The Municipal Centre's unfinished "mystery sculpture," which was hidden by boards for almost 37 years, is scheduled to be completed this week.
Sculptor Harold C. Vogel is finishing the work that was started in 1940 by the late sculptor Lee Lawrie, famed for the bas relief profile on the Roosevelt dime and the statue of Atlas in Rockefeller Centre.
The high-relief panel, located on the west side of the staircase between the Municipal Center and the almost-completed new D.C. Courthouse, shows Columbia pouring water into a basin held by a mother and child while also holding a lamp to light the way for another citizen.
The panel, designed to complement a similar panel sculpted by John Gregory in 1941 on the other side of the staircase, is supposed to symbolize the municipal services of light, water and thoroughfare. But it also tells a tale of mishaps, lawsuits, bureaucratic procrastination and neglect. The tale, however, has a happy ending.
Last week, Vogel, who also designed the LBJ Memorial along the George Washington Parkway, fitted pieces of matching granite into the half-dozen holes that developed in the stone when Lawire was about two-thirds finished with the work in November 1941.
"There were still props behind the heads when I started - the figures weren't freestanding," said Vogel. "There was no hair, no features, no flow lines in the water and the clothing."
He said that the work was partially roughed out and marked with reference points so he could tell what it was supposed to look like.
When the holes developed in the Texas granite 37 years ago, the work was stopped while the city tried to get the contractor who supplied the stone to repair it. The District withheld a portion of the contractor's fee and the contractor, the D.M.W. Contracting Co., Inc., of New York, sued. Finally, in an out-of -court settlement in 1944, the District received $5,000 for the damage to the sculpture. But the repair work was put off until after the war, when a twin building to the Municipal Center was planned for the site now occupied by the new courthouse. This planned for the site now occupied by the new courthouse.This planned municipal building was supposed to replace the District Building, which was to be torn down since it clashed structurally with the Federal Triangle.
Plans for the second Municipal Center building were dropped in the '50s, however, and the sculpture remained unfinished. When a reporter interviewed the then 80-year-old Lawrie in 1958, the sculptor said he was paid $7,500 for the sculpture, which he considered one of this best works. He offered to supervise the repair work without charge. At that time, District officials took down the boards and then put them back "pending further study."
The study apparently came to nothing, however, and the sculpture seemed forgotten. But Eric Menke had not forgotten. Menke, the architect who planned the staircase and the surrounding plaza, is now a member of the Joint Committee on Landmarks, which advises the National Capital Planning Commission. When the NCPC approved the plans for the new courthouse in 1974, it requested, at Menke's urging, that the sculpture be completed.
"We had a $40 million budget," said Mike Heiserman, project manager for the new courthouse. "And there was no money in it to repair the sculpture. So I wrote it into an application for an EDA (Economic Development Administration) grant for landscaping."
According to Heiserman, Vogel will be paid $15,000 to complete the unfinished sculpture , a task he began about five weeks ago, and to make minor repairs to the panel on the other side of the staircase. Vogel, who learned his art from his sculptor grandfather in Germany, said he was unaware of the panel's history until it was revealed to him by a reporter.
"I figured the granite must have developed holes," he said. "But one of the judges from the courthouse told me it was covered because it contained a racial slur. I told him I didn't see any racial slur."
The rumor about the racial slur may have stemmed from a controversy over another scrulpture at the Minicipal Centre - although it's difficult to tell the races of the figures depicted. The 81-foot-long ceramic-tile frieze, entitled "Democracy in Action" adorns the inner courtyard of the Municipal Centre. One scene in the frieze shows a policeman grabbing a criminal by the neck and hitting him with a club. When the work was installed in 1941, this portion of it was attacked by the police, by several District commissioners, and by the Episcopal Bishop of Washington.
The original plans for the Municipal Centre called for one large building to cover all the land along Indiana Avenue between 3rd and 6th Streets. These plans were replaced by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts because the building would have blocked the view from Pennsylvania Avenue up John Marshall Place to the old D.C. courthouse building, once the city hall. To preserve the vista, plans were devised for twin building with a staircase in the centre leading from John Marshall Place to the courthouse. To enchance the staircase, sculptures were commissioned for each side of its base. And thereby hangs a 37-year-long tale of mishaps, lawsuits, procrastination and neglect. But a tale with a happy ending.