Correction: An earlier version of this column misspelled the name of Maria Peverini, the model for “Lady and Unicorn.” This version has been corrected.
Back in the early 1960s, there was a wonderful life-size statue of Venus and a unicorn in Dumbarton Oaks, adjacent to Montrose Park in Georgetown. Sometime in that decade, some ruffians cut the unicorn horn off and stole it. Later in the same decade, or maybe in the 1970s, someone backed a pickup truck down the Montrose Park maintenance alley which borders Dumbarton Oaks and actually stole the whole statue, both Venus and the unicorn. Was the statue ever recovered? If it was, do you know where it is now? I have sweet memories of walking along the trails of Dumbarton Oaks and enjoying the scenery.
— Christian Beres ,
North Beach, Md.
Life is not always easy for a statue. It’s very hard to defend yourself when you’re an immovable hunk of stone or metal. In Meridian Hill Park, the statue of a reclining woman known as “Serenity” has only nine toes and is missing her left hand, the result of vandalism.
Near Folger Shakespeare Library, a statue of Puck was set upon so many times — his fingers snapped off, his upraised right hand amputated — that in 2002 he was replaced by a copy cast in more resilient aluminum.
As Puck might have put it: “Lord, what punks these mortals be!”
The Dumbarton Oaks sculpture suffered similar indignities. It was created in 1935 by Daniel Gillette Olney , a New York native who graduated from Yale and studied at the Beaux Arts Institute. Olney trained with Gutzon Borglum and was an assistant to Paul Manship. The Dumbarton Oaks work — cast in lead, standing 67 inches high and known as “Lady and Unicorn” — is more reminiscent of Manship’s spare, slender style than Borglum’s grandiose Mount Rushmore.
Olney was a fixture in the 1930s art scene in Washington. One of his statues was selected to represent the city in the 1939 World’s Fair. It is said that Maria Peverini, the wife of another local sculptor, William Calfee , was the model for “Lady and Unicorn” — well, for the lady, anyway. (Then as now, the National Zoo did not have a unicorn.)
According to James Carder, archivist and house collection manager at Dumbarton Oaks, Olney’s statue has moved around a bit. It was first in the area known as the Wilderness. It was relocated in 1938 to what was then called Camellia Circle. It moved again in 1940, when Dumbarton’s owners, Robert Woods Bliss and Mildred Barnes Bliss, donated the land on which it stood to the National Park Service.
Around 1970, the sculpture was damaged, but not stolen. To keep it out of harm’s way, it was removed and stored in an area under the greenhouse. “It was restored in the late 1980s,” James wrote in an e-mail. “It was then relocated to the area of the Music Room and in 2004 was moved to an area adjacent to the pre-Columbian pavilion.”
Sculptor Olney is best known for a series of bas-relief terra cotta panels at the Langston Terrace Dwellings public housing project in Northeast Washington. Figures ranging from farmers to factory workers adorn brickwork over a courtyard entrance. The work is called “The Progress of the Negro Race,” a somewhat cringe-worthy title, given that Olney was not, in fact, African American. But the design fits well with black architect Hillyard Robinson’s International Style.
Olney died in 1980 in Mexico.
As for “Lady and Unicorn,” its current location is not in a public area. But visitors can catch a glimpse of the lady’s head by peering through the foliage from inside the Philip Johnson-designed pre-Columbian pavilion. Look straight out from behind the carved marble and incised ceramic bowls in Room III.
There’s no time like the present to help Camp Moss Hollow, a summer camp for at-risk kids from the Washington area. Post readers have supported it for nearly 40 years, giving boys and girls the chance to trade the hot street for the cool forest. To make a donation, go to www.family
mattersdc.org. Or send a check, payable to “Send a Kid to Camp,” to Family Matters of Greater Washington, 1509 16th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036, Attention: Accounting Department.
An anonymous donor is matching gifts up to a total of $100,000. What’s more, the Clyde’s chain is providing gift certificates to their fine restaurants, including the many Clyde’s locations, the Hamilton, the Tombs and Old Ebbitt Grill. If you donate between $200 and $299, you’ll receive a $25 gift certificate. Give $300 or more, and you’ll get a $50 gift certificate. (Certificates will be mailed in August.)
If you’re curious about something you’ve seen in the Washington area, write