Originally published in Points West magazine
A Public Monument: Theodore Roosevelt, Rough Rider
By Stuart Gunn
Former Assistant Registrar, Whitney Western Art Museum’s 50th Anniversary
Unless otherwise noted, all photographs are gifts of A. Phimister Proctor Museum with special thanks to Sandy and Sally Church.
If public monuments must meet two requirements, that they be both beautiful and convey a message, then Alexander Phimister Proctor’s statue of Theodore Roosevelt met both criteria. Proctor’s contemporaries agreed that Rough Rider was indeed a work of art, and its dedication to the children of America served to transmit the values and ideals of the past to a future generation.
It was Dr. Henry Waldo Coe, a physician in Portland, Oregon, who was ultimately responsible for the creation of a monument to Theodore Roosevelt. The monument stands today on the South Park Blocks at Jefferson and Madison Streets, opposite the Portland Art Museum, formerly the site of the Ladd School, an Oregon public elementary school. Responding to the call of the City Beautiful movement, Coe came forward to offer a gift to the city of Portland in the form of a memorial to a personal friend and national hero, the late president (Roosevelt died in 1919), an offer that was gladly accepted by Portland city officials.
The project begins
Coe’s first task was to find a sculptor who was capable of creating a heroic-size bronze equestrian sculpture. In touring the studios of New York sculptors, he visited Proctor’s studio. Among the sculptor’s work, Coe saw the bas-relief of a mutual friend and was so impressed by the resemblance and Proctor’s ability to capture the character of the man, that Coe offered the commission to the sculptor on the spot. Proctor gladly accepted.
From 1920 to 1921, Proctor worked on the commission in his Palo Alto, California, studio on the campus of Stanford University. Once the model was complete, Proctor sent it to New York to be developed into a monumental plaster figure. Later, when Proctor was asked why he had chosen to represent Roosevelt in the uniform of a Rough Rider, he gave as his reason that “Dr. Coe wished an equestrian statue, and to my mind, the Spanish War period was the one to choose.” Proctor also felt that Roosevelt as a soldier presented a “picturesque” air, and that his participation in the Spanish-American War—from which Roosevelt returned to a hero’s welcome—had led to the governorship of New York state and finally to the presidency of the nation.
In early 1922, the heroic-size figure in plaster (now in the collection of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West) was finished, approved by Dr. Coe and the Roosevelt family, and sent to the Roman Bronze Works in Brooklyn, New York, for casting. Proctor executed the work in the Beaux-Arts style, characterized by monumental scale, idealized form, and generalized detail. The style had triumphed in Chicago at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, where Proctor was designing and making a number of sculptures for the exposition. It was there that Proctor first met Teddy Roosevelt, who would later come to Proctor’s studio to see the progress Proctor was making. Because bronze is a dark material, it was necessary to enliven or animate the Rough Rider, an effect Proctor achieved by modeling a textured surface that created a rippling effect as light and shadow played over the surface of the sculpture, suggesting the illusion of a fleeting moment.
On October 8, 1922, the finished bronze statue arrived in Portland aboard the steamer Ohioan, making the trip from New York via the Panama Canal. The following morning, it was lifted from the hold of the ship, greeted by cameramen and news photographers, and stored in a warehouse at the dock prior to moving it to the installation site opposite the Ladd School in Portland.
The politics of site selection
However, the selection of the site posed a problem from the beginning. According to a Portland newspaper, the site selection committee chose the Park Blocks site at Park, West Park, Jefferson, and Madison Streets, opposite the Ladd School, as early as March 1922. A petition favoring the site, signed by the eight hundred students of the Ladd School, was presented to the committee at that time.
Nevertheless, by June of that year, a decision had still not been reached. Both Proctor and Coe were opposed to placing the monument in the Park Blocks; it was, at best, a second choice. Their preference was for a triangular plot of ground at Chapman, Nineteenth, and Washington Streets. The previous autumn, in the Portland press in late October 1921, Proctor gave his reasons for opposing the location of his monument in the Park Blocks: “I’d like to see it there [the triangular plot] rather than in a park. I don’t like things put away where people have to make a trip to see them.” Proctor wanted the greatest number of people possible to see his monument, and he would be assured of this if it were placed at Chapman, Nineteenth, and Washington Streets.
There were problems to overcome with both sites, though. In the case of the Park Blocks site opposite the Ladd School, many Portland citizens objected to the removal of trees, on which Coe insisted. Even though he was reluctant to see healthy trees removed, it was an action he considered necessary to protect the monument from possible damage in the event of a tree falling.The difficulty with the triangular plot lay in persuading a group called the David Campbell Committee to give up the land that had been set aside for a monument to commemorate Campbell, a former fire chief who died in the line of duty a few years earlier. By mid-June 1922, though, the press felt confident enough to report that the Roosevelt statue location was near solution, “and that any obstacles will be cleared away…regarding the use of the triangular plot of land at Nineteenth and Washington Streets.”In the meantime, Coe hinted at the possibility of choosing another city for his monument. Coe said that “many cities other than Portland sought the statue,” but that “naturally he would like to see the statue located here” in Portland. This remark clearly indicated Coe’s increasing frustration with the committee’s inability to reach a decision on the monument’s location.
Ultimately, the David Campbell committee was not prepared to part with the land unless public sentiment indicated a desire to see the monument placed there. This was not forthcoming, though, and in late June 1922, the selection committee—with Coe present—made a decision in favor of the Ladd School site.
Dedicating the monument to America’s children—or not?
The dedication of the monument to the children of America was also a curious development and may well have been an afterthought on Coe’s part. Prior to the Park Blocks decision, no reference appears in the press to Coe’s “desire that the statue should be dedicated to the children of America.” Coe’s preference for the location of the statue at the triangular plot was unmistakable. Yet, the absence of any indication in the press on Coe’s part to dedicate the monument to America’s children is surprising, considering that just about everything else was discussed. Consequently, it is probable that its dedication was indeed a result of the successful petition of the Ladd School students. If this was so, the speeches made at the unveiling successfully fused the values attributed to Theodore Roosevelt—that of “patriot, soldier, citizen”—with the “duties toward the nation” of the “youth of Portland and America to safeguard the republic.” The statue was “a perpetual reminder” of these values and duties.
Finally, the unveiling
Various dates were proposed for the unveiling ceremony, the earliest being August 5, 1922, a date for which formal invitations were printed. In spite of this, the groundbreaking ceremony did not take place until August 15, when Vice President Calvin Coolidge turned sod for the base with a golden spade. The final date chosen for the unveiling ceremony was Saturday, November 11, Armistice Day. It doubtless occurred to all parties, once all the issues were resolved, that November 11 was an appropriate day for the unveiling, especially since Roosevelt was portrayed as a soldier.
On Saturday morning, large numbers of Portland residents turned out, lining the streets along the processional route to witness the parades and the dedication and unveiling ceremony, an event that William Schaub, trustee of the Theodore Roosevelt Association (TRA), has recently described as the most significant civic event in Oregon’s history. The program began at 10 a.m. with 1,200 children marching from the armory to the monument’s site at the Park Blocks. As each child arrived at the veiled monument, he or she dropped a rose, the emblem of Portland, at the base of the monument, the boys assembling on one side of the statue and the girls on the other.
After the pledge of allegiance and the singing of “America,” Coe was introduced, and then Proctor. Both received a tremendous ovation from the children. Following the children’s parade, a military parade to the Park Blocks began at 1:30 p.m. and included veterans of the First World War, the Spanish-American War, and the Civil War; the American Legion; the Boy Scouts of America; Sons of the American Revolution; representatives of allied nations; and consular representatives from allied governments. As the veterans marched along the parade route, they were cheered by thousands of people assembled on the sidewalks.
After the invocation, a message from President Warren G. Harding was read, praising Roosevelt as a “patriot, soldier, and citizen.” This was followed by the dedication of the monument to the “Children of America,” and the official song, The Rider, was performed by a Portland school band.
Then came the moment the crowds had been waiting for—the unveiling. A four-year-old girl acted as proxy for General John J. Pershing, an apt choice, since Pershing fought at the battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba, along with Roosevelt. He also commanded the American Expeditionary Force that was sent to France in 1917.
The little girl was lifted up to touch the strings, releasing the twin flags draping the statue, which “parted from the bronze softly, as in caress.” The cheers of the crowds resounded again and again as the bronze figure gleamed in the chill November light. Commissioner Pier presented the monument to the city, which was accepted by the Mayor of Portland, the day’s ceremonies concluding with benediction by the Bishop of the local diocese.
Rough Rider today
For more than eighty years, Proctor’s monument to Teddy Roosevelt has stood in the South Park Blocks, subjected to the vagaries of the elements and the abuses of teenagers. On July 15, 2000, after extensive restoration, the Rough Rider was rededicated in a weekend of city-wide events honoring the life and achievements of Theodore Roosevelt. In some ways the rededication of the monument resembled the original ceremony, though the audience (250 persons) was considerably smaller than the crowds that assembled on November 11, 1922.
The Theodore Roosevelt High School Band provided the music, and the statue was veiled—though not with the stars and stripes, but by red and blue parachutes. Oregon Congressman Greg Walden addressed the assembled audience, reaffirming, in the statue of Theodore Roosevelt, the sculptural tradition of human form as a symbol and transmitter of values and ideals to future generations. He underscored Coe’s intention that the memorial be dedicated to the “Children of America,” when he said that, in the restoration of the statue, “we recognize and honor Theodore Roosevelt today…so that our children and our children’s children will know that they inherit his spirit of enlightened self-government.”
Originally from Brighton in southern England, Stuart Gunn has been in the United States since 1975. He earned both a BA and MA in art history from San Francisco State University. In March 2008, Gunn traveled to Cody to work as an Assistant Register for the Whitney Western Art Museum’s 50th Anniversary Exhibition, an eighteen-month endeavor. Before his arrival, Gunn held a number of internships in the San Francisco Bay Area museums. They included the departments of photography (his specialty) and registration at the Oakland Museum of California; the registration department of the California Historical Society; rights and reproductions for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and provenance research at the Judah L. Magnes Museum (Jewish Museum of the West).
T.R. and Me
Here Stuart shares his experience unpacking the pieces of Rough Rider.
I came to the Buffalo Bill [Center of the West] in March 2008, primarily to process the Alexander Phimister Proctor acquisition in time for the 50th anniversary of the Whitney Western Art Museum. At that time, all of the Proctor objects were stored in a vault in tote boxes, or, in the case of the Rough Rider, crated in a long hallway in the basement of the Center. With the help of the maintenance staff, Theodore Roosevelt was moved to the Whitney. There Jeff Rudolph, assistant preparator, and I began the arduous task of uncrating “Teddy,” removing the packing material, and exposing the objects to view.
Unpacking such large and weighty objects—T.R. consists of fifteen pieces, approximately one-and-a-half times life size—was a remarkable and exciting experience for Jeff and me. I will not forget the moment we removed the lid from the crate containing the head and torso of Theodore Roosevelt. There was Teddy, protected and stabilized by wooden braces and foam, and coated in brown metallic paint to simulate the appearance of bronze. He gazed back at us from the box, looking as new as the day Proctor pronounced him finished.
The two of us then understood something of the wonder the archaeologist experiences when he or she uncovers the sarcophagus of a long dead king, revealing the marvelous treasures within. I felt privileged to be able to study the materials and techniques that Proctor employed to create the plaster figure that became, in effect, the mold for the monument that stands today in Portland, Oregon.
Stuart departed before the Whitney reopened; he said this in anticipation of that event: On June 21, 2009, the Whitney [Museum] will reopen with new installations, and together with many of Proctor’s creations, the Rough Rider will be exhibited. Then, we will be able to take the full measure of Proctor’s achievements in sculpture, a thought that gives me a great deal of satisfaction.