Statue Is a Curious Homage to Naval Officer, Answer Man Finds

"Serenity" was placed in the northwest part of Meridian Hill Park in 1925 to honor naval officer William H. Schuetze. The marble statue, by José Clara, has been vandalized over the years. (By John Kelly -- The Washington Post)
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By John Kelly
Sunday, March 22, 2009

In Meridian Hill Park, there is a statue of a seated woman that overlooks 16th Street NW. A friend who grew up in the area during the 1960s said they called her "The Mother." What is the statue's history?

-- Kevin Zemejda, Columbia

The statue's official name is "Serenity," not "The Mother." (As everyone knows, a mother is only serene when the children are asleep.) It's the work of Spanish sculptor José Clara and was installed in the park's northwest corner in 1925.

Over the years, news stories about the statue have invariably mentioned the irony of its name, for the sad truth is that the white marble sculpture doesn't look very serene. Barely a year after it was erected, it was defaced. "Red paint had been applied to various parts of the anatomy and black ink had been spilled on the flowing robe over the lap," The Washington Post reported in 1926. Park Police thought the vandals were the same boys who ringed "the top of the fountain at Truxton circle at North Capitol street and Florida avenue with a barrel hoop."

Oh for the days when a vandal's tools were just ink and barrel hoops.

The large statue is of a seated woman, her left foot resting on what appears to be a broken sword. Today she is missing her left hand and a big toe. There is graffiti in places, and the once-sharp features of her face have been chipped away at. She now resembles a weathered sculpture from antiquity.

According to James Goode's invaluable "Washington Sculpture," the statue was commissioned by Charles Deering, whose family made millions with the company that became International Harvester (and who funded the Deering Library at Northwestern University). Deering attended the U.S. Naval Academy, where one of his classmates was William Henry Schuetze. Lt. Cmdr. Schuetze graduated first in his class and went on to be part of an expedition to retrieve the bodies of American explorers who died in the Arctic. He later served in Siberia and aboard the USS Iowa during the Spanish-American War.

Schuetze had a desk job in Washington -- superintendent of the compass division -- when he died suddenly in 1902. The Post remembered him as "distinguished by all those manly traits of character which endear men to their fellows and win affection and respect on every hand. His record will be given its proper place." Deering accompanied the remains back to St. Louis, where Schuetze was buried.

Answer Man is not sure what a large, serene woman has to do with a late naval officer, but as Deering had bought the statue in 1900 at the Paris Exposition, it's the one he donated to memorialize his dead friend. Embarrassingly, Schuetze's name is misspelled on the statue's base. There's an identical statue -- presumably not to Schuetze -- in Luxembourg. "Serenity" isn't the only sculpture in Meridian Hill Park, which is also called Malcolm X Park. There's a statue of Joan of Arc, one of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri and Washington's only monument to President James Buchanan.

The park itself is a stunning piece of design, perhaps the most European in the city. It's named after the meridian line that once went down 16th Street NW and is the work of George Burnap and Horace W. Peaslee. The park's signature feature is its exposed aggregate concrete. Molded into walls, balusters and sidewalks, the colorful concrete mimics the look of mosaic. The park also has one of the nicest fountains in town: Water flows down a long series of cascading steps. Ducks seem especially fond of surfing from the top to the bottom.

Meridian Hill Park was unloved for many years -- dangerous, even -- but the community rallied to its defense and the Park Service has spent more than $6 million to renovate it: repairing concrete, rebuilding bathrooms, planting trees, laying sod. Perhaps when the work is finished this spring, "Serenity" will sleep a little easier.

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