West of the Fountain Inside Washington Square, Manhattan
Standing like an ornamental bookend in bronze and limestone, this monument commemorates the life (and early death) of Alexander Lyman Holley, an American metallurgist and steel-making pioneer. The statue is in Washington Square on the west side of the park at about the imaginary intersection of Fifth Avenue and Washington Place, more or less opposite the much more imposing statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi, which brandishes its sword not unmenacingly on the other side of the fountain. (They both died in 1882.)
Holley probably belongs to the swollen ranks of people whose worthiness as a subject for a public monument is somewhat dubious. That a bust of Holley is in Washington Square in the first place probably speaks more to the fact that he died at an early age (49), very much in the high esteem of his colleagues, than to a lifetime of electrifying accomplishments.
To be fair, he undoubtedly made a significant contribution to world history, but in a thoroughly American way. While traveling in Europe, he observed the Bessemer process
for making steel and realized its practicality and efficiency. When he returned to the states, he convinced his employer to buy the American patents for it and he became the foremost designer of steel works in the country. The rest is a blur of railroads and smokestacks; read more about it, if you want, here.
The monument was dedicated Oct. 2, 1890, a gift from three professional engineering societies, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers and the American Society of Civil Engineers, though money was raised from related professional groups around the world.
Not everyone was thrilled by the gesture. Many critics, including the editorial boards of several New York newspapers, complained that Holley was hardly a household name. Dianne Durante, author of “Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan,” records The Times’s indignant (and rather tortured) thesis from April 24, 1890: “The time is coming … when sites for statues in the Park will be too scarce to be assigned to effigies from which the general public will derive its first knowledge that the originals of them have existed.”
But the steel industry forged ahead, so to speak. The dedication was held in conjunction with an international congress of “iron and steel men,” as The Times reported the next day. The ceremonies began inside Chickering Hall, a small theater that was at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 18th Street, with a memorial address by James Dredge, editor of the periodical “Engineering.” The assembled industrialists and dignitaries, including the consul of Sweden, then made their way to the park, where Holley’s bust was covered by an American flag.
James C. Bayles, chairman of the Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers, gave what now sounds like a spirited defense of the monument’s worthiness. “Our heroes are not alone those who have repelled invasion,” Bayles said, adding a list of typical heroic acts, before continuing, “but in a better sense those who have made the great forest of nature subservient to our purpose…”
Bayles then added a scathing critique of those who had opposed the monument: “Perhaps its presence will not be without significance in a city where the petty struggles of parties and factions for brief and inglorious supremacy waste so many lives and occupy so large a share of our thoughts.”
A short time later, The Times reported, Holley’s infant grandson, Alexander Holley Olmstead, pulled (or was made to pull) a cord that bound the flag, unveiling the statue.
That night, many of the “iron and steel men” were feted at Delmonico’s, and toasted by such dinner-sponging luminaries as the Civil War hero, Gen. William T. Sherman.
The bust was sculpted by John Quincy Adams Ward, a well-known artist at the time, and it was cast by the Henry-Bonnard Bronze Co. of New York. The base was designed by the architect Thomas Hastings.
Holley’s bust is about three and a half feet tall, with his arms shorn conspicuously off at the shoulder. His mustachioed face gazes pleasantly to the northwest, into the trees that line the edge of the park and away from the sometimes surly chess players that gather nearby. Around the base of the bust are laurels of oak leaves. The limestone pedestal is flanked at the bottom by a low wall about 10 feet long that joins two smaller ornamental pedestals. All told, it’s about 12 1/2 feet tall, from the base to Holley’s slightly balding head.
The stele-and-bust motif is reminiscent of the monument to a different Alexander, the physician Skene, in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza.
Most of the embellishing architectural marks, including the long inscription on the front of the main pedestal, have been worn into hard-to-recognize mush by the weather and the intervening years. If you could read it, the inscription would say:
BORN IN LAKEVILLE
CONN., JULY 20TH 1832
DIED IN BROOKLYN, N.Y.
JANUARY 29TH, 1882
IN HONOR OF
ALEXANDER LYMAN HOLLEY
FOREMOST AMONG THOSE
WHOSE GENIUS AND ENERGY
ESTABLISHED IN AMERICA
THROUGHOUT THE WORLD
THE MANUFACTURE OF
THIS MEMORIAL IS ERECTED
OF TWO HEMISPHERES
Holley, like Garibaldi, seems to have been the central figure in the student-life traditions of New York University. The school apparently had, for a time, an annual tug of war (attracting crowds as large as 4,000 people) in Washington Square, in which the loser was compelled to kiss the Holley bust. One picture, printed in The Times on Nov. 29, 1951, shows a bustling throng arrayed around the tugging; a second shows a loser-designate about to smooch poor Holley.
The Times published an amusing story in its April 28, 1958, editions, speculating whether the Holley monument had begun to lean to its right. A picture accompanying the short story, which shows three young boys climbing on the low granite wall as though it were a jungle gym, appears to show the monument slightly askew. The story dutifully reports the unconcerned observation by a parks official that it always was that way.
In 1999, the Holley monument was refurbished by the city. It does not appear to be leaning today.
Updated July 2007, SIRIS 76003509