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In the annals of monumental sculpture, James Earle Fraser’s equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt hardly ranks as a masterpiece. The Rough Rider is portrayed in frontiersman’s garb and flanked by two figures on foot: a Plains Indian and an African tribesman. Prominently sited before the august Central Park West entrance to the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, the equestrian nonetheless forms an important part of a major monumental ensemble. In late June, the museum requested that the statue, which is owned by the City of New York, be removed. What will replace it—an elephant or T. rex, perhaps, or nothing at all?—has not been disclosed. But the result is likely to be another unhappy reminder that we long ago abandoned the monumental aesthetic that offers the public visions of human greatness. “Man as Hero”—to quote the title of a valuable treatise by the painter and critic Pierce Rice—is an endangered species.

Fraser’s statue, flaws and all, is worth reflecting on—as is the ­commemorative ensemble, designed by John Russell Pope, of which it forms a part—before the amputation occurs. TR and his company look like they are striding right out of the museum. The three men, along with Roosevelt’s horse, are looking straight ahead. This simplistically linear dynamic is more appropriate to a motion picture still than to a work of public sculpture, and it is a defect. TR’s pose, with the left arm holding the reins raised at the elbow while his torso turns so his right hand can rest on his pistol holster, is modeled on Verrocchio’s magis­terial ­Bartolomeo Colleoni equestrian in Venice (1495). But Colleoni’s torso pivots emphatically in one direction while his head turns the other way, along with his horse’s—­creating a subtle directional tension, wholly lacking in the TR, that is essential to Colleoni’s monumentality. Moreover, ­Colleoni’s mount is far more skillfully articulated than TR’s, which takes its cues from the generic and rather dull ­handling of the equine in ­Donatello’s monument to ­Gattamelata in Padua (1453).

And yet Fraser’s monument, with its handsome oval-shaped pedestal, provides a vivid figurative counterpart to, and intensifies the majestic scale of, Pope’s mighty granite entrance pavilion, with its lofty Roman arch. (The arch has too often been obscured by exhibition banners, in line with the lamentable practice established on the other side of Central Park more than half a century ago by the Metropolitan Museum’s Thomas Hoving.) Pope’s pavilion is arrayed with four gigantic Ionic columns, which support attic-level figures of Meriwether Lewis, ­William Clark, John James Audubon, and Daniel Boone. The visitor may linger on the pavilion’s details, such as the Trajanic eagle adorning the arch’s keystone, window aedicules with their minor order of Corinthian columns, and (when banners don’t hog the façade) carved roundels with the insignia of the United States and New York State.

The thrilling urban spectacle Pope created was not meant simply to inspire or overwhelm; it was meant to welcome. The equestrian group is the centerpiece of a raised, 350-foot-long stone terrace. On each side of the steps leading up to the museum, the Ionic columns rise from podiums sporting sculptural reliefs of African and North American mammals that would have been familiar to TR; the cheekblocks at each end of the terrace are likewise decorated. The animals, the work of Edward Field Sanford Jr., form a charming backdrop to the statue and terrace. Stone benches extending from the podiums gird the latter, curving toward the end to terminate at the cheekblocks, and a flagpole with a richly molded bronze base featuring lions’ heads and other classical motifs stands near each cheekblock. The benches offer views of the avenue and park, but their backs are architectural parapets inscribed with TR’s vocations—starting with Ranchman and ending with Patriot—punctuated by carved wreaths. The terrace is intended as an urban amenity that is both hospitable and honorific.

From the terrace, the visitor steps up to three entrance portals of green marble and bronze, above which a vast glazed expanse is enriched by an ornate openwork bronze frieze and, above that, three towering panels of patterned bronze grillework rising up to the arch’s coffered soffit. Passing into the Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda, you find yourself in a vast barrel-vaulted space. The elaborately coffered vault reaches a height of one hundred feet and terminates at the north and south ends of the hall in large lunette-shaped Roman windows, again fitted with bronze grilles. The marble and limestone walls are inscribed with TR quotations on the subjects of youth, nature, manhood, and the state, above which inset ­panels frame handsomely stylized wingspread eagles clutching beribboned wreaths. Pairs of Corinthian columns with shafts of Italian red marble stand in each of the chamber’s four vestibules, including the eastern main entrance vestibule, and are framed by engaged piers of the same order.

For the past three decades, the Rotunda has famously accommodated the preposterously elongated neck and miniscule head of a fossilized barosaurus rearing up to defend its young against a predatory allosaurus. But the Rotunda’s original decoration includes another attraction: three mural paintings in the north, south, and west vestibules that together cover more than five thousand square feet. The murals are keyed to three events: TR’s promotion of the construction of the Panama Canal, his presiding over negotiation of the 1905 treaty that ended the Russo-Japanese War (for which he became the first American to receive the Nobel Peace Prize), and the lengthy African expedition that followed his presidency. William Andrew Mackay’s murals feature a high-pitched, modernistic palette and incorporate scores of figures—­modern, historic, mythical, allegorical, religious—along with a highly picturesque variety of flora and fauna and even portions of maps with latitude and longitude notations. Resembling huge Art Deco collages, the murals strike a notable contrast with Pope’s classicism but do not overwhelm their architectural setting, including its decidedly more restrained color scheme.

As is the case with the equestrian statue, the terrace, and the entrance arch, grandeur of scale is key to the Rotunda’s monumental effect. Pope employs an ancient but supremely adaptable architectural vocabulary that is hardwired to convey such grandeur. We experience the Rotunda’s structural elements and spatial character in a bodily sense. The fine materials and elegant detail make for an aesthetic experience far removed from the commonplace, and therefore conducive to reverence for a great American and, of course, America.

The cornerstone for the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial, as Pope’s ensemble is known, was laid by TR’s fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1931, when FDR was governor of New York. As president, FDR spoke eloquently at the memorial’s dedication in 1936. In 1940 the memorial was finally completed with the installation of Fraser’s equestrian group. And within thirty-five years, the modernist landscape architect Lawrence Halprin was at work on the design of an FDR memorial to be sited in Washington, D.C.’s West Potomac Park. The difference between the memorials to the two Roosevelts reveals how radically elite sensibilities concerning monuments and civic spaces had changed in the intervening years.

Halprin had, in his words, to grapple with “the question of what a memorial in our times should be. Because we have no contemporary monuments other than copies of Greek temples, Americans have no image of what a memorial is.” ­Halprin presumably was thinking of two classical monuments nearby: Henry Bacon’s Lincoln Memorial (1922) on the Mall and Pope’s ­Jefferson Memorial (1943), situated across the Tidal Basin from West Potomac Park. Never mind that neither one remotely qualifies as a copy of a Greek temple. The Jefferson Memorial takes the distinctly Roman Pantheon, perhaps the Eternal City’s finest ancient landmark, as its prototype. The Pantheon and the Jefferson Memorial are, however, two very different structures—beginning with the fact that the latter is an open-air monument rather than an enclosed temple. Nor, for the record, is the TR memorial a copy of a Greek temple, though it, too, draws on the Pantheon, as with the Corinthian columns and piers decorating the Rotunda’s vestibules. In both monuments Pope made highly inventive and effective use of the classical architectural canon.

Halprin’s memorial, finally dedicated in 1997, represents a deconstruction of the monumental aesthetic Pope espoused. Rather than idealize the highest achievements and noblest traits of its subject in symbolic terms, which involves the aesthetically resonant distillation of architectural and natural forms, Halprin produced a neo-primitive ruin, with walls of quarry-face carnelian granite defining four open-air enclosures corresponding to FDR’s four terms in office. Trees, shrubs, a variety of cascades and waterfalls, inscribed quotations, and an abundance of bad figurative sculpture populate this memorial, which sprawls over seven and a half acres. Neil Estern’s seated statue of FDR is situated on a low platform. Wearing his Yalta cape, and with an overscaled Fala close at hand, the president looks like death warmed over. The evocation of character has given way to morbid naturalism.

And yet Estern was outdone, not long after the memorial’s dedication, by Robert Graham, who created a weirdly impressionistic sculptural likeness of FDR in his wheelchair for the memorial’s vast and rather desolate forecourt. Halprin opposed the addition of the Graham portrait—which was included at the insistence of the National Organization on ­Disability—and yet it was a fitting coda to the memorial’s creation. Conceived in narrative rather than symbolic terms, this absurdly overwrought anti-monument winds up cutting FDR down to size. Graham’s pretentiously vague modeling is intended to evoke the haze of memory. But a truly honorific monument is not fundamentally concerned with memory. It is concerned with presence, and with representing its subject as an ideal type, someone who is no longer becoming but has become, having fulfilled some higher intention, some higher human possibility. This is why the statuary monument in the classical tradition is typically elevated on a pedestal.

It’s easy to criticize Theodore ­Roosevelt’s vanity, opportunism, imperialistic fervor, and progressive notions of the white man’s burden and the Madisonian Constitution’s obsolescence, but it’s a whole lot harder to emulate the courage, intellectual and athletic discipline, and sheer energy that made his astonishing array of achievements possible. Of course his statuary monument would be designed differently today. Yet it is worth considering that the hierarchy Fraser portrayed need not be perpetual. Fraser conceived the Indian and the tribesman as TR’s gunbearers. Both carry long arms and both are thoroughly dignified figures. Does Roosevelt appear to be leading them back along the well-trodden path to servitude, or toward a new frontier that incorporates peoples previously excluded from civilization’s bounty?

It’s conceivable that Pope, like TR, subscribed to the idea of America as an empire, a new Rome more benevolent than its predecessor. But Pope’s architecture more essentially affirms classicism’s humanistic universality. It is time we took stock of his achievement. TR was the beneficiary of a civic-art heritage that was worthy of the nation he led. His cousin wasn’t so fortunate. 

Catesby Leigh writes about public art and architecture and lives in ­Washington, D.C. 

Photo by JoyofMuseums via Creative Commons. Image cropped.