Essay — From the November 2017 issue

Monumental Error

Will New York City finally tear down a statue?

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Forty years after its dedication, the Sims statue, along with a statue of Washington Irving, was removed from Bryant Park. The year was 1932, and the nation was about to observe the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth. To commemorate the occasion, Sears, Roebuck and Company erected in the park a temporary replica of Federal Hall, from which Washington delivered his first inaugural. The statues, which were in the way of this patriotic simulacrum, were dragged away.

Robert Moses was named the commissioner of parks a short time later. He disliked statues in general, and almost immediately proposed a dramatic overhaul of Bryant Park that did not include the reinstallation of the Sims and Irving monuments. This was fortuitous, as the statues had been misplaced — five tons of granite and metal had somehow gone missing. The good luck turned into headache, however, when the Art Commission (which was later renamed the Public Design Commission, and today has final say over all public-art decisions in New York City) rejected his proposal. The statues had to come back.

Reports differ on what came next. Some say the statues turned up by accident in a Parks Department storage yard. Moses told the New York Times a different story: a protracted effort led searchers to a storage area beneath the Williamsburg Bridge, where they found the monuments wrapped in tarpaulins. Moses reiterated his belief that the “city could get along very well” without them. Still, to keep Sims from mucking up his plans, he consented to a request from the New York Academy of Medicine that the monument be installed across from its Fifth Avenue location, in a niche on the outer wall of Central Park.

Again, the public was afforded no opportunity to comment. The statue was rededicated on October 20, 1934. The speakers echoed those who had first lobbied for a Sims monument, hailing his supposed innovations without ever really addressing what such a memorial was for. In 1884, another celebrated surgeon, Samuel Gross, had argued in his letter of support for a Sims statue that monuments are not intended for the dead. Rather, they should act as a stimulus for the living to “imitate the example” of the figure memorialized. But what sort of inspiration would the Sims statue provide? After all, the man in the strange bronze overcoat was, as the Medical Record noted, distinguished mostly for his readiness to employ “the one needful thing, the knife.”

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is the author of six books. His article “Getting to the End” appeared in the December 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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