Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The 1911 William Cullen Bryant Statue - Bryant Park

photo by Alice Lum
By the time of his death on June 12, 1878 William Cullen Bryant had come a long way from the log house in Cummington, Massachusetts were he was born nearly 84 years earlier.   Had he never written a poem, he would have been remembered as the editor of the New-York Evening Post, a strong political voice and supporter of Abraham Lincoln, and one of the city’s most aggressive promoters of the Central Park project.

But he did write poetry and as early as 1832 was recognized as the foremost poet in America.

Bryant’s involvement with Central Park did not end with his newspaper's publishing in 1858 the winning design submitted by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, nor with his later supporting Olmsted’s candidacy as Superintendent of Parks.   It was Bryant who most often addressed the crowds at the unveiling of statues and monuments in the park—as a matter of fact his death resulted from complications from a fall suffered during ceremonies in the park honoring Giuseppe Mazzini.

So where else than Central Park would be a fitting location be found for an tribute to the poet, reformer and editor?  It would be a question embroiled in politics and argued for years.

In 1847 Bryant founded The Century Association with a few like-minded friends.  The private club was formed to encourage interest in literature and the fine arts and its initial intended membership of 100 led to the name.  In honor of his life-long contributions to American literature and the City of New York, the club commissioned artist Launt Thompson to sculpt a bronze bust of Bryant on his 70th birthday in 1864.  Upon its completion the Association presented it to the Park Commissioners to be placed in Central Park.

The bust was accepted, but its placement was denied.

The Commission had earlier resolved that no bust or statue of a living person would be erected in the park.   A decade later The Century Association was frustrated that the valuable bust “has been lost to the sight of the public ever since.”  Bryant was now celebrating his 80th birthday and the club suggested “that the bust would make an appropriate pendant in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

The Museum accepted the bust on loan in 1874 “until the time—long hence, we pray—when…the bust be entitled to the conspicuous position in the Park which its merits and the fame of the Poet and the Man, the then Commissioners, we doubt not, will unanimously accord it.”

Getting Bryant into Central Park even after his death would be a challenge.  The editor of The New-York Evening Post had made powerful enemies.

Bryant was a staunch foe of the corrupt Tammany Hall ring.  When efforts were made to erect a statue to William Marcy Tweed in Central Park and the Park Commission ruled against it, The Post unabashedly celebrated the decision.  The Tweed ring would not forget the insult.

After Bryant’s death in 1878 expectations were that the bust would be removed from the museum and placed with great ceremony in Central Park.  It did not happen.  When John Bigelow, chairman of the bust committee, approached the Park Commissioners he was turned away.  The New York Times reported that Bigelow was told “The department rule is that no statue shall be erected in the parks unless the person so honored has been dead at least five years, and the committee was informed that when this requirement had been met a suitable site would be designated for the bust.”

The “suitable site” was not necessarily Central Park.

In the meantime the Century Association had a bigger and better idea.  Bigelow filed an informal report suggesting “that the proper way to honor the memory of the dead poet was to erect a statue, at least as imposing as the statues of Burns and Scott,” already sitting in Central Park.  Henry A. Oakley, Treasurer of the club agreed, noting in The Times on June 6, 1883 “I can’t see why we should pay more honors to foreign poets than to our own.”

The Association immediately began collecting public subscriptions to raise the statue, estimated to cost between $15,000 and $20,000.  And it took back the bust from the Museum.

“Meantime, the bust originally made becomes the property of the club, and it is one of the most magnificent works of art in our rooms,” reported Oakley.

While funds were being collected, the Association came up with yet another way of honoring its founder.   Where the 1853 New York Crystal Palace had stood behind the hulking Egyptian Revival Croton Reservoir on 6th Avenue between 41st and 42nd Streets was Reservoir Square.  The club succeeded in having the open space renamed Bryant Park in 1884.

And yet by June 1893 still nothing had been done regarding the statue.  John Bigelow approached the Park Commissioners again.  Surely by now they would approve a site within Central Park, which that owed so much to William Cullen Bryant.

A dejected Bigelow later reported that “our application had become complicated with local Politics,” and, referring to the earlier Tweed issue said, “I attributed to no inconsiderable degree that insensibility to our appeals for a site for a memorial of Mr. Bryant.”

For many, as the turn of the century came and went, it appeared that the Bryant statue would never come to be.

Then in 1911, as Carrere & Hastings’s magnificent white marble New York Public Library was completed on the site of the old reservoir the solution became obvious.   Bryant’s statue would be erected behind the monumental new structure in the park that bore his name.

Sculptor and Century Association member Herbert Adams set to work on the larger-than-life-sized figure while Thomas Hastings designed the pedestal and setting to compliment his masterful library.  Adams depicted an aged Bryant sitting in a large armchair, a lap robe spread over his knees.   A newspaper laid on his lap.

Craftsman magazine published a photo of the plaster model in 1911 (copyright expired)
Hastings’s monumental white marble setting nearly outshone the statue.  A architecturally-rich half dome approached by three shallow steps and supported by Doric columns sheltered the pedestal.  The monument was centered on the terrace, flanked by enormous marble urns atop a graceful balustrade.

photo by Alice Lum
After having battled for over three decades to see a statue to Bryant completed, John Bigelow—one of the last surviving members to have known the poet—was now too infirm to attend the unveiling on October 24, 1911.  “It has been the purpose of the Century Association that Mr. Bigelow himself, as the most intimate friend of Bryant now living should draw aside the veil, but the choice fell to Miss Godwin after it was learned that Mr. Bigelow feared to venture out.”

“Miss Godwin” was Frances Bryant Godwin, great-granddaughter of Bryant and the granddaughter of Parke Godwin, the long-time associate of Bryant in the editorship of the New-York Evening Post.  Around 1,000 people crowded into Bryant Park for the unveiling, causing Library Trustee George L. Rives to express humorous surprise “that the number was so large, in view of the conflict of the unveiling with the fourth game in the world series,” reported The Times.

Mayor William Jay Gaynor called it “a noble monument,” and The Sun said “The city of New York became the richer” for the presence of the statue.  On the pedestal was carved a verse from one of Bryant’s lesser-known, later poems, “The Poet.”
Yet let no empty gust
Of passionate feeling find utterance in thy lay.
A blast that whirls the dust
Along the howling street and dies away;
Best feelings of calm and mighty sweep,
Like currents journeying through the windless deep.

A century later the “noble monument” to William Cullen Bryant still reigns majestically over Bryant Park.  To park visitors Thomas Hastings’s marble pedestal has become part of the Library architecture.    The Century Association’s inability to erect the statue in Central Park due to the Tweed Ring’s vengeful intervention resulted in an even more auspicious setting for his monument.
photo by Alice Lum

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