatened species would be carved on the bridge. These would be whooping cranes, grizzly bears, alligators and gray wolves. A story in The Washington Post said that it would cost $250,000 to carve them and that money would be requested from the Federal Highway Administration. The sculptors: Talibah Designs/Meadowlark Studio.

But again, the designs were lacking. The drawings Answer Man saw look like illustrations, not artwork. They suggest something from a craft fair. At a commission meeting, chairman J. Carter Brown was especially critical of the grizzly bears and encouraged the sculptors to give serious study to ursine anatomy.

While the commission was in favor of the general concept, it wasn’t in favor of these particular sculptures. In an Aug. 13, 1985, letter to Harry Moy, head of the District’s Bureau of Transportation, Brown wrote: “Theodore Roosevelt Bridge is a major element in the monumental core of the nation’s capital; any sculptural embellishment must be of the highest quality, and it is important that decisions regarding it not be made in haste.”

“Haste” certainly doesn’t apply here. It’s been more than 50 years since the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge opened and technically, it still isn’t finished. Answer Man suspects everyone just sort of lost interest in the project.

Well, Answer Man thinks it’s time. Where is our Michelangelo, our Rodin, our Saint-Gaudens ? Surely we can find a sculptor who can transform those blank walls and make stone come to life.

Send your questions about the Washington area to answerman@washpost.com.

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