"The Lone Sailor," a seven-foot-high bronze statue installed a couple of weeks ago as the centerpiece of the new U.S. Navy Memorial on Pennsylvania Avenue, will get lots of temporary company on Tuesday when admirals and other salts, old and young, gather to dedicate the memorial.
After the midday celebration, during which the avenue will be closed to automobile traffic from Seventh Street to Ninth Street NW, he'll again be fenced off from the public until construction of the memorial plaza, designed by the New York architectural firm of Conklin Rossant, is completed in December. The place won't host much genuine life until next summer, when the Navy's and other service bands begin regular performances.
The bronze sailor, in this formidable setting, is part of a classic 1980s public art compromise. The Navy had far grander things in mind, including a behemoth triumphal arch, but its proposals gradually were whittled down to bare essentials: the statue standing in a slightly tilted circular plaza, 100 feet in diameter, bearing a projection map of the world made of inlaid granite slabs.
Consciously or not, all concerned with these changes -- the city's watchdog design agencies, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp., the U.S. Navy Memorial Foundation and its architects and artists -- seem to have been following the abstract-figurative, horizontal-vertical model established after the epic dispute over the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The world-map plaza here is the equivalent of Maya Lin's wall; sculptor Stanley Bleifeld's sailor corresponds to Frederick Hart's three soldiers; and the two nautical flagpoles recall the solitary standard of that memorial.
This isn't a terrible formula, but it doesn't necessarily lead to great public art, either. In truth it is hard to say at this point what the final esthetic effect of the Navy Memorial will be -- so much depends on the colonnade and buildings intended to frame this enormous space, and these won't be done for several years. There also is a vague plan to stock the two main fountains with sculpture, which, when and if it happens, will significantly alter the ambiance.
But my guess is that the memorial will turn out to be no more (and no less) than pleasant, likable. Clearly it won't be memorable in the way the great monuments to Grant, Washington and Lincoln are, nor will it reach the emotions the way Lin's wall does, but it'll be okay. Then again, my tolerance for corny, old-fashioned civic art is quite high, so long as the corn is genuine and is expressed with a minimum, at least, of good sense.
The concept of a resolute seaman with the oceans of the world at his feet is blatantly sentimental. There's an imperialistic note, too, though it's understated. After the monumental trial balloon of the triumphal arch was deflated, the Navy gave thought, just for a flicker, to making the Lone Sailor a Lone Officer. As it is, this romantically idealized Bosun's Mate, bigger than the boy next door but not so big as to awe, cannot be said to command the world. He simply stands ready, "white hat" cocked, hands in jacket, knees locked against the wind. One feels a tug on the heartstrings here -- the wind will forever be nipping at the tail of this peacoat.
The best thing about this memorial, in its unfinished condition, is the world map. It is a great thrill to be able to "walk" the globe. There are lots of important lessons to be learned. The Navy wants us to remember the dictum of Themistocles (incised, along with other maritime sayings, in the granite bases of bordering fountains): "Whosoever can hold the sea has command of everything." And the daring of our commanders: "Damn the torpedoes -- full speed ahead" (Admiral Farragut, 1864). And the hard duty of ordinary sailors: "Sighted sub. Sank same" (Aviation Machinist's Mate Mason, 1942).
One takes due note of these instructive statements, but the mind, like the body, is free to wander. One can idly take the measure of the geographical extent of our principal enemy of the moment -- it takes about 20 paces to cross the Soviet Union from the Pacific to the Baltic. A comparable journey across the United States takes about seven steps. One can visualize the missiles flying -- this is, perhaps, bigger than any war map in the Pentagon or Kremlin. Or one can shift attention from geopolitical to ecological realities: Traversing this vast planet, mostly water, in a matter of minutes is an exercise bound to enhance consciousness of the uniqueness and the unity of what Bucky Fuller appropriately called "Spaceship Earth." And so on. It is simple, but stirring, stuff.
(A single global projection map never gets everything right. This one understandably focuses on the Northern Hemisphere, so that missing pieces include half of India, most of Australia and all of Antarctica. And Africa, though it's all there and, I'm told, in correct scale, is bent all out of shape.)
The idea for the map belongs to retired rear admiral William Thompson, executive director of the Navy's memorial foundation. The inspiration came to him, he recalls, on a trying day during the review process when his glance happened to fall upon an ashtray emblazoned with a projection map! It takes nothing away from Thompson to suggest that the brilliant example of architect Robert Venturi played an important background role. Venturi's inspiration, of course, was to engrave L'Enfant's map upon the surface of Western Plaza, just a few blocks to the west of the Navy site.
This memorial space also goes by the name of Market Square, which despite its historical accuracy (the city's main 19th-century market was located here) seems increasingly curious. The plan, after all, is circular, and a real marketplace this will never be. In any case, one can have high hopes for this place.
There's no serious sign as yet of a construction start on the surrounding buildings, but the notable design, by Washington's Hartman-Cox, remains intact. Respectfully mimicking the classic revival presence of the hemicycle in the Federal Triangle, these buildings will shape the space like a pair of cupped hands. Some day this plaza/memorial will be a splendid gateway from the new Pennsylvania Avenue to the new "old" downtown, whatever that may turn out to be.