Adm. David Glasgow Farragut
North end of Madison Square
This monument to the Civil War admiral David Glasgow Farragut, who was hailed as a much-needed hero in the Union after seizing New Orleans in 1862 and who was famously quoted as saying, “Damn the Torpedoes!” at the Battle of Mobile Bay two years later, sits inside Madison Square, right about in the middle of the park’s north end. The statue was originally at the park’s northwest corner, facing Fifth Avenue. It was moved a few feet when Fifth Avenue was widened in 1909, and after the park was redesigned in 1934, the monument was moved to its present spot.
Farragut is depicted in his naval frock coat, facing to the south. He looks as though he could be on the bridge of a ship (and we are assured by a letter to The Times in 1912 that Farragut’s pose is authentic for a seaman and “one of the great merits of this masterpiece”). Farragut has binoculars in his left hand and a gust of wind appears to be turning up the bottom of his coat. He is on top of a broad stone wall that is fairly festooned with bas-relief carvings, including two female figures (that’s Loyalty on the left, and Courage on the right), an unsheathed sword amid ocean waves, and a long-winded and highly stylized (and, err, hard-to-read) inscription.
In front of the monument is a sweep of small stones, apparently intended to evoke the sea floor. Imaginative viewers would envision themselves standing chest-deep in water, about to be run down by Farragut’s ship. Which, now that we think about it, may be appropriate. Set in the stones, as a peculiar embellishing detail, is a bronze crab, seemingly oblivious both of Farragut’s imaginary ship and onlookers’ clumsy steps, inscribed with the name of the sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and the name of the architect who designed the wall, the famous Stanford White.
The statue was the first major public work by Saint-Gaudens. He finished the statue in Paris, and exhibited a version of it at the Paris Salon before it was cast in bronze, by Adolphe Gruet, and sent to New York. The stonework (which originally was bluestone, but when the monument was moved in 1930s it was found to be so badly eroded that a team of W.P.A. sculptors made a new one) is Coopersberg black granite. There are other parts of the figure which also are not original, but we’ll get to that later. All told, it’s about 18 feet tall.
Both sides of the monumental wall are inscribed. On the left side is a dedication to Farragut. It reads:
That the memory of a daring and sagacious commander and gentle great-souled man whose life from childhood was given to his country but who served her supremely in the war for the union MDCCCLXI-MDCCCLXV may be preserved and honored that they they who come after and who will owe him so much may see him as he was seen by friend and foe his countrymen have set this monument A.D. MDCCCLXXXI
On the right, is a laborious military resume, punctuated by more of those nettlesome Roman numerals. The result is so confounding I could not bring myself to copy it down. But you get the idea, New Orleans, Mobile Bay, blah, blah, blah.
The monument was dedicated on May 25, 1881, and the interesting thing is that, for some weeks before the festivities, the statue sat in the park covered in a wooden shed. (It is said that Saint-Gaudens himself had not seen the finished product.) There was seating set up for more than 500 people, and police blockaded the streets around the park well before the start of the dedication. An estimated 10,000 people attended on what The Times’s reporter said was a fairly hot day.
The ceremony was preceded by a procession down Fifth Avenue, which included mounted police, an artillery battery and a dizzying array of military officers (including four of Farragut’s crewmen from his Civil War flagship U.S.S. Hartford), civic officials and other dignitaries, arriving by carriage, horse or what-have-you. It took nearly half an hour for the parade to pass the review stand and for the participants to take their places.
The Secretary of the Navy at the time, William H. Hunt, was one of two speakers and was supposedly representing President Garfield, who was ill at the time. Hunt began with a broadside of praise for Farragut, pausing at one point to say, “These were some, not nearly half, of the characteristics that have made his name glorious…” After a presumably careful accounting of the other half of Farragut’s characteristics, the statue was unveiled by John Knowles, one of the sailors who served under him. A band struck up “Three Cheers for the Red, White and Blue” and the crowd cheered.
The keynote speaker was Joseph H. Choate, a well-known lawyer who would later be the American ambassador to Great Britain. He began with a rousing appeal to the glory of naval heroes in general, at one point recounting the last words of the British admiral Lord Nelson (“Kiss me, Hardy! Thank god I have done my duty!”). Choate then ran through Farragut’s heroics, finishing with something like a one-man melodrama set in Mobile Bay:
“What’s the trouble?” was shouted through a trumpet from the flagship to the Brooklyn when the latter began to back. “Torpedoes” was the reply. “Damn* the torpedoes!” said Farragut. “Four bells, Capt. Drayton. Go ahead full speed!”
The monument was a gift of the New York Farragut Association. A time capsule of sorts was installed, which was rediscovered when the statue was moved in 1934. It contained some newspapers from 1881, a volume of Farragut’s letters, some coins and a list of the donors who paid for the statue.
The statue is one of New York’s most famous and has had a not uninteresting life in the years since it was dedicated. It was both a target of imaginative vandals and an object of artistic desire.
In 1912, or thereabouts, it was noted that vandals had removed the two sword straps, which were separate pieces affixed to Farragut’s backside. A reporter for The Times, reporting on the vandalism, called the straps an essential part of the work, saying that they evinced “a character of dash and vigor.” Over the next 20 years or so, vandals would make off with a tassel from the sword, too.
In 1935, the city thought enough was enough. They had realized that the pedestal was corroded. They had noted the repeated acts of vandalism. So a wooden shack was built around Farragut to protect him from the elements, and plans were laid for an overhaul. On Oct. 15, 1936, a crew of workmen muscled him away from his crumbling pedestal using a crane, setting the statue down in the grass about 20 feet away, facing east. One of the workers, explaining the process to reporters, said, “He’s been facing west for years and years,” he said. “We always try to give them a fresh view when we can.”
The old bluestone pedestal was dismantled and taken, piece by piece, to the statue’s present location to be used as a model for the replacement. And the admiral was placed on a seven-ton truck for the trip uptown, to the Central Park Yard where all his various bits and pieces were restored or replaced. The whole project cost about $25,000. From the next day’s Times:
The truck rumbled off into the thick gloaming haze. “I swear,” murmured an old woman in the group of watchers. “I thought I saw the Admiral close his eyes.” “You’re wrong, lady,” said the crane man. “That was just an optical illusion.” And the crane rumbled away, too.
Farragut was back in place by the summer of 1939, after a thorough going over from artisans from the Art Commission and the W.P.A. The renovated monument is composed of 18 pieces, compared with 52 in the original.
On May 30, 1986, the statue was rededicated after another extensive rehabilitation that included an effort by the Metropolitan Museum of Art to take possession of it. Conservationists were concerned the aging, intricate figure would not survive exposed to the elements.
The Met, which proposed moving the Farragut statue inside one of its galleries and replacing it in Madison Square with a replica, had included the statue in a national tour of pieces by Saint-Gaudens. So in the six months before Farragut was rededicated, the monument visited places such as the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Philippe de Montebello, who was (and still is, until the end of 2008) the director of the Met, told The Times at the time that the museum’s concern was ‘the statue as a work of art.”
“If it can be preserved for a long time in its original site, then we’re delighted. If, at any time, it is felt by responsible people that the statue should go indoors, we remain prepared to harbor it. The bronze itself is in relatively good shape now. If nothing were done to it or to the pollutants in the air, over an extended period of time the bronze will be irretrievably lost.”
The city’s Curator of Parks, Donald M. Reynolds, though, resisted the Met’s attempt, emboldened by what he called passionate protests from New Yorkers. “There was a lot of anti-Met sentiment,” he told The Times.
The Times printed a host of letters on the topic. One writer, in a letter printed two months before the cleaned-and-waxed Farragut was unveiled, argued that “the well-being of public art in American cities has been ignored and neglected for too long.” The writer continued, with visions of a fantastical future in his mind:
The statue, while in fairly good condition, nevertheless needs to be properly housed. If the day should come when we either clean up our polluted atmosphere or develop a fail-safe method of protection against it, then the “Farragut” (if indeed it were to become a loan from the city to the museum) could be reinstalled in Madison Square Park.
David M. Kahn, then the executive director of the Brooklyn Historical Society, responded by writing “the time has not yet come for us to throw up our hands, write off New York’s outdoor sculpture and move a few gems to the American Wing.”
A few weeks later, a man identifying himself as a sculptor “trained in the traditional way” and a trustee of the Saint-Gaudens Memorial in Cornish, N.H., urged that the statue be moved indoors. “A point overlooked in the arguments,” he wrote, “is that in the 19th century there were no welding equipment or techniques.” He counseled on the dangers of moisture, polluted air, acid rain and freezing temperatures. Then closed with this bizarre syllogism:
“Art should kept in the state it was in when the artist pronounced it finished. Art is eternal because it is useless and a thing of beauty. It has to be preserved from the elements and vandalism.”
David Glasgow Farragut was born July 5, 1801, in Knoxville, Tenn., and died Aug. 14, 1870, in Portsmouth, N.H. He was the adopted son of a naval commander and became the first admiral in the United States Navy.
* The Times rendered this as “D—n.”