(Boston Public Library)
Part of an occasional series highlighting a piece of neighborhood history. The following is the final installment in a two-part series about the statuary groups made by Daniel Chester French at Franklin Park.
French began work on Science in May, 1880 and the eight foot high half-scale plaster model was submitted to the supervising architect James G. Hall in March, 1882. French hired a young Concord sculptor, Frank Edwin Elwell, as an assistant for the Boston groups. In the sculptural group, the figure Science is a seated woman with her foot resting on a closed volume, representing her concealed secrets. Crouching at her feet is a gigantic slave with his hands chained to a steam locomotive wheel. Standing at her right is an energetic young man clutching a thunderbolt as the Spirit of Electricity, his youth symbolizing the emerging potential of the new resource.
The face of Science is turned towards the companion group Labor, to which the eye is also drawn by the outstretched arm of Electricity. French began Labor in May, 1882, also in his New York studios, and the seven foot high plaster model was ready for enlargement and carving in August, 1883. The finished piece is fifteen feet high and consists of a seated Labor in leather apron with his right arm on an anvil which also protects a mother cradling her baby. At his right is the rhythmic figure representing Arts.
As at Philadelphia and St. Louis, when the half size plaster models were completed French’s involvement ended and he had no more control over how the sculptures looked. The Boston groups were enlarged and carved in at least three sections in white Vermont marble by the Charles Hall Company (which does not seem to be a Boston firm). They were set on pedestals about one hundred feet above Congress Street flanking the huge two-story entrance arch. The pedestals were set on each side of the narrow Mansard roof, which is different from the dome roofs featured in Philadelphia and St. Louis.
Boston had not seen anything like the post office statuary groups when they were erected in 1885. They were among largest sculptures in the city; they joined the Soldiers and Sailors monument on the Boston Common (Martin Milmore, 1877), the Charlestown Soldiers and Sailors monument (Martin Milmore, 1872) and the George Washington at the Public Garden (done by Thomas Ball, French’s mentor, in 1864. Martin Milmore was an apprentice to Ball on the Washington, completed just before Ball left for Florence).
French’s statues also decorated a facade of a building, which was unusual for Boston. Decorating public buildings with statuary was popular in France. The first Boston building to be decorated with sculpture was the Second Horticultural Hall on Tremont Street, designed by Gridley JF Bryant and Arthur Gilman; Gilman was strongly influenced by French architecture. The building had three standing statues each modeled by Martin Milmore and carved with the assistance of his brother Joseph. On the central attic was a white granite statue of Ceres, a copy of the original in the Vatican; on the second floor projecting piers were flanked Pomona and Flora (the latter a copy of the one at Naples).The statues were set up in 1866.
Clearly the Second Horticultural Hall showed Boston how dramatic statuary vogue on a public building could be, but aside from busts and applied ornamentation, the vogue did not appear to be popular. The three statuary groups on the federal buildings were more than anything else a statement of civic pride and prelude to the City Beautiful movement in which French would play a prominent role.
All three post office statuary groups still exist. At St. Louis the original sculpture was removed to the interior of the building during the St. Louis Post Office restoration project in 1991. A replica was placed on the outside in the original location.
When the Philadelphia Post Office and Federal Building was razed for a new building in 1937, the supervising architect Louis A. Simon offered Law, Prosperity and Power to the Fairmount Art Commission. Paul Cret designed a site plan and new base and the group was removed in 1938 to George’s Hill in Fairmount Park.
The Pubic Buildings Act of 1926 authorized $165 million for new federal buildings and the city of Boston applied for and received an appropriation to replace the 1885 Post Office and Subtreasury Building. By the end of December, 1929, the massive city block-long building had been razed. Cram & Ferguson designed the tall art deco style post office and court house between 1931 and 1933. (Today it is the John W. McCormack Post Office and Courthouse Building.)
The Department of the Treasury first considered incorporating the statuary groups on the new building “if agreed by the architects who will design the new edifice.” (Boston Herald, Aug 19,1928. Includes a photograph taken from the air showing the statues on the old building.) The Fogg Art Museum in November, 1928 offered to “preserve both statues if the city of Boston did not wish to keep them (Harvard Crimson Nov. 20, 1928. At the time the city was apparently considering taking only one statue).
On March 19, 1929 the Department of the Treasury offered both statues to the city of Boston. Mayor Malcolm Nichols and Park Commissioner William P. Long agreed that the Franklin Park Zoological Gardens would be the best location. The timing was perfect, aligning with the city of Boston’s 300th anniversary celebrations, and it was proposed that the DC French’s sculptures would be unveiled in their new location then. Later that year the statues were removed to Franklin Park where they were repaired. Landscape architect Arthur Shurcliff—who designed the Zoological Gardens in 1910 and was designing a new Rock Garden there for the tercentennial—was commissioned to design new bases and site improvements at the Playstead Road entrance to the zoo. These plans were approved on January 7, 1930 and on January 24 the John Evans Company was given a $19,500 contract to build the new pedestals and erect the two statuary groups.
The Boston Globe reported on June 30, 1930 that “the statues recently removed (The two groups were taken apart in the same way they had been assembled forty five years earlier: one section at a time. They were then reassembled on their new bases.) from the post office [have now] been set up on granite pedestals. One of the statues is entirely completed and the other will be in a few days.”
The two statuary groups were ready for the throngs of people who flocked to Franklin Park on September 17, 1930, the 300th anniversary of the founding of Boston.
They admired a new rock garden, enjoyed pageants and school performances, and gazed close up at the great statues which only a few years earlier had been seen one hundred feet above the sidewalk on Congress Street.
Shurcliff logically faced the statues down the long allée of the zoological gardens (the allée no longer exists). Although the statuary groups were placed against the roof of the post office they were nevertheless carved in the round. The back and sides are fully formed and seen from the park side, the back of the statues still have interest and the right arm of Electricity points the viewer into the zoo grounds.
On January 3,1986, Mary Shannon—the late executive secretary of the Boston Art Commission —wrote this writer to say that Kathryn Greenthal, in her research on Boston monuments, discovered an interesting letter from French objecting to having the sculptures removed from the post office and displayed as individual groups; to French the sculptures were an integral part of the architecture.
In 1989 a new Playstead entrance and visitor’s gate was redesigned and built to include a plaza, oval seating areas and shrubbery borders around and flanking the statuary groups. This allows for a much better viewing area for the statues, among the largest public sculptures ever made for Boston.
This column is a submission from the Jamaica Plain Historical Society.
To read more about the rich history of Jamaica Plain, visit the Jamaica Plain Historical Society website at: http://www.jphs.org/.
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