I have this theory that you can tell something about the collective nature of a city by its monuments–the statues, public art, grave stones, and other outdoor objects that people can look at and ponder. Like all big cities, Seattle has no shortage of them and, thanks to dedicated public funding for artwork, actually might have more than the average. Approaching my one-year anniversary of becoming New To Seattle, I’ve had a chance to gaze at many of them.
Seattle has to be right up there when it comes to quirky monuments. Foremost among them, in my judgment, is the one shown across the top of this blog: the Fremont Troll. That’s an 18-foot-high sculpture on N. 36th Street of a one-eyed ogre clutching a Volkswagen Beetle seemingly snatched from the Aurora Bridge passing overhead through the Fremont neighborhood. Fashioned by four Seattle artists, it was unveiled on Halloween 1990 near the height of the “Californians Stay Away” movement, which is probably why that VW has a Golden State license plate. My, how times have changed: Seattle is now dependent upon relocating Californians to shore up sagging property values.
Three blocks to the west, at Evanston Avenue N. and N. 36th Street, stands what is believed to be the only statue in the U.S. depicting Vladimir Lenin, the murderous Bolshevik revolutionary behind Communism and the Soviet Union. Salvaged from Czechoslovakia after the fall of Communist rule in 1989, the 16-foot-high bronze sculpture was bought by a Seattle-area resident for $13,000 in 1993 and shipped here. Politically and culturally, the Fremont neighborhood fancies itself cut from a different cloth. To me its placement is oddly appropriate for another reason, since, as I have written here before, the Fremont section is named after a murderous war criminal from California.
If it’s left-wing politics you like, it’s hard to top an abstract statue by the Grand Hyatt Hotel downtown at 721 Pine Street. It’s called The Miser, and was crafted by artist Tom Otterness in 1997. That’s long before Occupy Wall Street and the 1% took its place in political discourse. This work depicted a Monopoly-inspired tycoon clutching money to his chest but handing one coin to a down-and-outer standing on a globe held up by four miniature wealthy men.
It’s been called the “worst statue in Seattle.” But I find it utterly brilliant, a memorable combination of whimsy and message. I guess that’s partly due to its symbolic location near expensive hotels, restaurants, clubs and real estate.
To me, the dubious honor of the city’s most unappealing public utterance falls to an other-worldly statue of Christopher Columbus sitting along the Seattle waterfront at Alaskan Way and Union Street near the Seattle Aquarium. The bronze statue by artist Douglas Bennet was put up in 1978 with the sponsorship of the city’s rather tiny Italian community. Columbus sort of looks emaciated and constipated. Bennet spent the rest of his life defending it. History, and especially Indians, haven’t treated Columbus very well. Columbus Day, the October 12 anniversary of his first arrival in the New World, is probably the U.S.’s least-honored major holiday. Seattle city officials have found it necessary in some years to crate the statue around Columbus Day to prevent vandalism.
A little way north along the waterfront, an elaborate installation in the Olympic Sculpture Park at 2901 Western Avenue draws stares. Father and Son, crafted in 2005 by Louise Bourgeois, depicts two male figures facing one another with outstretched hands in a pool, both buck-naked. Alternating fountain spouts always obscure one of the statues. The apparent idea had something to do with the juxtaposition of vulnerability and estrangement. But some critics can’t get past the fact that the commission was funded from the estate of a gay insurance executive, or that it looks like the two are peeing on each other.
Sticking a little more to reality, there’s the 17-foot-high Leif Erikson statue at the Shilshole Bay Marina, 7001 Seaview Avenue NW, in Ballard. Crafted by August Werner, this was erected for the World’s Fair in 1962 at the behest of Seattle’s Scandinavian community to honor the Viking who (if you believe the gossip) made it across the Atlantic 500 years before Columbus. Here he strikes a heroic pose gazing out over Puget Sound, a body of water that even the most ardent supporter acknowledges he never saw or got anywhere near.
But hey, heroic poses are what many statues are all about.
For exactly a century, such a rendering of Chief Seattle has sat at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Denny Way on the northern edge of downtown. He was the Indian boss respected but shoved aside by the gathering gangs of gringos pouring into the Puget Sound area during the mid-19th century and grabbing all the good land. The statue, made by James Wehn, hasn’t moved. But thanks to the 1962 World’s Fair, it sits within easy view of the Space Needle. Some tourists take care to shoot a picture containing both.
Given Seattle’s long and economically fruitful association with Alaska, it’s not surprising to find a statue hereabouts of William H. Seward.
As U.S. Secretary of State, he negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia for 2 cents an acre in 1867. Sculpted by Richard E. Brooks, the statue was unveiled in 1909 at the Alaska-Yukon Pacific Exposition. Since the fair’s closing, it has been situated in Volunteer Park, 1247 15th Avenue E. on Capitol Hill. For some reason it’s not in the park and neighborhood named for him a few miles south along Lake Washington.
Brooks also got the commission to sculpt a statue of someone who actually attended the Seward unveiling but died a year later.
That was John McGraw, Washington State’s one-term second governor after statehood but a man remembered now for dramatically standing up to vigilantes trying to rid the city of Chinese laborers in 1886. Then the King County sheriff, McGraw was shot three times, but survived. Since 1913, his statue has stood on what is now McGraw Square Plaza, 501 Stewart Street. That’s in downtown Seattle near the southern terminus of the monorail.
Seattle’s artistic heritage is also monumentally represented in public depictions.
A bronze statue of Seattle native Jimi Hendrix, widely considered the world’s greatest electric guitarist ever, sits at 900 E. Pine Street on Capitol Hill. Made by Daryl Smith, it was erected in 1997–nearly three decades after Hendrix’s death in London at the young age of 27. Unlike the other monuments mentioned here, this one is rather low to the ground. Hendrix is on his knees, guitar on his hip.
He didn’t grow up in Seattle, but legendary martial arts actor Bruce Lee attended the University of Washington and married a local girl. He carved out a tremendous career in movies before dying somewhat mysteriously in Hong Kong in 1973 at the age of 32.
Lee is buried in Capitol Hill’s venerable Lake View Cemetery, 1554 15th Avenue E., in a plot that one Web site lists among the ten “most visited famous grave sites” in the entire world. That certainly makes it a monument. Buried next to him is his son, Brandon, also an actor who died in a 1993 shooting accident while making a movie in North Carolina. The markers are modest but well-maintained and evocative. Bruce’s headstone reads, “Our inspiration continues to guide our personal liberation.”
One of the most sobering monuments is the Seattle Fallen Firefighters Memorial, located in tiny Occidental Park, S. Main Street and Occidental Avenue S., by downtown’s Pioneer Square. It consists of four bronze figures of firefighters, faces covered with gas masks, to represent the 31 local responders killed in the line of duty over the past 120 years. The monument was designed by Hai Ying Wu and erected in 1998.
When it comes to Seattle monuments, I’m only hitting some highlights. I’m still mulling over in my mind what they say about Seattle culture. Feel free to weigh in below. More in a future post.