The Darlington Memorial Fountain in Judiciary Square was dedicated in 1923 to honor D.C. lawyer Joseph J. Darlington. The statue, by sculptor C. Paul Jennewein, was controversial when it was erected. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

In 1923, the lawyers of Washington realized that they had a problem. A lot of people in town had decided they were creepy perverts.

How were they to convince the local citizenry that this was not the case?

The uproar arose when a new fountain was installed in November. The fountain honored a District lawyer named Joseph J. Darlington. Born in 1849 in South Carolina, Darlington came to Washington to study at the law school of Columbian University (known today as George Washington University). He eventually became one of the city’s keenest legal minds, and when he died in 1920, at age 71, he was considered the dean of the Washington bar.

Friends and colleagues immediately pooled their money to build Darlington a fitting monument. What was lowered in place atop a plinth at Fifth Street NW and Indiana Avenue in Judiciary Square was a naked lady and a deer.

“Tawdry” is how Judge William DeLacey described the statue. “Repulsive,” said the Rev. John C. Ball of Metropolitan Baptist Church. The Rev. John E. Briggs, pastor of Fifth Baptist Church, where Darlington worshiped, denied that he had termed the statue a “blasphemy” but said that Darlington wouldn’t have liked it.

“Tawdry” and “repulsive” were some of the first comments made about the Darlington Memorial Fountain. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

The Washington Post interviewed a lawyer who quipped that perhaps the statue was meant to symbolize a woman summoned by the U.S. Marshals for hunting without a license — and without clothes.

As the uproar grew, the secretary of the District’s bar association felt it necessary to stress that the money to erect the statue came from private contributions. If his group had been involved, he said, “it is possible that the present statue would not have been approved.” In other words: Don’t blame us.

Even those observers who averred that the statue was art, and not smut, said it was still inappropriate.

George Julian Zolnay, a prominent sculptor, said, “True art invariably is a matter of fitness.” He didn’t mean fitness as in toned abs, but as in a specific link to the person honored. If Darlington had been a hunter, Zolnay said, the Diana-like statue might have been suitable. But what did a naked maiden standing next to a fawn have to do with one of Washington’s most powerful attorneys?

This controversy erupted 22 years after the dedication of the memorial Answer Man wrote about last week, the statue of prominent Mason (and Confederate general) Albert Pike. Standing across Judiciary Square from the Darlington fountain, it was what a lot of people back then thought a monument should be: a big, honking likeness of a dead person. For many, the Darlington memorial was altogether too weird. It’s a sentiment not dissimilar to the criticism that Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial faced.

Frank Hogan — head of the Darlington memorial committee and founder of what became the powerhouse D.C. law firm Hogan Lovells — finally decided it was time to set the record straight. Although the statue was privately funded, he explained, it needed the approval of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. The commission did not want merely an effigy of a man, but “something artistically beautiful.”

A half-dozen sculptors had entered the design competition. Each was furnished with a dossier of Darlington’s professional accomplishments and, more important, his personal characteristics. Darlington’s “constant charities” — his thoughtfulness, tenderness, philanthropy, consideration of others — were more worthy of being permanently enshrined than his greatness as a lawyer.

And that’s what the winning statue, by German-born sculptor C. Paul Jennewein and approved by Darlington’s two daughters, was meant to symbolize.

Art can lose something when you have to explain it, but Hogan planked out the statue’s meaning for anyone too dense to get it. The beautiful maiden, he said, represented God’s best human handiwork. She symbolized humanity at its finest: considerate and tender. So tender, in fact, that a deer had come to the maiden’s side for care and succor, just as, Hogan implied, a defendant might come to a lawyer.

Yes, the maiden was nude, but that’s the “better to represent her as she came from the hands of her Creator, rather than the hands of a dressmaker.”

Seventy years later, another Jennewein piece was to cause controversy. A bare-breasted maiden he’d created for the Justice Department distracted John Ashcroft so much that the attorney general ordered it hidden behind curtains.

Within the larger controversy of the naked lady in Judiciary Square was a smaller one: When Jennewein arrived to inspect the statue’s installation, he saw that it had been set up facing the wrong direction. He ordered the workers to lift it and rotate it 180 degrees.

Darlington’s colleagues had to chuckle. The old lawyer had won many cases, but more than a few were overturned in the U.S. Court of Appeals, the building that the gold-bottomed maiden was now mooning.

Twitter: @johnkelly

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