The District government has decided that a fitting, but belated, tribute to Theodore Roosevelt and his love of wildlife would be three menacing alligators, a pair of gray wolves, a couple of whooping cranes standing in a marsh and two grizzly bears prowling on a rocky mountainside.
More than two decades after the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Bridge opened, the city plans to spend about $250,000, with 90 percent of it likely to come from the federal treasury, to carve the endangered or threatened animals into four granite panels on the abutments under the bridge that flank the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway on the District side of the river.
The alligators, wolves, cranes and bears will join a menagerie of animals that greet motorists on the city's bridges, such as eagles and horses on Memorial Bridge across the Potomac River and lions atop the Connecticut Avenue bridge across Rock Creek Park. But the animal world has no representation on the Roosevelt bridge over the Potomac.
The sculptures, which the District hopes to have a design firm start carving later this year, are the end result of an all-but-forgotten 1958 law signed by President Eisenhower that approved construction of the controversial span between Arlington and the District.
Part of the deal for the $24.5 million bridge called for the quartet of granite carvings depicting Roosevelt's life. The bridge opened in 1964, but the eight-foot-high granite panels on the bridge's underside have remained bare.
A Connecticut sculptor, Laura Fraser, was commissioned to design the panels and fashioned allegorical drawings of Courage, Leadership, Foresight and Power to depict the nation's 26th president, according to Gary A. Burch, a city public works official. Fraser drew the themes in traditional monumental style, depicting Power as a Caesar-like figure holding a partially sheathed sword and Courage as a hunter standing in front of a bear and a lion.
Fraser developed half-size models of her sculptures for the bridge panels and sent them to the District, but Burch said, "They were never executed and I'm not sure why." Sometime in the ensuing years the D.C. government lost the models.
Fraser subsequently died and, for nearly two decades, so did the planned tribute to Teddy Roosevelt.
But Burch said that a couple of years ago, Thomas M. Downs, then the city's transportation director and now the city administrator, was told of the long-forgotten requirement for the carvings.
"He apparently thought it was a good idea and wanted to see if federal money could be gotten for it," Burch said.
Mike Burk, the field operations engineer for the D.C. branch of the Federal Highway Administration, approved the federal funding for the project, although the city is still negotiating a final price tag with the sculptors, Talibah Designs Inc.
"This was something that was originally planned and we should go ahead with it," Burk said. "Because . . . the bridge is in the monumental area, some special concepts are required to make things fit in."
Burch said that since the Courage, Leadership, Foresight and Power models were lost, it made no sense to try to replicate Fraser's work. Instead, he said city officials decided on the conservation theme and picked four endangered or threatened species.
"The selection was somewhat subjective," he said. "We wanted animals from various parts of the country and different habitats. We've got reptiles, birds and mammals."
The Theodore Roosevelt Association, a private Oyster Bay, N.Y., group that underwrites various tributes to the former president at parks and memorials around the country and research on his life, has the right to review the designs before they are carved. The group, based in Roosevelt's adopted home town, adamantly fought construction of the Roosevelt bridge across the middle of Roosevelt Island, but finally assented to construction of the span over the southern tip.
John A. Gable, the association's executive director, said the group has yet to see the wildlife designs. "We'd have to think about it," he said.
The federal Commission of Fine Arts, the arbiter of architectural esthetics in much of official Washington, voiced reservations last week about a clay model of the grizzly bear drawing, but wholeheartedly blessed the change from the allegorical representations to cranes, bears, alligators and wolves.
Said Frederick Hart, a commission member and himself the sculptor of the statue of the three infantrymen at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, "It's a neat idea."