Meet the In­te­rior chief who tried to clear D.C.’s “jun­gle of plas­ter, bronze, gran­ite and mar­ble.”

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - [email protected]­ Twit­ter: @johnkelly For pre­vi­ous col­umns, visit wash­ing­ton­

Ste­wart L. Udall was from the Amer­i­can West. Perhaps that is why he had such af­fec­tion for clear, wide-open spa­ces. What he did not like was clut­ter. And af­ter com­ing to Wash­ing­ton as a con­gress­man from Ari­zona, Udall de­cided to attack it.

“Amer­ica is fol­low­ing an­cient tra­di­tion by clut­ter­ing its parks with stat­ues of the great, near great and for­got­ten who have helped make its his­tory,” Udall said in April 1959. It was the be­gin­ning of a nearly decade­long cru­sade.

An­swer Man learned of Udall’s an­tipa­thy while re­search­ing last week’s col­umn about the Ben­ito Juárez statue across from the Water­gate build­ing. That ded­i­ca­tion was in 1969, by which time Udall had pretty much given up on his statue-re­duc­ing ef­forts. But for years, the world’s sculp­tors con­sid­ered Udall Pub­lic Art En­emy No. 1.

Don Quixote tilted at wind­mills. Ste­wart Udall tilted at stat­ues.

Udall once said, “A man’s con­tem­po­raries are no­to­ri­ously bad judges of his place in his­tory. Pro­por­tion comes only with the pas­sage of time.”

That was in 1959, when he was plug­ging a bill to pro­hibit the erec­tion of com­mem­o­ra­tive stat­ues on fed­eral park­land in the Dis­trict un­til the sub­ject had been dead for at least 50 years.

In an ed­i­to­rial gen­er­ally sup­port­ing Udall’s po­si­tion, The Wash­ing­ton Post quoted the Ro­man se­na­tor Cato, who was re­ported to have said: “I had rather men should ask why my statue is not set up, than why it is.”

A spokesman for the Fine Arts Com­mis­sion, an over­seer of memo­ri­als, pushed back, telling the paper, “the ques­tion is too com­pli­cated to gen­er­al­ize about.” He added that the is­sue had been a con­tro­ver­sial one since the “height of the Greek civ­i­liza­tion and even be­fore.”

And con­tro­ver­sial it would re­main. Udall’s leg­is­la­tion went nowhere, but like a mar­ble bust, he re­mained firm.

Udall had more lever­age af­ter be­ing tapped by Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy to lead the In­te­rior De­part­ment in 1961. At the ded­i­ca­tion of Oc­tagon House as a na­tional his­toric land­mark that year, Udall said: “Those who at­tempt to find in our memo­ri­als some sort of way­post on the road of Amer­i­can his­tory must in­deed be puz­zled when con­fronted with a statue hon­or­ing a gau­cho leader in the Uruguay rev­o­lu­tion for in­de­pen­dence, but none of Thomas Paine or Nathan Hale.”

The gau­cho he was re­fer­ring to was Uruguayan Pres­i­dent José Ar­ti­gas, a statue of whom had stood a few blocks away since 1950.

As it hap­pened, there was a statue of Nathan Hale in town — on the south side of the Jus­tice De­part­ment build­ing — but Udall had made his point.

Road con­struc­tion in the Dis­trict gave Udall an open­ing. In Novem­ber 1961, a statue of ed­i­tor/can­di­date Wil­liam Jen­nings Bryan by Gut­zon Bor­glum, sculp­tor of Mount Rush­more, was crated up and sent to Salem, Ill., Bryan’s birth­place. It was ban­ished to make way for a new ap­proach to the Roo­sevelt Bridge.

The In­te­rior De­part­ment an­nounced its de­sire to eject a statue of Ben­jamin Rush, physi­cian and signer of the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence, from out­side the Navy Bureau of Medicine in Foggy Bot­tom to make way for the pro­posed E Street Ex­press­way. In­te­rior thought an ideal new home would be Dick­in­son Col­lege in Carlisle, Pa.

The Navy fought back. So did the statue’s donor: the Amer­i­can Med­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion. Rush stayed.

In a 1963 es­say for The Post, Udall ex­plained his think­ing: “The D.C. jun­gle of plas­ter, bronze, gran­ite and mar­ble should, for the most part, be plowed up and re­planted in grass. Con­sider how much plea­sure a green, open park gives to gasp­ing Wash­ing­to­ni­ans on a hot sum­mer day. Who can sit on a statue and eat his lunch?”

Udall thought Theodore Roo­sevelt would rather be honored with an un­touched is­land than a bor­ing statue. (In the end, Teddy got both.)

The let­ters pages of Wash­ing­ton news­pa­pers were full of back-and-for­thing about Udall’s bat­tle of the bronze. One let­ter writer, G.D. Wa­trous Jr., noted that with the clos­ing of the street­car sys­tem, the Dupont Cir­cle un­der­pass needed re­pur­pos­ing. Why not kill two birds with one stone by dis­play­ing sur­plus stat­ues along­side the sub­ter­ranean street­car tracks?

“So there you have it,” wrote Wa­trous, tongue-in-cheek­ily. “Erect the stat­ues in the un­der­pass, each in its own spot­lighted niche, and run a small train with a lec­turer down one tun­nel and back the other con­tin­u­ously for a charge of 10 cents per per­son. Eureka! Ev­ery­body is happy.”

Some peo­ple weren’t laugh­ing. Gertrude Dar­ling­ton was the daugh­ter of the late judge Joseph J. Dar­ling­ton. Her fa­ther was honored in front the Dis­trict Court Build­ing with gilded stat­ues of a naked nymph and a deer. She asked Udall to re­frain from mak­ing “deroga­tory re­marks” about stat­ues.

Udall stepped down as in­te­rior sec­re­tary in 1969, when Richard Nixon took of­fice. In 1986, Con­gress passed leg­is­la­tion to tighten the process for erect­ing com­mem­o­ra­tive works in Wash­ing­ton. It in­cluded a stip­u­la­tion that hon­orees be dead at least 25 years. The bill was signed into law by Ron­ald Rea­gan.

The spon­sor of that leg­is­la­tion? Mor­ris Udall, who had taken his brother’s seat in Con­gress.


This Wil­liam Jen­nings Bryan statue, shown at its 1934 un­veil­ing, was crated up in 1961 and sent to Salem, Ill., the man’s birth­place.

John Kelly's Wash­ing­ton

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