Friday, October 12, 2012

The 1885 Wm. E. Dodge Statue - Bryant Park

photo by Alice Lum
 William E. Dodge was, by all accounts, a good man.   The problem for many following his death in 1883 was that he was not a great man.

The Connecticut-born millionaire made a fortune when he and his father-in-law, Anson Greene Phelps, founded the mining company of Phelps, Dodge and Company in 1833.  It grew to become one of the country’s largest mining firms.  His business interests went on to include the establishment, with partners, of the Macon and Brunswick Railroad.  But the accumulation of wealth was perhaps secondary to Dodge’s idealistic and heart-felt humanitarian and social interests.

His compassionate ideals were formed early in life.  His father, David Low Dodge, founded the New York Peace Society, a pacifist organization.  The peaceful and caring atmosphere of home would affect Dodge’s numerous adult interests.

As the Civil War approached he was an outspoken abolitionist and for the rest of his life he would finance schools for black students.    Following the war, he turned his focus to the plight of the American Indian.  In 1868, with Peter Cooper, he established the United States Indian Commission and worked with Ulysses S. Grant on the Peace Policy with the Native Americans.

Dodge was one of the Commissioners who traveled West to meet with representatives of the Arapaho, Kiowa and Cheyenne nations to explain and discuss Government policy regarding Native Americans.

William Earl Dodge
When the United States Calvary slaughtered 173 Blackfeet in Montana in 1870—an event that became known as the Marias Massacre—William E. Dodge fought for the prosecution of the commanders in charge.   He went on to campaign for an Indian Affairs cabinet department.

Dodge was an ardent supporter of the Young Men’s Christian Association and, all the while, served as President of the National Temperance Society.   The Society strongly felt that demon alcohol was the source of domestic violence, ruined homes and lives, crime, poverty and other social ills.  One means of fighting the scourge of alcohol was the erection of temperance fountains in large cities.   The availability of clean, pure water, it was felt, would deter the taking of strong drink.

Less than a month after Dodge’s death on February 9, 1883 a movement began, initiated by the Chamber of Commerce of which he had been President for several years, to erect a statue in his honor.   A committee was appointed on March 3 “to consider and devise a plan which would most fittingly meet the wishes of the public,” as explained by the Chamber of Commerce later.  The committee included some of New York’s most respected names in business; Samuel Sloan, John A. Stewart, William H. Fogg and Samuel D. Babcock among them.

380 private donors contributed and eminent sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward was given the project.  To support the statue, prominent architect Richard Morris Hunt was commissioned to design the pedestal, which appropriately was to include a temperance fountain.  

Two years later the Academy of Arts examined the finished sculpture.  In a letter to the Parks Commissioners, it proposed the site, saying “it is a fine piece of work, and should be erected in the square at Thirty-fifth-street, Sixth-avenue, and Broadway.”  Not everyone was pleased.

The New York Times immediately lashed out, saying that if the approval for the spot by the Parks Commissioners had been given, “it has been improvidently given, and should be withdrawn.  If it has not been given, it should be withheld.”

The Editor was vehement that the statue to Dodge should not take up public space.  Dodge was a good man.  But he was not a great man.

“We have no wish at all to detract from the private virtues of Mr. Dodge, which were without doubt such as to entitle him to the affectionate veneration of his descendants and to account for the amiable exaggeration of his public importance which prompts the proposition for the erection of a statue of him in a public park.”

The Editor went on to say that the statue would be entirely appropriate as an ornament to Dodge’s tomb, or attached to the headquarters of any one of the charitable institutions he founded or supported.  But public statues, it argued, were not for good men.  They were for great men.

“This is an honor which ought to be reserved for men whose standing as public men or whose acts as public benefactors have given them an unquestionable title to the broadest recognition.  Now, it is perfectly plain that Mr. Dodge was not a man of this public importance, and that a public statue of him would be an absurdity.”  Even Dodge’s best friends, the Editor argued, “would not think of calling him a great man, and the honors of public statuary ought to be reserved for men about whose greatness there is no question.”

The editorial warned that if the Dodge statue were to be erected on public ground, it would open the floodgates for statues of any person of good moral character whose friends or family could afford to pay for one.

The newspaper would not get its wish.

On October 22, 1885 the statue was unveiled in Herald Square.   Ward had depicted William E. Dodge in the realistic portraiture style for which he was best known.    The millionaire businessman and philanthropist leaned casually on a pedestal atop Hunt’s monumental granite base.   In tribute to Dodge’s life-long dedication to the avoidance of alcohol, a temperance fountain flowed from the mouth of a lion into a carved basin.  The statue was partly enclosed by a semicircular granite bench.

Perhaps to counter the opposition of the city newspapers, the pamphlet accompanying the unveiling noted the such an honor “has hitherto been paid chiefly to those who were eminent in arms or in statesmanship, in science or in letters.  But a genius for doing good would seem to be as worthy of posthumous gratitude as a genius for wilding the sword or the pen or the eloquent tongue.  Deeds of unselfish benevolence deserve a monument as truly as deeds of patriotism, or the achievements of distinguished statesmanship and intellectual culture.”

The statue and fountain can be seen in front of the New York Herald Building shortly after its dedication -- NYPL Collection
The following day The New York Times gave a tepid review of the 2,200 pound statue.  “It represents Mr. Dodge in street costume, bareheaded, leaning on some books, which are on top of a column.”  The Evening World would be even less enthusiastic later when it said “It monopolizes the finest site for a statue in the city.”

The pamphlet of the unveiling ceremonies included the above photograph --copyright expired.
Biographer William Carlos Martyn, however, liked both the statue and the spot.   In his 1890 book “William E. Dodge: the Christian Merchant,” he wrote “The Christian merchant stands in an easy attitude on a massive pedestal, the water he so stanchly advocated trickling at his feet, the brow uncovered and uplifted, an expression of resolute goodness on his noble face—like a benediction embodied in bronze.  As the hurrying throngs pass and repass, in the morning, at noon, or when the evening shadows begin to build a vault above the noisy thoroughfares that here converge, many are the eyes that rest lovingly upon that form.”

After more than half a century standing in Herald Square William E. Dodge was kicked out.  The humiliation was a result of the movement to erect a monument to the Herald’s publisher James Gordon Bennett.  In 1939 as preparations for the Bennett memorial began, the Dodge statue was dismantled, crated and stored away.  In the process, Richard Morris Hunt’s imposing pedestal was purposely destroyed.

On January 27, 1941 The New York Times reported on the installation of two flagpoles at the New York Public Library as a memorial to former Mayor John Purroy Mitchel.  The article ended by parenthetically noting “It was also announced that the bronze statue of William Earle Dodge, president of the State Chamber of Commerce from 1865 to 1875…has been moved to Bryant Park at the rear of the library.”

photo by Alice Lum
The newspaper clearly misspelled Dodge’s middle name, adding an “E” at the end.   But the mistake could nearly be excused when the new, bland granite base was examined.

Here, too, Dodge’s middle name was spelled EARLE.   Chiseled deeply into the base, the superfluous E could not be rectified, so today each of the other letters is gilded with the hope that the unadorned E will blend into the stone.

The William Earl Dodge statue stands proudly in Bryant Park despite its several embarrassments, a monument not to a great man, but to a good one.

Pigeon droppings are perhaps the least of the indignities Dodge's likeness has endured over the years -- photo by Alice Lum


  1. Poor guy... Pigeon poop and all! BTW, have you done a specific posting for the (lost) New York Herald Building? I tried searching the blog but this site doesn't have the best search features or I am just not doing it "right". Let me know and thanks.

    1. I haven't done a posting on the Herald Bldg and it's a great story. Thanks for the nudge!

  2. I'm 11 years late but this was such an interesting read!