The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

On Richmond’s evolving Monument Avenue, myth and ugly lies run deep

The remaining base of the monument to Jefferson Davis on Monument Avenue in Richmond. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

With four of the six main statues on Richmond’s Monument Avenue now removed, the boulevard is no longer a procession of great lies, about the valor and honor of Confederate generals and the “sacred virtue” and “solemn duty” of the Confederacy’s leaders and defenders. Rather, with just two remaining statues — one dedicated to Robert E. Lee and the other to African American tennis champion and humanitarian Arthur Ashe — the avenue functions more like a rhetorical question: Can America move past abstract ideas of greatness — often attributed to odious men and obscene ideologies — and learn to honor smaller, more particular ideas of goodness? And what would our cities look like if we did that?

The statues to Lee and Ashe don’t exactly face off down the avenue. The Ashe memorial, a controversial 1996 addition to the five Confederate luminaries, looks west to the suburbs, away from the state Capitol, designed by Thomas Jefferson, and the center of a city that was the capital of the Confederacy. Lee, whose 1890 statue was the first erected on the avenue, looks south, from a height so Olympian that he doesn’t seem human at all.

Between these two men, one a working-class man descended from an enslaved woman, the other a slave-owning scion of Virginia’s “first families,” lie the empty pedestals that once held statues of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, Confederate president Jefferson Davis and the Confederate leader and naval officer Matthew Fontaine Maury. Just to the east of Lee’s traffic circle — now used as a community garden, a gathering spot and information hub, an impromptu basketball court, and a memorial to the victims of police violence — lies another empty plinth, once dedicated to an equestrian statue of Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart.

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As protesters have remade this avenue, forcing the removal of memorials to men who betrayed their country, covering the remaining plinths with graffiti and activating the street day and night with new forms of protest and community, they also have underscored deep connections between urban planning and old ideologies of whiteness, greatness and cultural ambition. They have made problematic the idea of the City Beautiful, a powerful late 19th-century American contribution to the annals of urban design. And they are a beginning to force a reckoning not just with the symbols of the Confederacy, but also with a larger repertoire of American symbols, deeply embedded into the center of such cities as Washington, Chicago, St. Louis and Cleveland.

What do we do with an ideal of urban design that celebrated a hierarchy of spaces as an allegory for social hierarchies, that cherished order and celebrated the beauty of conformity? The City Beautiful made buildings march together, with grace and power. On streets like Monument Avenue, it created an appealing spectacle of controlled rooflines and setbacks. And in other cities, it gave consistency to the facades, almost always drawn from the same European-derived idiom of classic design. What do we do with a design ethos that affirmed through a fusion of design, planning and symbolism America’s sense of its own greatness?

And what do we make of the legacy of what was once known as “the White City,” the Chicago architectural spectacle that inspired the City Beautiful?

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Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, has removed several Confederate monuments, including statues of Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis. (Video: The Washington Post)

The “White City” was the popular name for the magnificent, temporary fairgrounds laid out in Chicago to host the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, a vast ensemble of Beaux-Arts buildings covered with white plaster. The world fair was an international spectacle in honor of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of America. The influence of the fairgrounds’ design and architecture was enormous. It was an ideal, temporary city constructed next to a real and messy one, a visionary new city with splendid vistas and a central “court of honor.” Unlike the haphazard and improvised urban spaces of 19th-century America, this forward-looking urban ensemble included abundant green and public spaces, it fused such infrastructure as a railway terminal and boat docks into the design, and it inspired Chicago to think on a grander scale about how it wanted to grow and use its land to best purpose.

The White City’s influence went well beyond Chicago, inspiring generations of planners, designers and architects to remake city centers across America. It also marked an early example of ideas flowing not into America from European powers, but outward, too, in some cases to the United States’ fledging empire, where the City Beautiful movement influenced urban design in cities in Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines.

Monument Avenue, which became one of the most fashionable and architecturally significant streets in the country as it took form around the turn of the last century, borrowed heavily from the ideas popularized in Chicago, but it was a quintessentially southern take on the City Beautiful. Unlike the redesign of central Washington, D.C., in the early part of the last century, led by many of the same men who built Chicago’s White City, Monument Avenue wasn’t a centrally controlled, top-down urban redesign. Rather, it was an urban showplace built mainly through private speculation — a coherent, parklike avenue that came together largely piecemeal, and almost by accident.

And it is full of paradox. Although the private developers who laid it out (and profited from building and selling houses along its tree-lined way) created a unified procession of memorials to the Confederacy, they weren’t the sort of men with whom Robert E. Lee would have socialized. The entrepreneurs and speculators of Monument Avenue represented the “New South,” a postwar nouveau riche whose wealth came from industry and development, men who posed a political and social threat to the hierarchy once dominated by the old Colonial and planter classes.

Just as the designers of the White City appropriated European architecture to create a new American mythology — of a rising power, a cultural and technological juggernaut with imperial aspirations — the creators of Monument Avenue appropriated the Lost Cause pantheon to lay claim to their own social legitimacy.

At the same time, they were also embracing ideas of urban design that were in some ways progressive, and that seemed at the time rational and modern. Although Monument Avenue was mainly a private space, it incorporated new ideas about the design of the civic realm, including the necessity for green space and the sacrifice of individual whim and absolute property rights to a collective idea of coherent and consistent aesthetics. Its builders were self-conscious about status, and looked to such cities as Boston and Baltimore for precedents. Not coincidentally, Richmond was the first city to have a practical electric streetcar system, one that offered a prototype for other cities around the world.

By embracing the racist ideology of the Lost Cause, the makers of Monument Avenue also were partly neutralizing one of the few ideas that might have threatened them. Even as Richmond erected a statue to Lee in 1890, the old guard of Virginia was settling into an anti-modernism reaction, celebrating an ideal of Anglo-Saxon hegemony that was deeply nostalgic for a fictional, colonial past. This was the same period that saw the creation of the first statewide preservation group in the nation, the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, one of whose most prominent supporters lamented that “civilization has grown materialistic, and greedy, and full of lust and ambition, and has become dominated by the will to power.”

Aspects of the New South — its burgeoning industry, its new class of entrepreneurs, its gaze fixed on “modern” cities to the North — were deeply threatening to the old guard who ran groups like the APVA. So, too, were the new working classes, the influx of immigrants and labor unions. So the New South businessmen who built Monument Avenue embraced the Old South’s racism, while sidestepping the anti-modernism reactionary elements that threatened their material ambitions. They made common cause with Lee and the fantasy of the Lost Cause, built Colonial-style houses — and continued to get rich.

The challenge of remaking Monument Avenue has always been its fusion of design and myth. It’s one thing to argue with idea — that, say, celebrating racist traitors makes no sense in a modern, pluralistic, democratic society. It’s another thing to argue with myth, which goes deeper than merely a set of facts that are wrong or invented. Myth carries with it ideals of character, and beauty, along with lies and distortions. The fusion of aesthetic ideas about beauty and character to ugly ideas about race and history is one source of the Lost Cause’s enduring power to many people.

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One day earlier this summer, the de-monumentalizing of Monument Avenue continued under a blistering afternoon sun. Men and women sat under tents near the statue to Lee, offering T-shirts for sale and free water and snacks, and engaging passersby who wanted to talk about the issues. A carload of young people, both black and white, made its way up the avenue, stopping at each empty pedestal before joining the small crowd gathered on Lee’s circle. A man climbed the base of the statue, holding several white snakes in his hands, and had his photograph taken.

The graffiti on the statue’s base is now multilayered, words over images over more words. A palimpsest of messages has replaced the single narrative of greatness the statue once spoke, and an explosion of color has been overlaid on the old, pale blankness of the stone. Lee is no longer the focal point of the circle, but a ridiculous figure who seems to have wandered in on his horse from a cheesy Western or costume pageant. No one pays him any attention.

Monument Avenue is just one example of how the City Beautiful movement established a canon of urban beauty across America. The Richmond iteration is particularly problematic because its design was harnessed to an explicitly racist narrative. But other city centers have other narratives, and not surprisingly, given that the movement had its first success at the Columbus quadricentennial, more than a few of these grand spaces celebrate the Genoese sailor whose voyage to America initiated so much misery.

The messages of City Beautiful design vary from place to place, but often share a set of basic assumptions grounded in American exceptionalism, for which Columbus was an icon. The United States was the repository and rebirth of all that was glorious in the past, and thus, it was the best hope for the future, too. It was the white European ideal reborn, on pristine new ground.

Now, on a grander scaler and with more seriousness than any time in recent memory, we grapple with the fact that none of this was true. And so, great crowds spill out into beautiful spaces, full of myth and replete with ugly lies. The focus now is on particular statues, memorials and monuments. But it will inevitably go deeper, because these things weren’t merely ornaments grafted on the larger urban design. The disentangling happening now, by fits and starts, will be hard and, for some, painful, because these cities were designed to appeal to the sense that white America was confident and certain, powerful and energetic, and that it could remake the world just as it was remaking its cities: in its own image.

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