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COMMENTARY: Pedestals with Purpose

Richmond should carefully examine what to do with the remaining pedestals from the Confederate monuments – considering each individually.

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Last summer’s racial, political and civic fireworks sparked by George Floyd’s murder were intensified locally with the quick removal of city-owned statues of Confederate icons. Bronze likenesses of Jefferson Davis, Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, Matthew Fontaine Maury and James “Jeb” Stuart have been hauled off Monument Avenue. Joseph Bryan, Fitzhugh Lee and William Wickham are no longer venerated in Monroe Park. And Libby Hill Park’s allegorical figure atop a 90-foot-high Corinthian column, a memorial to the 260,000 enlisted soldiers and sailors who perished for the South, was swept from its perch near Church Hill. 

If the former capital of the Confederacy may no longer fully reflect its hubristic moniker of City of Monuments, that’s OK. But the tough and daunting work of social reconciliation still confronts us.

Meanwhile, the statues’ removal leaves practical and urban design issues to address such as gaping holes in our cityscape and grid. Many of these vacuums are punctuated with pedestals without purpose. Some are impediments to traffic. But after contemplating the stranded pedestals and their disposition for almost a year now, a resolution came on June 10. On that day, the Richmond Urban Design Committee endorsed the city’s expressed intent to remove all of the remaining plinths and fencing. While deliberating, however, some design committee members and others suggested that certain pedestals should remain in place, either to support future statuary or to be interpreted as teaching devices.

But importantly, attempts should be  made to reconnect the pedestals with the statues they once supported. The pedestals’ removals will create a clean and refreshing slate with lessened historical baggage. Each piece should be considered individually since some of the pedestals are architecturally worthy, if not spectacular objects in their own right. Stripped of Confederate iconography, they could make altogether different and grand statements that would grace our community for generations to come. The 90-foot Corinthian column in Libby Hill Park, for one, is too fine to lose.   

Let Monroe Park’s granite pedestals that once bolstered Bryan and Wickham be reunited with their statues. The same goes for the Jackson pedestal at the heavily traveled intersection of Monument and Arthur Ashe Boulevard – making this crossroads immediately more attractive and safer. Ditto for the Stuart statue at Monument and Lombardy. The Maury pedestal at Monument, Belmont and West Franklin is aesthetically essential and an intricate part of the overall sculpture. The stylized globe, melding art nouveau and art deco, is one of our city’s most sophisticated sculptural works. 

But two of the pedestals or architectural settings did not suffer from having the Confederate figures they once augmented removed. Left in its original place, the former Libby Hill column and the former Davis arborlike backdrop can continue to beautify their settings as former connections to the Lost Cause fade.

The Libby Hill Corinthian column, minus its allegorical Confederate soldier, is now neutral. It remains an astounding and exciting classical object high atop Libby Hill, lording over the river and on an axis with East Main Street, visible from the financial district to the west. The 90-foot-tall shaft was inspired by Pompey’s Pillar, a monument completed in A.D. 300 that still stands in Alexandria, Egypt. Who, today, gives a hoot that it once celebrated a Roman politician? It is a prized and essential part of the historical and architectural patrimony of that part of the world. Similarly, there are two 90-foot columns in Rome, one built to honor Trajan and the other Marcus Aurelius. In the 1500s, these pagan Roman statues were replaced with figures of two Christian saints, Peter and Paul, respectively. Voila: two intriguing history lessons in one monument. The United States is reaching an age where it, too, can interpret multiple layers of history in one place.

What other American city boasts such a relic as the Libby Hill column? It would be blasphemous to destroy this Richmond landmark from 1894. Why not place a scale-appropriate version of pop artist Robert Indiana’s “Love” sculpture (1965) atop the pedestal. A heroically scaled cast of the late artist’s stacked letters has been a destination in central city Philadelphia for a generation or two.  

A rendition of “Love” sculpture by artist Robert Indiana in midtown Manhattan. - HU TOTYA
  • Hu Totya
  • A rendition of “Love” sculpture by artist Robert Indiana in midtown Manhattan.

The other pedestal well worth preserving in its original and current location is the former Jefferson Davis monument at Monument and Davis in front of the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design. It will be trickier here to erase embedded Confederate imagery, but it can be done. With references to its origins erased, this architectural folly could remain in the landscape as unsurpassed eye candy. The screen of classical columns, completed in 1907, was designed by Noland & Baskervill, an architectural firm with a dazzling body of work on Monument Avenue and West Franklin Street. The firm’s landmarks include St. James’s Episcopal Church, Congregation Beth Ahabah, the Scott House on the Virginia Commonwealth University campus, the Gresham Court apartments, and the former Second Baptist Church, now an integral part of the Jefferson Hotel grounds. What a bravura architectural collection!

The former Jefferson Davis monument from 1907, devoid of its Lost Cause iconography, injects considerable architectural interest beside the neighboring Branch Museum of Architecture and Design. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The former Jefferson Davis monument from 1907, devoid of its Lost Cause iconography, injects considerable architectural interest beside the neighboring Branch Museum of Architecture and Design.

Just as a judicious and clear-headed reckoning must be given to the complex issues brought to a boiling point in the summer of 2020, Richmond must carefully evaluate what elements from the Confederate statues might serve our community by projecting a different message.

City Council will consider the disposition of the statues and pedestals later this summer.