Yeah, happy Columbus Day. If you’re like everyone else, you woke up this morning just happy you didn’t have to go into work. Alternatively, you may have also wondered why a sleazy merchant from Genoa gets his own day. Or is credited with “discovering” a land that millions of people lived on instead of being remembered as the guy who opened the gateway to the largest genocide in the history of the human race. While this city is filled with amazing artwork, some pieces have better stories than others. The piece pertaining to today’s namesake, Columbus Fountain, is particularly interesting–and oddly symbolic of the nation this capital city purports to represent.
Everyone who’s ever learned about DC history has marveled at Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s city layout. But without the linchpins holding together each of his monumental intersections, there would be much less to indicate to passersby that they were in nothing less than the American Capital—which of course requires, nay demands monumental structures like this. After all, what kind of a “world class city” would DC be without such edifices.
I digress. At one of those most prominent intersections in the grand L’Enfant Plan is Columbus Fountain. It is what it sounds like—an unequivocal epitaph in praise of Christopher Columbus. Now the story that I tell is one that may differ from what’s in the history books, but it’s the tale I see when I look at that fountain a century after its unveiling. And it seems to be one of the better stories in town (though Governors who fake failed marriages to get away with past wheeling and dealing takes a close seat behind this one).
Back to Columbus Fountain. It stands 45 feet tall, though is dwarfed by Union Station’s neo-classical façade. Columbus stands with his hands folded and a much more modest robe than he would have ever worn in real life. Like much artwork of the past, it romanticizes him as a modest character. He was anything but.
He stands proudly over an oddly phallic prow of a ship. The off-putting scene is set in front of another monumental pillar with several figures and a cascading fountain below. It is regality, masculinity and pride ensconced in perpetuity. The piece began as a twinkle in the eye of the Knights of Columbus. In 1907, Congress approved ten-thousand bucks for it, and the team broke ground in October, 1911. The high profile commission signing the checks contracted Chicago-born sculptor Laredo Taft. In conjunction with Daniel Burnham, the architect who rebuilt his city after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Taft designed an innocent and triumphant likening of Columbus. This is where my view of the story begins.
Taft was a purist. He designed monumental analogies of the beauty of America. In Chicago, we’re steeped in Taft’s work from a young age. His Fountain of Time and Fountain of the Great Lakes (man, did that guy like fountains!) straight-forwardly analogize the history of man and the five Great Lakes, respectively. His pieces were metaphorical, to be sure, but they were far from politically motivated. His many subtleties were purely artistic—and in a town of politicians, that leaves things up to interpretation.
Which brings us back to the Columbus Fountain. It’s verbose, florid and neo-classical. It’s almost over the top. But considering the honest innocence of the rest of Taft’s body of work, it can be interpreted as nothing less than pure idolatry of a man who 102 years ago was—more than figuratively—remembered for discovering America. It’s institutionalizes his embodiment of our nation.
Like America, he connected many nations, which led to an increasingly globalized trade unimaginable by past generations. This interconnection also led to the plague and war-related massacre of 48 million indigenous Americans–leaving only 1.8 million. Similarly, Nineteenth Century America was famous for signing and disregarding treaties with Native Americans, ultimately slaughtering or removing the vast majority of them. In fact, the manifest destiny was almost a direct outgrowth of the zealous and self-righteous pioneering that Columbus began.
Columbus made four total trips and was a greedy and often inhumane man. He was peeved that Ferdinand and Isabella, his patrons, wouldn’t allow him to take indigenous slaves back to Europe for his profit. Yet more parallels with our nation’s history? However, unlike our nation, Columbus was made to pay for his sins–if only briefly. His poor governance and the fact that he loved slave-taking incited his patrons to haul him and his brothers back in chains. However, he was released and lived to make another–rather lucrative–voyage. He certainly didn’t die poor and in shackles, though his family sued the Spanish crown for three decades after his death.
The fountain commemorating Columbus was commissioned at the tail end of the railroad era, just before its demise became a forgone conclusion. The piece likened the linkages born by 50 years of railroad investment to that forged by Columbus. It’s innocent and pure in its connection between rail and Columbus’ eh hem, discovery. Railroads were forgotten and Columbus has been stripped of his prominence—hopefully even a 1st grader can tell you that he didn’t discover America before anyone else did, but was just the first European in a century or two. For the last 50 years, as any good Washingtonian can attest, the part of DC the statue is in (along with many others) have been less than hot spots to live.
The fountain became a nearly forgotten eddy on the backside of the Congressional hubbub. (I’ve never even seen it used as a fountain, unless you count the yellow fountains of Columbus’ residentially flexible neighbors). As railroads, cities and Columbus all fell out of favor during the middle and end of the last century, it’s no surprise that this little corner did too.
But today, the metro is king. Any neighborhood along the tracks are worth way more than anything that’s not “Metro-accessible.” And the industrial rail industry is booming because of oil in North Dakota—but that’s a separate issue. And cities across the country are being gentrified and appreciated in a way that they haven’t been since the Titanic sank (and the fountain of interest was built—oddly, the two were only two months apart). In addition, Columbus’ contribution to history is understood as a connector of peoples, for better or for worse. Not a discoverer.
So as all of those things have come back into favor—railroads, cities and Columbus—his fountain has also become more of a center of revitalized urban living. (I haven’t met anyone who thought NoMa would be considered a “neighborhood” ten years ago). So every time that I see that Fountain, I think of the hopes the builders of that sculpture had for railroads and romantic urbanism, and the certainty they had of Columbus’ heroism. Perhaps they were gravely wrong about all of it. Taft’s piece worshiped an unscrupulous man who led to mass murders.
Those things became passé for the generation before ours. We’ve gotten over that hump, and now recognize that cities wane and wax. We know that Columbus wasn’t a discoverer, but an intrepid merchant. He had only a handful of teeth, enjoyed slave trading and was more a pirate than an admiral. The Columbus Fountain at once romanticizes the distant past, the turn of the century and the current state of our nation. You know the facts, judge each one wisely on your Columbus Day.