Few relatively minor public artworks have sparked as much controversy from their inception as the Alexander Lyman Holley monument in Washington Square Park. Yet today, ask any of the dozens of joggers, dog walkers, chess players or musicians who frequent the Park who Alexander Holley was and not a one will have an answer.
An undeniably brillant man, Holley was born in Lakeville, Connecticut in 1832. The first engineering graduate from Brown University, he learned of the English engineer Sir Henry Bessemer's new process of manufacturing steel. The method was not only cheaper, it could turn out vast quantities. Holley traveled to Britain in 1863, securing the U.S. rights for the Bessemer process. Upon his return he built the Bessemer Steel Works in Troy, New York between 1864 and 1865.
Holley's engineering mind was unrivaled and he pinpointed several areas in which the process could be improved and designed immense manufacturing machines to handle the production. Of the 15 patents he received in his lifetime, two-thirds were for improvements to the Bessemer process. What this all meant for the U.S. was rapid-fire growth of railroads, bridge construction, ship building and economic strength.
At the age of 49 he died in his Brooklyn Heights home from, according to The New York Times obituary on January 30, 1882, "peritonitis, due to a complication of diseases" after becoming sick in Europe. Henry Ward Beecher, popular pastor of the day and father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, officiated at his funeral.
International fund raising for a memorial started almost immediately, spearheaded by three professional groups in which he had been active: The American Society of Civil Engineers (he had been a vice president), The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (he had been a founder), and The Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers (he had been a president).
And almost immediately the controversy began.
Grand monuments had, for the most part, been reserved for statesmen and military heroes. Holley was not only an engineer, albeit a great one, he was essentially unknown to the general public. Six months before the unveiling The New York Times complained in an April 24, 1890 article that public space was becoming too scarce to be wasted on statues of persons whom, for the most part, no one knew. Editors from other newspapers echoed the sentiment.
Nevertheless the monument was completed. The bronze bust was sculpted by John Quincy Adams Ward who, in 1882, had completed his masterful standing statue of George Washington downtown at Federal Hall. The bust sits on a three-part Beaux Arts pedestal of Indiana limestone designed by Thomas Hastings who had recently left the architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White to go into partnership with John Carrere.
Photograph courtesy newyorkcitystatues.com
A small procession from 18th Street to the park kicked off the unveiling on October 2, 1890. At the dedication ceremony, which was scheduled to coincide with an international convention of the iron and steel industry, James C. Bayles, chairman of the Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers, shot back at the critics. "Our heroes are not alone those who have repelled invasion..." he argued, and then added with what would shock today's green-minded envinronmentalists, "...but in a better sense those who have made the great forest of nature subservient to our purpose..."
In an unveiled reproach, he compared the lofty effort to memorialize Holley with the less ideal activities of politicians. "Perhaps its presence will not be without significance in a city where the petty struggles of parties and factions for brief and inglorious supremacy waste so many lives and occupy so large a share of our thoughts."
Once the monument was in place and dedicated, one would expect the controversy to subside. And so it did for a while. But then on August 6, 1901 The Times stirred the pot again; by now defending the memorial as artistic, but disparaging its placement.
"On a side-path," it wrote, "in Washington Square facing a vulgarly ornate frame cottage which has some purpose in connection with the administration of the park and the storage of lawn mowers, rakes wheelbarrows, and the like, stands the beautiful memorial bust of Alexander Lyman Holley, on a pedestal of unusual excellence. In a modest way it is one of the most charming and attractive of the monuments of New York."
The editor went on to lament the condition of the memorial. "It is not well cared for. The pedestal is marred and begrimed, and it gives every evidence of neglect. The eyes, ears and corners of the mouth are occupied by the white coccoons of the caterpillars from the surrounding trees, giving it a grotesque appearance calculated to excite the passer-by to laughter."
Not only did The Times object to the choice of Washington Square for its setting, but its placement in the park as well, directly across from the "bronze contortionist," the statue of Garibaldi. "The beautiful Holley Memorial...suggests an orchid in a kitchen garden."
The editor accused the Park Commissioners for assigning the memorial a site as "inconspicious as possible, for the reason that they had no idea who Holley was and knew only that he had had no ostensible identification with Tammany." The New York Times insisted on correcting the insult. "The proper place for the Holley Memorial is in the grounds of Columbia University, perhaps in front of the beautiful library building."
The Times never got their wish. The Holley Monument remains where it was placed in 1890. The several swirling controversies around it died away. In the middle of the 20th Century New York University students held an annual tug-of-war in the park that attracted thousands of onlookers. The loser was doomed to kiss the bronze lips of Alexander Lyman Holley.
The memorial was restored in 1999, despite which no one in the park knows who Alexander Lyman Holley was.