Author Kirk Savage discusses the politics and history of Washington's monuments. | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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Author Kirk Savage discusses the politics and history of Washington's monuments.

Controversies over monuments like the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial are the rule, not the exception.



Kirk Savage, chair and professor of the University of Pittsburgh's History of Art and Architecture Department, recently won the 2012 John Brinckerhoff Jackson Book Prize from the Foundation for Landscape Studies for his Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape (University of California Press). Savage has previously written about the representation of race in Civil War memorials. Perhaps the real news is that Savage has used rigor, insight and clarity to make a seemingly familiar subject newly fresh and substantive. A general reader who enjoys David McCullough or Robert Caro will delight in Savage's text. 

How did your earlier work lead to this book?

As I looked more at the history of Washington, D.C., I wanted to know how the Mall came to be what it is today. One of the successes of the Mall is that it looks timeless. It's meant to look as if it's taken out of historical reality and put in some kind of eternal plane. But obviously this is a landscape with a history.   

In his plan of 1791, Pierre Charles L'Enfant envisioned a substantial east-west axis. Was it really so different from what we now see?

There was a picturesque design by Andrew Jackson Downing that was partially implemented around the grounds of the Smithsonian building in the 1850s in a piecemeal way. That made a kind of interesting park with these horticultural landscapes. Lots of old trees, greenhouses, specimen gardens; lagoons and fish ponds — really diverse landscapes. It functioned essentially as the major park and was much cherished by the local population. It was the Central Park of Washington, D.C.  

So where were the monuments?

The monuments were actually going into traffic circles and intersections in L'Enfant's original plan, and most of them in Northwest Washington. Presidents and military commanders: a lot of men on horseback, the stereotypical monument. The idea there was that history is made by "great men" who have given their lives or their careers for the nation's greatness.

You write about the McMillan Plan of 1901, as part of the City Beautiful Movement. The re-opened green spaces and Greco-Roman temples that seem so traditional today were actually radical in some respects.

It was really shocking if you look at the plan. It called for the removal of every single living thing in that landscape. Every tree, every bush, every flower was gone. Every building [of which there were many within the mall] would be eliminated as well, including the Smithsonian building, though it was eventually saved. The only building left, that survived, was the Washington Monument.

We think of the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, and the Washington Monument, as quintessential, but how have our notions of an appropriate memorial changed?

We begin to get into monuments that are about collectivities. The First Division Memorial of World War I has 6,000 names on it — of fatalities. Something like the Titanic memorial would have been pretty much inconceivable in the 19th century — the idea of erecting a monument to people who died in a shipwreck.

It then reaches a kind of crescendo with the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial. It is the first memorial erected in the Unites States that was a comprehensive memorial. It lists the names of all of the American soldiers who died in that war. It's also the first memorial in which the rhetoric of healing comes into play as the major rationale. Not only did the war traumatize them, but then they were treated as villains back home, and so ... the reason these soldiers had to be named on the monument, was to help heal from both traumas.

It's iconoclastic, but you show how that phenomenon isn't new.

Iconoclasm goes back to the first debates about the Washington Monument and this persistent strain of anti-monumental thinking. Monuments came from monarchies, to elevate the king and the artist above the common man, and we don't want to do that in a democracy. We are egalitarian. 

So the disputes at the inception of the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial — or even more recent proposals, for Martin Luther King Jr. or Eisenhower— are nothing new.

I often get calls from people who are surprised that these proposals are creating controversy. But I have to say it's always been this way. Cases in which there is no controversy are the exceptions. 

When you go to the Mall now, you don't get any sense of the history of the place, that it was once very different. They don't tell you that there was a residential neighborhood below where you're standing. They're too invested in the fiction of their own eternal sacred presence. I think the landscape could be activated in a number of ways. The book is an attempt to do that. 

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