Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Daniel Chester French's Nearly-Lost "Manhattan" and "Brooklyn"

Daniel Chester French's "Brooklyn" and "Manhattan" in preparation for removal 1964 -- photo Brooklyn Museum
As the 19th Century turned into the 20th, the “City Beautiful” movement swept over New York. The movement, which maintained that surrounding citizens with “civilized” buildings would in turn foster civilized behavior, resulted in grand marble, limestone and granite edifices. (A century later the feasibility of that theory is highly debatable.)

Planners for the new Manhattan Bridge, just up river from the Brooklyn Bridge, had the movement vividly in mind. The approach to the bridge on the Manhattan side was to rival anything in Europe – a grand, open plaza with a monumental archway. Architects Carrere & Hastings, who had recently designed another City Beautiful show-stopper, the New York Public Library, were given the commission to design the plaza.

In 1912 over a thousand families lost their homes when a swath of land 400 by 750 feet was leveled. A great triumphal arch would serve as the entrance to the bridge. On either side curved colonnades, like those embracing St. Peter’s Square in Rome, would welcome the traveler onto the span. Around the plaza, park-like landscaping was designed with grass, flowers and shrubbery.

The monumental approach on the Manhattan side -- postcard from author's collection
Carrere & Hastings lavished the monumental structure with sculpture by selected artists. Carl Rumsey executed the frieze of American Indians and buffalo, C. A. Heber did the large groupings on either side of the opening. Construction began in 1901 and the bridge opened in 1909.

The very non-monumental approach on the Brooklyn Side -- photo Brooklyn1.com
Meanwhile, on the Brooklyn side things were less monumental. The entrance plaza here consisted of two immense granite pylons – no arch, no colonnade, no landscaped park. Perhaps because of civic guilt, plans were put forward to add statues to the pylons two years later. Subsequently Daniel Chester French was hired to create two huge allegorical sculptures of Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Although French was responsible for numerous civic sculptures, he would become most remembered for his gigantic rendering of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Monument in Washington DC. For the bridge entrance, he sculpted two seated figures in matching granite using, most likely, model Audrey Munson as his model. (Munson would appear in sculpture throughout the city, such as Civic Pride atop City Hall and the Pomona Fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel.) French attempted to capture the essence of the boroughs in stone.

"Manhattan" -- photo by Douglas Yeo
Manhattan sits haughtily with her head held high, her hand turned under on her knee. She holds a winged globe and wears a tiara. French represented Manhattan’s wealth of museums with a ruined Greek torso, its banking industry with the money chest under her foot, and its shipping industry with the bows of three ships. A peacock stands regally beside her.

"Brooklyn" -- photo Douglas Yeo
A more maternal Brooklyn has a small boy reading a book at her feet. Next to her is a church – representative of the borough of churches. She wears a laurel wreath as opposed to a tiara and at her side is a lyre.

French was able not only to capture various civic aspects of the two boroughs; but he also reflected their public impressions – Manhattan being regal and dignified, Brooklyn being homey and unpretentious.

On April 11, 1915 The New York Times reported that the statues were nearly ready for installation. Calling them “of heroic size,” the newspaper said “They are to be placed on pylons built of Victoria white granite and ornamented, so as to produce an impression of strength and dignity. The pedestals for the statues are fifteen feet high and represent a cost of $9,000 each.”

Bridge Commissioner Kracke commented that “The design of the approach and of the plaza is highly ornamental and yet is not lacking in either simplicity or dignity. In designing the approach the idea was kept in mind that the Flatbush Avenue extension would be a wide and beautiful boulevard into Brooklyn, and the approach in consequence was laid out so as not to suggest the idea of a terminal, but of an open driveway.”

“Brooklyn” and “Manhattan” sat quietly surrounded by traffic for half a century until, in 1961, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses decided that the plaza needed to be expanded to accommodate increased traffic. On June 1 he applied to the Art Commission of the City of New York to demolish the statues, calling them “ornamental and architectural masonry” that “must yield to make way for reconstruction.” A month later the Commission “grudgingly approved” the removal of the statues. At the 11th hour, the two artworks were given a reprieve and the 20-ton maidens were relocated to either side of the main entrance to the Brooklyn Museum in April 1964.

In 2003 the statues were restored by Conservation Solutions, Inc. who removed and disassembled each one into its component stones, cleaned them, filled damaged areas and re-assembled on new bases flanking the new entrance to the Museum.

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