The Statues of D.C. French from the Old Boston Post Office at Franklin Park
Within a two mile arc in Boston are three works of art by the preeminent American sculptor Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), who is best known for his design of the massive seated figure at the Abraham Lincoln Memorial. Two of the works in Boston are publicly owned; the privately owned is the bronze Death Staying the Hand of the Sculptor (1891) at Forest Hills Cemetery. This is a national treasure. The Parkman Memorial at Jamaica Pond is one of only two deep relief sculptures the artist ever made. It is widely acknowledged by art historians to be a masterpiece, even though it is not as highly recognized in Boston. The third is a pair of monumental groups, colloquially known as Science and Labor on pedestals at the Playstead Entrance to the Franklin Park Zoo.
Daniel Chester French was born on April 20, 1850 in Exeter, NH. His family moved to Cambridge, MA where his father practiced law. After two unsuccessful semesters at MIT at age seventeen (he failed most of his courses) he went to work at the family farm in Concord (where they had moved in 1867). Over the winter of 1868- 1869, he showed an interest in carving, which was encouraged by the Concord artist Abigail May Alcott. French could intuitively create in three dimensions and in 1869 made a plaster bust of his father.
French apprenticed for a month in 1870 under the sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward in New York City. Back in Boston, he spent the winter of 1871-1872 taking anatomy classes taught by William Rimmer and drawing classes from William Morris Hunt. This was the extent of his training when the Town of Concord commissioned French to create the Concord Minuteman statue for the forthcoming 1875 centennial anniversary of the American Revolution. In preparation, he studied antique casts at the Boston Athenaeum—he was inspired by the cast of the Apollo Belvedere—and took drawing classes there in the spring of 1873. The seven foot tall Minuteman was completed in the fall of 1874, but French was not at the dedication; he had been invited to work at the studio of Thomas Ball in Florence late in 1874. He spent the next eighteen months at Ball’s studio, traveling and studying Classical and Renaissance sculpture, particularly Michelangelo. French returned to the United States in August, 1876 and set up a studio in Washington, D.C., where his father served as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury—appointed in the Grant administration—until his death in 1885.
Before his death, Henry Flagg French wanted to advance his son’s career as a sculptor, and so the elder French recommended his son to model the sculptural groups planned for three huge federal buildings. The buildings, designed by Alfred B. Mullett (1834-1890), were built in France’s Second Empire style. Michael Richman, editor of the Daniel Chester French papers, noted that it was unclear why sculpture was wanted for government buildings, but the inclusion of French’s work was Mullet’s decision. Richman states that the iconography and allegorical themes were probably the responsibility of French.
French signed contracts for three commissions under the supervising architect for federal buildings in St Louis, MO, Philadelphia, PA and Boston, MA. James G. Hall was supervising architect for the Philadelphia and Boston Post Office and Subtreasury buildings.
French began work in November, 1876 on the statuary group for the St. Louis post office. Titled Peace and Vigilance, it is composed of two reclining figures, one alert and holding a sword, and the other resting and holding an olive branch. The figures are placed on each side of a round arch dormer, on top of which a screaming eagle is perched with wings spread, ready to pounce.
Peace and Vigilance was accepted by the supervising architect in April, 1878. French delivered a half-scale plaster model, about three to six feet high and thirteen feet long. Here, the involvement of the sculptor ended. The half-scale plaster models were then delivered to stone carvers who enlarged the sculpture and assembled it onto the building.
The contract for the Philadelphia group was signed in May, 1878. The theme French chose was Law, Prosperity and Power. The group is designed of three figures with a central and dramatic woman, Law, standing sixteen feet high and holding high above her head the tablets of law. Seated on her right is a man representing Power, his torso turned to face the standing figure. On Law’s left is a seated woman representing Prosperity, chest bared and looking forward. The work was completed in May, 1880.
For the Boston Post Office and Subtreasury Building a pair of allegorical groups was planned, and as early as November, 1879 the group Science was under discussion. Why only the new federal building for Boston was planned for two allegorical statues is not clear but it may have been because it was the second and much larger building on the site.
The Boston Post Office and Subtreasury Building broke ground in 1869 and was built of fireproof walls of Cape Ann granite. The cornerstone was laid on Oct 16, 1871 and it was nearing completion when it was engulfed in the Great Boston Fire of November, 1872. The huge walls and iron roof trapped the blaze and stopped the fire from spreading further, but the building had to be rebuilt.
The destruction of neighboring buildings provided the Treasury Department the opportunity to acquire a full city block, which was first desired when the post office building was planned, but was frustrated by high land costs. The first, uncompleted building faced Devonshire Street. The reduction of property values because of the fire gave the city the chance to widen the fire-burnt Milk and Franklin Streets, while allowing the opportunity to create a wide Congress Street plaza (in forestry management this would be called firebreaks but the intention was the same). When construction resumed in 1875 the Treasury Department had a 4,500 square foot lot (nearly one acre) facing Congress Street.
French created two completely different groups for the Boston post office. Each is composed of three interlocking figures in a triangular shape with one tall, seated central person and two subordinate forms modeled as a single work of art. The themes chosen, Labor Supporting the Arts and Domestic Life and The Forces of Steam and Electricity Subdued and Controlled by Science, are much different allegorical statements than at St. Louis and Philadelphia sculptures, which used more universal themes in Peace and Law. Boston has the more ideological sculptures, representing the region’s full blown capitalism.
French began work on Science in May, 1880 and the eight foot high half-scale plaster model was submitted to the supervising architect James G. Hall in March, 1882. French hired a young Concord sculptor, Frank Edwin Elwell, as an assistant for the Boston groups. In the sculptural group, the figure Science is a seated woman with her foot resting on a closed volume, representing her concealed secrets. Crouching at her feet is a gigantic slave with his hands chained to a steam locomotive wheel. Standing at her right is an energetic young man clutching a thunderbolt as the Spirit of Electricity, his youth symbolizing the emerging potential of the new resource.
The face of Science is turned towards the companion group Labor, to which the eye is also drawn by the outstretched arm of Electricity. French began Labor in May, 1882, also in his New York studios, and the seven foot high plaster model was ready for enlargement and carving in August, 1883. The finished piece is fifteen feet high and consists of a seated Labor in leather apron with his right arm on an anvil which also protects a mother cradling her baby. At his right is the rhythmic figure representing Arts.
As at Philadelphia and St. Louis, when the half size plaster models were completed French’s involvement ended and he had no more control over how the sculptures looked. The Boston groups were enlarged and carved in at least three sections in white Vermont marble by the Charles Hall Company (which does not seem to be a Boston firm). They were set on pedestals about one hundred feet above Congress Street flanking the huge two-story entrance arch. The pedestals were set on each side of the narrow Mansard roof, which is different from the dome roofs featured in Philadelphia and St. Louis.
1905 photograph of the Boston Post Office showing statues in their original location. Photograph courtesy of the Boston Public Library.
Boston had not seen anything like the post office statuary groups when they were erected in 1885. They were among largest sculptures in the city; they joined the Soldiers and Sailors monument on the Boston Common (Martin Milmore, 1877), the Charlestown Soldiers and Sailors monument (Martin Milmore, 1872) and the George Washington monument at the Public Garden (done by Thomas Ball, French’s mentor, in 1864. Martin Milmore was an apprentice to Ball on the Washington, completed just before Ball left for Florence).
French’s statues also decorated a facade of a building, which was unusual for Boston. Decorating public buildings with statuary was popular in France. The first Boston building to be decorated with sculpture was the Second Horticultural Hall on Tremont Street, designed by Gridley JF Bryant and Arthur Gilman; Gilman was strongly influenced by French architecture. The building had three standing statues each modeled by Martin Milmore and carved with the assistance of his brother Joseph. On the central attic was a white granite statue of Ceres, a copy of the original in the Vatican; on the second floor projecting piers were flanked Pomona and Flora (the latter a copy of the one at Naples).The statues were set up in 1866.
Clearly the Second Horticultural Hall showed Boston how dramatic statuary vogue on a public building could be, but aside from busts and applied ornamentation, the vogue did not appear to be popular. The three statuary groups on the federal buildings were more than anything else a statement of civic pride and prelude to the City Beautiful movement in which French would play a prominent role.
All three post office statuary groups still exist. At St. Louis the original sculpture was removed to the interior of the building during the St. Louis Post Office restoration project in 1991. A replica was placed on the outside in the original location.
When the Philadelphia Post Office and Federal Building was razed for a new building in 1937, the supervising architect Louis A. Simon offered Law, Prosperity and Power to the Fairmount Art Commission. Paul Cret designed a site plan and new base and the group was removed in 1938 to George’s Hill in Fairmount Park.
The Pubic Buildings Act of 1926 authorized $165 million for new federal buildings and the city of Boston applied for and received an appropriation to replace the 1885 Post Office and Subtreasury Building. By the end of December, 1929, the massive city block-long building had been razed. Cram & Ferguson designed the tall art deco style post office and court house between 1931 and 1933. (Today it is the John W. McCormack Post Office and Courthouse Building.)
The Department of the Treasury first considered incorporating the statuary groups on the new building “if agreed by the architects who will design the new edifice.” (Boston Herald, Aug 19,1928. Includes a photograph taken from the air showing the statues on the old building.) The Fogg Art Museum in November, 1928 offered to “preserve both statues if the city of Boston did not wish to keep them (Harvard Crimson Nov. 20, 1928. At the time the city was apparently considering taking only one statue).
On March 19, 1929 the Department of the Treasury offered both statues to the city of Boston. Mayor Malcolm Nichols and Park Commissioner William P. Long agreed that the Franklin Park Zoological Gardens would be the best location. The timing was perfect, aligning with the city of Boston’s 300th anniversary celebrations, and it was proposed that the DC French’s sculptures would be unveiled in their new location then. Later that year the statues were removed to Franklin Park where they were repaired. Landscape architect Arthur Shurcliff—who designed the Zoological Gardens in 1910 and was designing a new Rock Garden there for the tercentennial—was commissioned to design new bases and site improvements at the Playstead Road entrance to the zoo. These plans were approved on January 7, 1930 and on January 24 the John Evans Company was given a $19,500 contract to build the new pedestals and erect the two statuary groups.
The Boston Globe reported on June 30, 1930 that “the statues recently removed1 from the post office [have now] been set up on granite pedestals. One of the statues is entirely completed and the other will be in a few days.”
The two statuary groups were ready for the throngs of people who flocked to Franklin Park on September 17, 1930, the 300th anniversary of the founding of Boston.
They admired a new rock garden, enjoyed pageants and school performances, and gazed close up at the great statues which only a few years earlier had been seen one hundred feet above the sidewalk on Congress Street.
Shurcliff logically faced the statues down the long allée of the zoological gardens (the allée no longer exists). Although the statuary groups were placed against the roof of the post office they were nevertheless carved in the round. The back and sides are fully formed and seen from the park side, the back of the statues still have interest and the right arm of Electricity points the viewer into the zoo grounds.
On January 3,1986, Mary Shannon—the late executive secretary of the Boston Art Commission —wrote this writer to say that Kathryn Greenthal, in her research on Boston monuments, discovered an interesting letter from French objecting to having the sculptures removed from the post office and displayed as individual groups; to French the sculptures were an integral part of the architecture.
In 1989 a new Playstead entrance and visitor’s gate was redesigned and built to include a plaza, oval seating areas and shrubbery borders around and flanking the statuary groups. This allows for a much better viewing area for the statues, among the largest public sculptures ever made for Boston.
New entrance way for Franklin Park. Photograph by Richard Heath. New entrance plaza on opening day, September 10, 1989. Photograph by Richard Heath.
Illustration by Jack Frost that appeared in the Boston Herald on April 10, 1936.
“Fancy This” was a popular feature in the Boston Herald from 1935-1937. Conceived and drawn by Jack Frost (John Edward Frost) who came to Boston from Eastport, Maine at the age of seventeen looking for work as an illustrator in the summer of 1934. After the Herald turned him down, Frost thought up a series in which he would draw a Boston building or scene and write a few lines about its history or some curious or whimsical fact about the place. The Herald liked this idea and “Fancy This” ran daily from December 17, 1934 until May 28, 1936. It was very popular and soon readers sent Frost ideas of places that he would go out and draw from the location. He was hospitalized for tuberculosis in the spring of 1936 for over a year. The feature resumed biweekly in August of 1936 and then occasionally through 1937. Frost moved to Cape Cod in the summer of 1939 where he spent the rest of his life as an illustrator. Frost drew with a careful eye about five hundred drawings for the Boston Herald of buildings and locations in Boston, Cambridge, The North Shore and Cape Cod; many of which were collected in three books that can still be found in second hand bookstores. Some of buildings and places in Boston have vanished and Frost’s drawings are now historical records of what they looked like.
Removal of the statues during the demolition of the old post office building. September, 1929. Leslie Jones, photographer, Courtesy of the Boston Public Library
1 The two groups were taken apart in the same way they had been assembled forty five years earlier: one section at a time. They were then reassembled on their new bases.
Richard Heath, January 11, 2012
Editorial assistance provided by Bonnie Evans