Monuments, Medals, and Metropolis, part I

by Peter van Alfen; photography by Alan Roche

This is the first of a series of articles to examine the relationship between numismatics and other artistic media—primarily public sculpture and architecture—in Manhattan. In conjunction with this series, the Society is developing a self-guided tour that will introduce visitors to the monuments discussed in these articles, many of which are within walking distance of our downtown exhibit at the Federal Reserve Bank and our new building just a block away. For those unable to visit these sites in person, a virtual tour will soon be posted on our website In this first installment we consider the sculptural adornments of Beaux Arts period architecture created by noted numismatic artists. Later installments will examine Beaux Arts free-standing sculpture and Art Deco architectural ornaments.

The American Renaissance

One hundred years ago public aesthetics in the United States received more focused and programmatic attention than it has at anytime before or since. From the perspective of public art, the first two decades of the 20th century witnessed an intense effort on the part of politicians, businessmen, architects, sculptors, engravers—and even the ANS—to enrich the US cultural landscape with a monumentality and grandeur that could rival any of that found across the Atlantic. This American Renaissance found tireless support in President Theodore Roosevelt, whose friendship with the highly influential sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens is nearly legendary: Saint-Gaudens, at Roosevelt’s request, created two new gold coins—the $20 double eagle and the $10 eagle, introduced in 1907—both of which were arguably the most pleasing US coins ever produced. And that, of course, was the point. But the friendship between these two was really only one facet of an extensive network of personal and professional relationships linking men of various talents together in one driving aesthetic vision. Almost all of the artists who came to be involved in the program initiated by Roosevelt to revamp what he called the “atrociously hideous” coinage of the early 1900s—Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Adolph A. Weinman, Hermon A. MacNeil, James Earle Fraser, Victor D. Brenner, Bela L. Pratt, and Anthony di Francisci—were known to one another either as teachers, apprentices, or fellow students. Some trained abroad at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, in Florence, and elsewhere, but nearly all of them had ties to the Art Students League and the recently established Cooper Union polytechnic school, both in Manhattan. This fraternity, of which Saint-Gaudens was the grand master, supported one another in numerous ways; Saint-Gaudens, for example, suggested to Roosevelt that Weinman design his second inaugural medal when the master was too busy to consider the commission. But perhaps more importantly, the personal ties between the artists, and the fact that most of them maintained studios in the City, meant that they frequently consulted one another for advice and criticism, thus having the effect of focusing the collective genius more narrowly than might otherwise have been the case.

$10 eagle designed by Saint-Gaudens (ANS 1980.109.2290)

While today these artists are known for their work on the nation’s coinage, in their time most were better known as sculptors of monumental stone and bronze. It was this skill that allowed them to join forces with a different set of the Beaux Arts fraternity: the architects who were transforming the outward character and skylines of the country with their mission to “beautify” the cities. As David Lowe (1998) remarks: “It was the Beaux Arts that found New York a city of sooty brownstone and left it one of bright marble, furnished it with palaces and galleries, caravansaries and public monuments. It was the Beaux Arts style that made New York dare to be extravagant and also to be beautiful.”

Adhering the Beaux Arts dictum that the Classical model was the pinnacle of architectural beauty, the principals of the firm of McKim, Mead & White, and one of their former employees, Cass Gilbert, helped to give Gotham the fluted columns, Corinthian capitals, and sculpted pediments—such as those of the New York Stock Exchange—that it needed to stand on equal footing with Paris or London. Nearly all of these New World temples of law, commerce or learning included extensive sculptural programs most of which were allegorical and meant to edify the public. The gem-like quality of these structures with their many stone figures, murals, bronze and wood trimmings, all thoroughly rich in detail, required the collaboration of scores of specialized artisans working directly with the architects. Massive collaborative projects of this sort-intended to integrate all of the arts-were a hallmark of the Beaux Arts period, rarely seen on this continent since the decades around 1900. For the more important sculptural elements, like the allegorical groups, the architects sought out the better artists known to them, like those in Saint-Gaudens’ circle, and commissioned the pieces often at considerable expense. The results, however, justified the outlay: each building was envisioned as an artistic tour de force meant to awe posterity for centuries. Sadly, some lasted only decades; most, the victims of power broker Robert Moses’ urban reconstruction. The works that remain, however, attest to the grandeur of the collective vision that drove the American Renaissance, with its rich and graceful effects permeating architecture, sculpture, and of course numismatic design.

Obverse of medal by Chas Gregory & Co. depicting the frontal elevation of the New York Stock Exchange (George B. Post architect 1903). The influence of Classical temple architecture on this structure is readily apparent (ANS 1914.73.2)

Augustus Saint-Gaudens

Saint-Gaudens’ architectural sculpture in Manhattan was limited to Diana, an 18′ tall gilded nude, that was installed atop McKim, Mead & White’s Madison Square Garden in 1891. As notoriously controversial as his other public nudes—the rejected reverse of the Columbian Exposition Medal, and his cherubic figures above the entrance to the Boston Public Library (also designed by McKim, Mead & White)—Diana was fated to have only a brief career in situ. Both Saint-Gaudens and the architect felt the 18′ statue was out of proportion to the building and so created a second, smaller 13′ version which was installed in late 1893. Because she was mounted on a rotating pedestal, Diana turned with the wind; she was also the first sculpture in the sky to be illuminated at night. The taller Diana was sent the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 where she once again found a lofty perch on the Agricultural Building. The statue disappeared after a fire damaged the building; the second one found a home in the Philadelphia Museum of Art when Madison Square Garden was razed in 1925. Saint-Gaudens’ model for Diana, Julia “Dudie” Baird, posed for two other well-known New York sculptural pieces: the Victory in Sherman’s March to the Sea at Grand Army Plaza, and Weinman’s Civic Fame atop the municipal building (Reynolds 1988).

Saint-Gaudens’ Diana which once graced Madison Square Garden (Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of the New York Life Insurance Company. Graydon Wood 1995).

Adolph A. Weinman

An apprentice of Saint-Gaudens, Weinman became, like his mentor, an immensely popular and prolific sculptor. Best known in numismatic circles for his so-called “Mercury-head” dime and “Walking Liberty” half dollar, both introduced in 1916, and a host of medals, including the ANS Saltus Award medal (of which he was the recipient in 1920), Weinman’s work adorns many of the City’s more famous edifices, all designed by McKim, Mead & White.

The joint projects began with Weinman’s commission for two panels in the façade of the Pierpont Morgan Library (1902-1906; 36th St. between Madison and Park Aves.) depicting Music Inspiring the Allied Arts and Truth Enlightening the Sciences. On a similar scale was the bas relief pediment, in colored faience, of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church (c. 1905; ironically one of the last buildings that Stanford White was to design before he was shot and killed on Madison Square Garden roof-top pavillion by Harry Thaw; White was having an affair with Thaw’s wife, Evelyn). The church was demolished in the 1960s. A victim also of the same plan to modernize was McKim, Mead & White’s Beaux Arts magnum opus—Pennsylvanian Station (1904-1910)—still mourned as a lost icon of the City’s pre-war glory. Entrusted with a greater range of the sculptural program, Weinman created various decorative panels and two 10′ tall bronze portrait statues of Pennsylvania Railroad presidents Samuel Rae and Alexander Cassatt, which occupied places inside the building. Rae’s statue can still be found at the entrance of the new Pennsylvania Station (2 Penn Plaza, off 7th Ave. at 32nd), while that of Cassatt was shipped to the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. Better engraved upon the collective memory of New Yorkers, however, are Weinman’s 22 granite eagles that stood sentry along the cornice of the building and his monumental clock with its two figures Day and Night that announced the time to all those dashing to meet a train. When the building was dismantled, the clock and figures were taken to a dump in New Jersey and the eagles were dispersed. Two, however, remain on pedestals flanking the ignoble entrance to the new station (2 Penn Plaza, off 7th Ave. at 32nd), a third can be found on a secluded patio belonging to Cooper Union near the corner of 3rd Avenue and St. Mark’s. Weinman was known to have a penchant for the eagle and sought to present the bird in ways that would underscore its power and dignity. With the Penn Station eagles he found a pose and texture that was quite successful, which might explain the uncanny resemblance, in profile, between the massive granite eagle and the miniature striding bird of his half dollar.

Panel in the façade of the J. P. Morgan Library depicting Truth Enlightening the Sciences (author)

Panel in the façade of the J.P. Morgan Library depicting Music Inspiring the Allied Arts (author)

Weinman’s station of Samuel Rae at Penn Station (author)

One of Weinman’s eagles from the demolished Pennsylvania Station compared to the reverse of his half dollar (Alan Roche; ANS 1936.165.6)

Period postcard depicting Pennsylvania Station

The most colossal of Weinman’s collaborations with McKim, Mead & White, was the Municipal Building (1913; at the east end of Chambers St.), one of the earliest sky scrapers in the City and one which still dominates lower Manhattan. For this project Weinman was given control over the entire sculptural program, which included two large stone medallions of Progress and Prudence, and various allegorical bas-relief figures depicting aspects of the municipal government: for example, Elections, Civil Service, Board of Estimate and Apportionment, and Building Inspection. But the crowning achievement, quite literally, was Civic Fame, a 25′ tall sheet copper statue that gleams atop the building nearly 600′ above the streets. Installed in 1913, this heroic figure, Manhattan’s largest statue, holds in one hand a crown with five crenellations representing the five boroughs of the city; in the other hand is a spray of laurel representing fame, while the right arm supports a shield on which is carved the seal of the city.

Period postcard depicting the Municipal Building, Newspaper Row, and City Hall Park

Medallion Progress from the Municipal Building. Note the winged wheel, a ubiquitous Beaux Arts symbol of progress, held in the hand (Alan Roche)

Medallion Prudence from the Municipal Building. (Alan Roche)

Weinman’s Civic Fame (Les Metalliers Champenois)

Although not in Manhanttan, but worthy of mention, are the eight large rectangular block sculptures designed by Weinman which sit in front of the Bronx County Court Building (1932). Similar in theme to the sculpture found on the Appellate Court in Manhattan (see below), the groups represent the history of law through the ages, beginning with Greece and Rome. However, keeping in line with the Art Deco design of the building, these groups show something of a departure from Weinman’s other architectural sculpture in the more stylized, rather than natural, appearance of the figures.

Daniel Chester French

As a younger sculptor, Weinman also assisted in the studio of Daniel Chester French, who was a member of the ANS, and who is best known for his monumental portrait of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. Although French never designed a US coin, he was an accomplished medalist whose work included a medal, issued by the ANS in 1917, commemorating the building of the Catskills Aqueduct, a major water supply for the City. French reused the obverse of the medal in his design for the Medallic Art Company’s logo, still used by the company today. A large gold-plated bronze medallian featuring this logo once glimmered above the entrance to the company’s headquarters at 325 East 44th Street. After the company left New York in the early 1970s, the law firm Herrick obtained the medallion and now have it on display in their New York office. But French’s best known work in this medium is perhaps the Pulitzer Prize medal (1918), on the obverse of which is a bust of Benjamin Franklin reminiscent of that found on John Sinnock’s mid-century half dollar. French was responsible for a great number of sculptural pieces in Manhattan and the other boroughs, including two panels personifying Brooklyn and Manhattan that once graced the entrances of the Brooklyn Bridge, but which now are found over the entrance to the Brooklyn Museum, designed by McKim, Mead and & White in 1897. Also in Brooklyn, at the 9th Street entrance to Prospect Park, is the Lafayette Memorial (1917), on which French collaborated with Henry Bacon, the architect of the Lincoln Memorial.

Medal by French commemorating the completion of the Catskills Aqueduct (ANS 1985.81.216) Gift of Daniel M. Friedenberg

The Pulitzer Prize medal by French (ANS 1940.100.2142) Gift of R. J. Eidlitz

Obverse of medal by Anthony Lukeman illustrating French’s Lafayette Monument in Brooklyn (ANS 1940.100.50) Gift of R. J. Eidlitz

In Manhattan, one of French’s pet projects was the organization of the sculptors responsible for the ornamental program of the Appellate Court on the north-east corner of 25th and Madison (1896-1900). President of the newly formed National Sculpture Society (which later had its offices directly across the street) French and James Brown Lord, the architect, enrolled over a dozen of the leading members of the Society to contribute to this project, which would in turn help to promote the new organization. To ensure the success of the scheme, Lord devoted fully one-third of the entire budget to the sculptors and related artisans, an inconceivable expenditure in today’s architectural planning. The universal acceptance of law and its benefits was the theme of the program; thus ancient law givers such as Lycurgus, Zoroaster, Saint Louis, and Manu are represented on both facades (Mohammed was removed in 1955 at the request of Muslim groups because of the Islamic prohibition against such images). French was responsible for the central piece of the 25th Street façade, the Justice group, while other noted artists such as Frederick Ruckstull, Karl Bitter, and Philip Martiny took charge of the remaining groups and individual statues. Martiny and Bitter also joined French in creating the sculptures for the Chamber of Commerce (James B. Baker architect, 1901) next door to the Federal Reserve Bank on Liberty Street; the plinths between the columns for these three sculptural groups now stand empty, the sculptures having long ago disappeared.

The Appellate Court (photo: Museum of the City of New York)

Obverse of medal by Tiffany & Co. commemorating the completion of the Chamber of Commerce. Note the statutes the appear between the columns (ANS 0000.999.8237).

Another large scale project was the US Custom House at Bowling Green at the tip of lower Manhattan, which now houses the Museum of the American Indian (formerly a neighbor of ANS at Audubon Terrace). A young Cass Gilbert of St. Paul, Minnesota, won the competition to design the building for the federal government in 1903; when the building was completed in 1907, it was hailed by The New York Times as “a great Temple of Commerce.” Gilbert’s allusions to the Classical model is readily apparent, but it is in the sculptural program, representing the great seafaring nations of world history and four of the seven continents, where this Classicism found fascinating modern expression. For the twelve nations perched along the attic story, which begin with Greece and Rome and end with France and England, Gilbert commissioned several of French’s former co-collaborators including Frederick Ruckstull, who fashioned Phoenicia, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ lesser known brother, Louis, who created Holland and Portugal.

Period postcard depicting the U.S. Custom House

Reserving The Continents in front for the most accomplished artists, Gilbert approached both Augustus Saint-Gaudens and French. Saint-Gaudens, already overbooked, declined so French was given the commission for all four. Also a busy man, French depended a great deal upon Weinman to assist with the designs; French gave Weinman due credit for his work as can be seen by the names of both men that appear on each of the groups. The allegorical detail of Asia, America, Europe, and Africa, steeped in Victorian Anglo-American imperialism, present a view of the world very much alive, for example, in the travel and geographical writings of Sir Richard F. Burton, the great British explorer of the 19th century, but which is lost to us today. America and Europe (who seems far more English than Continental), both centrally located flanking the grand stairway into the building, present almost self-congratulating images of advancement and intellect. America is restless to stand and start work, while Europe with her globe and open book reposes in the superiority of her centuries of learning. At the fringes of the building (and the world?) there is on one side stern Asia with her feet resting on a plinth of human skulls, a chained slave bowing next to her, and on the other side there is languid, dissipated, half-nude Africa. Rightly, The Continents have been called the best examples of architectural sculpture in the United States.

Detail of the attic story of Cass Gilbert’s Custom House showing France and England (author)

French and Weinman’s America. Note the winged wheel symbolizing progress being rolled by the crouching figure (Alan Roche)

French and Weinman’s Africa (Alan Roche)

Detail of French and Weinman’s Africa at Custom House (Alan Roche)

French and Weinman’s Asia (Alan Roche)

French and Weinman’s Europe (Alan Roche)

After finishing the Custom House, Cass Gilbert continued to leave an impressive mark on Gotham. His Woolworth Building (1912), just a few blocks up Broadway from the Custom House, was the first skyscraper to be erected in Manhattan. Departing from the Classical model, Gilbert, at the specific request of the retailing giant Frank Woolworth, created a Gothic masterpiece sometimes called the “Cathedral of Commerce.” One of the most lavishly ornamented buildings in the City, the Cathedral’s terracotta décor lacks major sculptural elements. The last building Gilbert planned for New York was the US Courthouse (1934-1936) at Foley Square (adjacent to the north side of the municipal building). Perhaps as a nod to numismatic design, Gilbert included four large coin-like medallions picturing Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes and Moses in each corner of the frieze. As we shall see in a future installment of this series, the use of medallions, some imitating actual coins, became an increasingly fashionable way to adorn architecture in the Art Deco period of the 1920s and 30s.

Moses on the US Courthouse at Foley Square (Alan Roche)

See also:

Part II: Beaux Arts Sculpture: Saint-Gaudens’ Legacy in New York City

Part III: The Machine Age

Further Reading and References:

B.A. Baxter (1999) “A.A. Weinman, Classic Medalist,” in A. Stahl (ed.) The Medal in America Volume 2, New York: ANS, pp. 157-75.

D.G. Lowe (1998) Beaux Arts New York, New York: Whitney Library of Design.

D.M. Reynolds (1988) Monuments and Masterpieces: Histories and Views of Public Sculpture in New York City, New York.

M. Richman (1988) “The Medals of Daniel Chester French,” in A. Stahl (ed.) The Medal in America, New York: ANS, pp. 136-56.

D. Taxay (1966) The US Mint and Coinage: An Illustrated History from 1776 to the Present, New York: Arco.

T. Tolles (1999) “‘A Bit of Artistic Idealism’: Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s World Columbian Exposition Commemorative Presentation Medal,” in A. Stahl (ed.) The Medal in America Volume 2, COAC Proceedings, New York: ANS, pp. 136-56.