Book Review: 'Monument Wars' by Kirk Savage

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, November 8, 2009


Washington, D.C., the National Mall, And the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape

By Kirk Savage

Univ. of Calif. 390 pp. $34.95

Looking out the windows of the room where I am writing these words I can see, across the busy traffic of Logan Circle, the equestrian statue of Gen. John A. Logan, who served the Union in the Civil War with considerable distinction. A few blocks away are the equestrian statues of Gens. George Henry Thomas and Winfield Scott, at the center of circles that bear their names. Of these three generals, only Scott is now remembered at all -- primarily for the brilliant campaign he led in the Mexican War -- but their statues endure, noticed by almost no one.

All three statues are, as Kirk Savage writes in this superb study of monumental Washington, examples of 19th- and early 20th-century monumental tradition, which "glorified . . . individual leaders as exemplars of the nation's continuing greatness . . . monuments, as Nietzsche once argued, [that] created an eternally present parade of heroes, torn away from the very historical dynamics that made them what they were." Similar monuments are sprinkled all over Washington, in accordance with the plan of Pierre L'Enfant, whose design for the city established a set of coordinates that were connected by circles and squares in which he hoped "statues, columns and obelisks" would be constructed in order to honor the nation's heroes and lead people's eyes from one coordinate to the next.

I confess to a genuine fondness for such statuary, but the monument in Washington that I treasure above all others -- the Grant Memorial at the eastern end of the National Mall -- is much more than a statue of the greatest of all American generals. The memorial, sculpted by Henry Shrady in the early 20th century, does have Grant on horseback at its center, but on either side are groups of ordinary soldiers in combat, one in a cavalry charge and the other "an artillery unit moving into action." The monument, dedicated in 1922, "instantly overturned the American war memorial tradition." It "was animated by the anonymous figures of soldiers engaged in desperate action," transformed "from an officer monument into a much broader memorial, not to the ordinary soldier alone but, more radically, to warfare itself."

Grant, on his horse, "looms above in majestic isolation, . . . presiding in silence over the suffering he asks his soldiers obediently to endure." In whole and in its individual parts the memorial is a masterpiece, but as Savage argues it is also a watershed in our "notion of the public monument." In the past -- in the monuments to Logan, Scott and Thomas -- we regarded the work as "an object to be revered." But since the construction of the Grant memorial and the redesign of the National Mall we have embraced "a new idea of commemoration, one beginning to allow a space for reflection on the traumas of history, not simply for celebration of its triumphs." There is now "a new psychology of memorial space, exemplified in the Grant and Lincoln memorials -- a space of engagement with loss and suffering, dimensions of historical experience missing in the celebratory landscape that focused on individual triumphs."

Certainly it is hugely significant that the plan for the National Mall designed by order of the Senate in 1901 included these two epic but deeply sobering memorials, at the mall's eastern and western ends. The men who designed the altered mall "were a cosmopolitan group, from Chicago, New York, and Boston, comfortable in the elite Republican circles that provided not only their art patronage but also the political momentum for the urban reform movement of the early twentieth century." It would be a mistake to claim that they had a "radical" vision for the mall, but they definitely wanted something different.

The mall in the 19th century bore no resemblance to the "supremely powerful space that came to be organized around the National Mall in the early twentieth century." It was "a polyglot place, a series of leisure zones offering meandering walks amid well-tended groves and gardens fringed by working operations such as railroad stations, greenhouses, arboretums, and even brothels." The "layout of the park was defined almost entirely by its tree plantings and by the drives and footpaths that moved around and through them." There were residential streets in the areas where the National Gallery of Art and the Museum of the American Indian now stand.

By 1901 the Washington Monument had finally been completed -- Savage provides a detailed and entirely fascinating account of the controversies over its design, the endless delays in its construction and the pivotal role played by an Army Corps of Engineers colonel -- and the new design made it "the fixed, unchanging point" at the center. Savage writes:

"The final realization of the planners' 'great space' created a stunning new system of national representation at the cost of the Mall's picturesque parks, Victorian structures, and working neighborhoods -- as well as the web of local attachments these places had engendered. The monumental core represented a triumph of vision -- in both senses, optical and imaginative -- over a living ground that had evolved for roughly a century. The Mall project anticipated the subsequent history of modernist planning in the twentieth century, fundamentally one long, sustained assault on the historical ground of cities in the interest of creating one or another spatial utopia."

The mall as we now know it has been in existence for only about three-quarters of a century; not until the New Deal years were the final touches of the 1901 plan put into effect. So, as Savage is at pains to point out, we do well to bear in mind that as one controversy after another engulfs the mall, it is not a static entity -- it most certainly is not exactly what L'Enfant envisioned -- but an evolving one. For example: "The Mall designers thought they had created a vast space of national unity, in which any expression of political or social differences would be out of place. Demonstrators capitalized on that state-sponsored fiction of universality, appropriated it for their own ends, and in the process made the Mall the nation's premier setting for political assembly and protest." Nor can the designers have anticipated events such as the Folklife Festival or the National Book Festival, which do bring people together in a festive, unified way, but rarely if ever involve sober contemplation of the nation and its history.

For that matter the old-fashioned notion of the celebratory memorial has not lost its hold on significant parts of the populace and the Congress. While it is true that Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial is "a victim monument, not meant to glorify the deeds of the soldiers but to console and reconcile the survivors who had experienced the tragedy of their loss," and while it is also true that Lin's memorial is the most heavily visited site on the mall, it is no less true that it was built over fierce traditionalist opposition and that the World War II Memorial, only a few hundred feet away, "is a rejoinder particularly to Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial," a "wistful reminder of better times, when the nation united in spirit and sacrifice to smash its enemies and achieve absolute victory."

Other changes lie in store. Whenever one war is memorialized, the veterans of another press for recognition; whenever one minority group gets its museum, another demands one of its own. Because the National Mall has become so central in the collective imagination, everybody wants a piece of it. If everybody succeeds, there will be lots of museums and lots of memorials and no mall.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company