Stewart L. Udall was from the American West. Perhaps that is why he had such affection for clear, wide-open spaces. What he did not like was clutter. And after coming to Washington as a congressman from Arizona, Udall decided to attack it.
“America is following ancient tradition by cluttering its parks with statues of the great, near great and forgotten who have helped make its history,” Udall said in April 1959. It was the beginning of a nearly decade-long crusade.
Answer Man learned of Udall’s antipathy while researching last week’s column about the Benito Juárez statue across from the Watergate building. That dedication was in 1969, by which time Udall had pretty much given up on his statue-reducing efforts. But for years, the world’s sculptors considered Udall Public Art Enemy No. 1.
Don Quixote tilted at windmills. Stewart Udall tilted at statues.
Udall once said, “A man’s contemporaries are notoriously bad judges of his place in history. Proportion comes only with the passage of time.”
That was in 1959, when he was plugging a bill to prohibit the erection of commemorative statues on federal parkland in the District until the subject had been dead for at least 50 years.
In an editorial generally supporting Udall’s position, The Washington Post quoted the Roman senator Cato, who was reported to have said: “I had rather men should ask why my statue is not set up, than why it is.”
A spokesman for the Fine Arts Commission, an overseer of memorials, pushed back, telling the paper, “the question is too complicated to generalize about.” He added that the issue had been a controversial one since the “height of the Greek civilization and even before.”
And controversial it would remain. Udall’s legislation went nowhere, but like a marble bust, he remained firm.
Udall had more leverage after being tapped by President John F. Kennedy to lead the Interior Department in 1961. At the dedication of Octagon House as a national historic landmark that year, Udall said: “Those who attempt to find in our memorials some sort of waypost on the road of American history must indeed be puzzled when confronted with a statue honoring a gaucho leader in the Uruguay revolution for independence, but none of Thomas Paine or Nathan Hale.”
The gaucho he was referring to was Uruguayan President José Artigas, a statue of whom had stood a few blocks away since 1950.
As it happened, there was a statue of Nathan Hale in town — on the south side of the Justice Department building — but Udall had made his point.
Road construction in the District gave Udall an opening. In November 1961, a statue of editor/candidate William Jennings Bryan by Gutzon Borglum, sculptor of Mount Rushmore, was crated up and sent to Salem, Ill., Bryan’s birthplace. It was banished to make way for a new approach to the Roosevelt Bridge.
The Interior Department announced its desire to eject a statue of Benjamin Rush, physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, from outside the Navy Bureau of Medicine in Foggy Bottom to make way for the proposed E Street Expressway. Interior thought an ideal new home would be Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.
The Navy fought back. So did the statue’s donor: the American Medical Association. Rush stayed.
In a 1963 essay for The Post, Udall explained his thinking: “The D.C. jungle of plaster, bronze, granite and marble should, for the most part, be plowed up and replanted in grass. Consider how much pleasure a green, open park gives to gasping Washingtonians on a hot summer day. Who can sit on a statue and eat his lunch?”
Udall thought Theodore Roosevelt would rather be honored with an untouched island than a boring statue. (In the end, Teddy got both.)
The letters pages of Washington newspapers were full of back-and-forthing about Udall’s battle of the bronze. One letter writer, G.D. Watrous Jr ., noted that with the closing of the streetcar system, the Dupont Circle underpass needed repurposing. Why not kill two birds with one stone by displaying surplus statues alongside the subterranean streetcar tracks?
“So there you have it,” wrote Watrous, tongue-in-cheekily. “Erect the statues in the underpass, each in its own spotlighted niche, and run a small train with a lecturer down one tunnel and back the other continuously for a charge of 10 cents per person. Eureka! Everybody is happy.”
Some people weren’t laughing. Gertrude Darlington was the daughter of the late judge Joseph J. Darlington. Her father was honored in front the District Court Building with gilded statues of a naked nymph and a deer. She asked Udall to refrain from making “derogatory remarks” about statues.
Udall stepped down as interior secretary in 1969, when Richard Nixon took office. In 1986, Congress passed legislation to tighten the process for erecting commemorative works in Washington. It included a stipulation that honorees be dead at least 25 years. The bill was signed into law by Ronald Reagan.
The sponsor of that legislation? Morris Udall, who had taken his brother’s seat in Congress.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.