I’m a historical landscape architect and have been very curious about the fate of the Noyes armillary sphere in Meridian Hill Park. The sculpture, by C. Paul Jennewein, was a significant piece of public art. Dedicated circa 1936, it was vandalized and removed in the late 1970s. It had an appallingly short life span! I’m interested in its fate.
— James O’Day, Washington
An armillary sphere models the heavens. It resembles an open globe, the intersecting circular pieces of which are able to show various celestial events, such as the paths of the sun and stars. It’s akin to a very complex sundial. Armillary spheres are often sold in garden shops as decorative objects, but the one in Meridian Hill Park actually worked.
The Noyes armillary sphere was donated by Bertha Noyes in honor of her sister, Edith. Answer Man didn’t find much in the public record about Edith, though in 1907, she and Bertha were named guardians of their father, Isaac P. Noyes, a War Department clerk who had been adjudged insane after exhibiting “homicidal or other dangerous tendencies.”
Edith was dead by 1925. Bertha died in 1966 at age 90. She was well-known in local art circles. She had studied at the Corcoran, was a founding member of the Arts Club and often exhibited portraits of native people she had sketched on trips to Central and South America and the American Southwest.
She must have been pleased to have her family’s name connected with that of C. Paul Jennewein, a German-born artist who established himself in the United States. He’s best known for monumental sculptures, including eagles that adorn Arlington Memorial Bridge and the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery. His Meridian Hill armillary sphere was close to 6 feet high. Made of copper and bronze, it featured a curved band covered with signs of the zodiac. A winged baby — a putto — stood in the center.
All in all, it was quite impressive. So where is it now?
Well, the statues of Meridian Hill Park — also known as Malcolm X Park — have not always been treated with care. Vandals have attacked them, and so it was with the Noyes armillary sphere. Answer Man doesn’t know what the specific damage was, but it was enough to remove the sculpture.
“It was gone by 1985,” said Simone Monteleone, cultural resources program manager for Rock Creek Park. “My understanding is the Park Service removed it to have it repaired.”
The Park Service isn’t sure when it was removed — after 1977 and before 1985. And, embarrassingly, they aren’t sure where it is now. They don’t know whether it was stolen while awaiting repairs or just misplaced.
All that remains of the once-mighty orb is the octagonal granite base it sat upon at the south end of the park, near the reflecting pool, now largely obscured by a circular hedge. The Park Service also has the winged baby that once stood inside the sphere. It is safely archived at a facility in Landover.
It would be possible to recast the sphere. The Park Service has original design drawings. Simone said it even has a life-size mock-up in storage at a Brentwood facility. It was created after the original went missing. The recreation is made of aluminum, however, and is not strong enough to withstand the elements.
The Park Service has spent about $10 million over the past decade restoring Meridian Hill Park, largely to stabilize the aggregate concrete walls that are such a striking part of its design. Last year, the Joan of Arc statue was cleaned and waxed. Joan got her missing sword replaced, too. A wrought-iron fence at the north end has also been restored. Atop it are globes reminiscent of the missing armillary sphere.
Monteleone said that fabricating and installing a new armillary sphere is on the list of long-term goals for the park. The list is so long-term that there is no timetable.
“It’s not something that we’ve costed out,” she said.
In the meantime, Answer Man requests that you study the photo accompanying this column. Do you have this in your shed or covered by ivy at the back of your yard? Please return it, no questions asked.
It’s summer, the time of year when readers of this column generously support Camp Moss Hollow, a summer camp for at-risk kids from the Washington area. You can make a tax-deductible donation at washingtonpost.com/camp. Click where it says, “Give Now.” Or send a check, made payable to “Send a Kid to Camp,” to Send a Kid to Camp, Family Matters of Greater Washington, P.O. Box 200045, Pittsburgh, PA 15251-0045.