Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Thomas Ball's 1876 Daniel Webster Statue - Central Park


Gordon W. Burnham was described by The New York Times as "one of the most widely known millionaires of this city."  On July 25, 1874, he sent a letter to Henry G. Stebbins, the president of the Department of Public Parks, which said in part:

I respectfully offer for the Central Park a bronze statue of Daniel Webster of colossal size, with an appropriate granite pedestal, the whole work to be executed by the best artist in a manner altogether worthy the grandeur of the subject and the conspicuous position it is designed to occupy at the lower entrance to the mall...I trust that my offer to place this statue on the site proposed will meet the speedy acceptance of your department, in order that the work may be duly completed by the fourth of July, 1876--the Centennial of American Independence.

In reproducing the letter, the New York Herald called the proposed artwork, "A most appropriate memorial to the Great Statesmen."  Webster was highly respected by New Yorkers.  Born in New Hampshire in 1782, he served in both Congress and the House of Representatives, earning a reputation as one of the country's preeminent orators.  He served as Secretary of State twice, under Presidents John Tyler and Millard Fillmore.  Webster died in 1852.

The New York Times reported, "This very handsome offer of Mr. Burnham's...will, no doubt, be meet with speedy acceptance and approbation of the Commissioners."  That presumption proved to be overly-optimistic.  

New Yorkers, shocked to read a few days later that the Parks Commissioners had refused Burnham's offer, fired off letters of protest to newspapers.  One, who signed his letter "Citizen," criticized the commissioners for filling the park with monuments to foreigners, yet not one American.  He pointed out that "statues of Shakespeare, Walter Scott, Humboldt and others occupy prominent positions on the Mall and by the main entrance."  He angrily suggested that had Burnham offered a statue of "Robert Burns, or the late Prince Consort, or even Queen Victoria," it would have been "obsequiously" accepted.

In the meantime, not expecting that his offer would be refused, Burnham had commissioned Thomas Ball to begin work on the Webster statue.  Born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, the sculptor was currently working in Florence, Italy.

No doubt as a reaction to the vociferous public backlash and the donor's significant financial outlay, a compromise was found.  The statue would sit in Central Park, but not on the Mall as Burnham hoped.  

Appleton & Company's 1876 Proceedings of the Inauguration of the Statue of Daniel Webster explained that the anticipated unveiling date of July 4, 1876 was derailed by "delays and disappointments."  The 14-foot bronze, which stands on a 20-foot-tall pedestal, was unveiled on November 25, 1876 near the 72nd Street and Fifth Avenue entrance to the park "in the presence of several thousand spectators," according to the New York Herald.  The newspaper said,

Mr. Webster is represented as standing erect, dressed in the old fashioned dress coat, which fully exposes the outline of the figure.  The whole monument, including the pedestal, weighs over 125 tons, and cost over $30,000.  The pedestal is of Quincy granite, and contains one single block weighing thirty-three tons.

Bronze letters affixed to the front of the pedestal read:

Liberty and Union
Now and Forever
One and Inseparable 
Daniel Webster

Burnham celebrated that evening with a lavish reception at his Fifth Avenue mansion.  Among the guests were Governor Samuel J. Tilden; two former governors; and socialites and industrialists with surnames like Dodge, Phelps, Kingsland, Depew, and Roosevelt.  And a month later, on December 27, Burnham was honored with a testimonial from the City Council for the gift.  According to the New York Herald, "The testimonial required ten days' labor, at a cost of $250, and has been richly framed in gold, set off by crimson velvet."

stereoscope photograph by Augustus Hepp, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

As is often the case, the high critical appraisal of the Webster statue dimmed with the passage of years.  On May 28, 1890, the critic from the Evening World described the base as "an ugly pedestal of gray, unpolished granite."  On June 27, 1912, The New York Times reported that "seven pounds of dynamite were found buried in a sand heap near the statue of Daniel Webster."  The article explained, "It must have been placed there by laborers working on the aqueduct."  Happily, it was found before an accident occurred.  But the article brusquely commented, "If the stuff had exploded it might have destroyed the Webster statue.  Nobody would have shed tears about that."

On November 28, 1943, The New York Times reported  that Commissioner Robert Moses felt the Webster statue, "replete with cutaway coat, hand tucked in the waistcoat, handy tombstone to hold top coat, beetling brow, unpressed pants" and "horrific" base, was one of the worst statues in the city.  The passage of years did not warm critics' feelings.  Writing in The New York Times on September 15, 1974, architectural journalist Ada Louise Huxtable said, "until you've seen a really bad base, like the awkward highrise of the equally awkward Daniel Webster in Central Park (whose pomposity affords a certain delight), you may not be aware of the difference this can make."

The Webster statue was conserved in 1963, but the result offended The New York Times journalist Grace Glueck who wrote on April 17, 1987, "we have Thomas Ball's tastelessly patinated figure of Daniel Webster, an out-of-scale [artwork] 34 feet in height and resembling a wooden Indian, towering over the 72d Street Transverse."

It was not the quality of the sculpture that angered protestors in 2020, but Webster's political stance in 1850.  While he called slavery a "great moral, social, and political evil," he aggressively attempted to keep the Union intact.  To that end, he supported the Compromise of 1850 that included the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed for the return of escaped slaves across state lines.  In June 2020 the base was defaced with spray painted graffiti.

Despite its somewhat rocky reputation, Thomas Ball's larger-than-life memorial to Daniel Webster stands defiantly in the park, greatly overlooked by the throngs of visitors who pass by.

photograph by the author
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