“Of Triumphal Arches and Vestal Virgins: Classical Ideals and Urban Uplift on Monument Avenue.”

Today’s guest post is from Evie Terrono, Ph.D. Professor of Art History, Randolph-Macon College. Dr. Terrono is the author of “’Great Generals and Christian Soldiers’: Commemorations of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in the Civil Rights Era,” in Kirk Savage, Ed., The Civil War in Art and Memory.

The Lost Cause narratives ensconced onto the commemorative fabric of Monument Avenue have been the focus of much commentary. Less attention however, has been devoted to the cultural ambitions of the avenue’s patrons. They embraced the ideals of contemporary civic improvement projects in the context of the American Renaissance (1876-1917), a nationalistic movement that favored a return to the past, celebrated American Colonial heritage, and appropriated Greco-Roman classical models in architecture and sculpture, all as the means to cultivate historical awareness, individual and communal edification, and moral improvement. Grand proposals for the monuments and the remarkable architectural pluralism of the avenue demonstrate the desire of Richmond’s elite to retreat into an orderly environment of high art and architecture.[1]

The pedestal for the Lee statue was already in place in February 1890, when Richmonders began to propose a wide variety of historical allusions to frame the unveiling ceremonies, so that they would be “worthy of the name of Lee, and instructive to the rising generation,” thus demonstrating not only aesthetic concerns, but also the didactic potential of the site. Architect Marion J. Dimmock (1843-1908), who had served the Confederacy, noted that “the parade of volunteers and veterans and the oration and prayer….[were] full and sufficient and … no other feature would add to the celebration.”  Another Confederate veteran, however, Dr. Hunter H. McGuire (1835-1900), himself the subject of a 1904 monument, proposed a “colonial ball and minuet,” connecting the American colonial past and the Confederacy by pairing George Washington with Robert E. Lee as exemplars of heroic valor. McGuire’s contemporary, Albert L. West (1825-1892), the architect of the Centenary United Methodist Church, conceived of an even more grandiose scheme, where at “one or more places on the line of march a triumphal arch be erected, having a middle part, say twenty feet wide, and sides ten feet wide, somewhat after the manner of that of Septimus Leverus [sic]…and, if desired, be lighted up at night with gas or electricity.” [2] Along the same lines of an antique theme, H. H. Harris, Professor of Greek at Richmond College, and the chair of its Greek Department from 1866-1895, proposed the recognition of the “most devoted and self-sacrificing upholders of the Lost Cause,” southern women. In this Elysian fields forming on the western outskirts of Richmond, Harris who had served directly under Robert E. Lee and, who upon learning of the surrender of the South “buried his face in his hands and wept,” painted the picture of a pageant suggesting that since “May is a month of verdure and blossom,” a “number of ladies be selected to array themselves as vestals and close the public exercises by weaving a garland of flowers-not costly exotics, but sweet natives of the sacred soil-around the base of the pedestal.”[3]

The allusion to the ennobling Roman theme would have been a natural choice for the classically educated Harris, but it also demonstrated the popularity of classical pageants, performances often held outdoors in which Americans, clad as Greeks and Romans, elevated mundane experiences to the spiritual and the sacred. Participants and attendees, men and women, would be transported into a realm of high culture and the classical past.[4]

West’s high-minded proposal of a triumphal arch demonstrates his aspirational reach, but also reflects the widespread contemporary appropriation of this motif to honor heroic deeds, including the George Washington Memorial Arch built in 1892 in New York City by architect Stanford White (1853-1906) and the arch dedicated “to the Defenders of the Union, 1861-1865,” the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch in Brooklyn, unveiled in 1892.

Stanford White et al.  Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch , Brooklyn, Detroit Publishing Co, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Stanford White et al. Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch, Brooklyn, Detroit Publishing Co, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Stanford White,  Washington Memorial Arch , 1895, New York City. Detroit Publishing Company, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Stanford White, Washington Memorial Arch, 1895, New York City.
Detroit Publishing Company, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The triumphal arch motif resurfaced in the proposal for the Davis monument in submissions from Louis A. Gudebrod (1872-1961) and Norfolk-born William Couper (1853-1942), both of whom designed monumental arches embellished with inscriptions, and Percy Griffin’s (1866-1921) even more grandiose scheme of a Roman Pantheon-like temple, but none were realized.

The Times [Richmond, VA] June 6, 1902, 1-2

The Times [Richmond, VA] June 6, 1902, 1-2

The emphasis on classical ideals in the Confederate monumental landscape, the usage of equestrian statues elevated on high pedestals, and the adoption of Latin inscriptions addressed not only an audience cognizant of the currency of such modes of presentation for the commemoration of the Lost Cause, but also one aware of their meaningful associations to classical Greek and Roman history—a past then considered as the height of human intellectual achievement, unencumbered by social and racial conflict. Such cultural regressions to mythologized versions of the past were often employed as defensive strategies against vexing contemporary social and economic fissures that jeopardized individual and communal stability. As historian Robert H. Wiebe has noted, the period during which the Confederate memorial landscape was formed,

generated a host of ethical evasions no more subtle than the evils they were meant to hide. Some idealized the past and the passing. A flood of fiction sighed over the lost virtues of another day; the valiant men of the Wild West, the touching warmth between master and slave, the quite peace of the New England village, the happy innocence of the barefoot boy with cheek of tan.[5]

Menacing racial, gender, and economic unrest, rampant industrialization and urbanization, and the transformative impact of ethnically and culturally heterogeneous throngs of immigrants prompted white, economically privileged Americans, to find refuge in newly established residential settings far removed from labor uprisings, the exploitation and victimization of black and white workers, and the escalating Civil Rights, and the suffrage movement that they perceived as a threat to the well-being of the American polity. Suburban expansion initiatives, such as Monument Avenue, showcased cultural aspirations, but also the desire to escape the actual and imagined ills of crowded industrial cities. Commenting on the evident contradictions of the period, architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson noted that “newly or vastly enlarged communities came into being: the ghetto for the immigrant, the suburb for the middle and upper classes, and the resort or spa for those who could afford to escape.”[6]

This expansion of Richmond’s monumental landscape beyond the State Capitol and into newly opened enclaves, as art historian Kirk Savage has noted, marked the revitalization of the city’s urban fabric, and coalesced economic, social, and political power into the city’s new western suburbs. Monument Avenue, became the desirable address for the city’s professional elite class, a “city-sponsored precinct fully integrated into the modern civic fabric and clearly intended to showcase civic progress,” celebrating a modern New South that held onto its past, but was fully “oriented to the mainstream national values of business and progress.” [7]

Although the promoters of the avenue recognized potential financial gains that could be accrued, they also valued its aesthetic potential. As reported in the Richmond Dispatch in 1886, proponents envisioned that in “the not-remote future Franklin Street … shall be widened so as to make a grand boulevard, with room for rows of trees down the middle.”[8] As Monument Avenue expanded westward on Franklin Street, its integration of residential structures with a landscaped median, and with ceremonial sites of communal remembering, realized the ideals of the City Beautiful Movement that characterized ambitious urban planning projects throughout the United States.

The pioneer urban planner Charles M. Robinson—based on Chicago—proposed in his influential book, The Modern Civic Art, or The City Made Beautiful, the planting on grand avenues of a “row of small and formal trees that will not be inconsistent with the character of the way, while bringing into it a strip of colour [sic]… a welcome, if slender, stream of nature.”[9] Then, remarking on the necessity of learning opportunities in the residential, as well as business districts, he observed that statues “commemorate in permanent materials the deeds of great citizens, the examples of national heroes, the causes for civic pride, and the incentives to high resolve which are offered by the past.”[10]

Delaware Avenue, Buffalo, Detroit Publishing Co., c. 1910-1920, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Delaware Avenue, Buffalo, Detroit Publishing Co., c. 1910-1920,
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The architects and sculptors who competed energetically to shape Richmond’s monumental landscape, most of them northerners, engaged in these projects not necessarily because of ideological allegiance to Lost Cause ideals, but because they recognized the potential of defining this remarkable residential enclave with examples of their European training reflecting high-minded academic ideals, and the demands of Beaux Arts architecture. The peculiarities of Richmond’s pre-Civil War urban landscape were replaced by the orderly axiality and monumentality of the avenue, with its broad landscaped median, and its diverse architectural outlook that bespoke of its venerable associations with other urban improvement schemes in major European capitals, and by the turn of the last century, throughout the United States. Grand American avenues demonstrated aesthetic sophistication and communal well-being, such as Euclid Avenue in Cleveland and Delaware Avenue in Buffalo, also developed in the 1890s, Ward Parkway in Kansas City, and Vandeventer Place in St. Louis, in proximity to Forrest Park where in 1914, St. Louisans dedicated their own controversial monument to the Confederate dead.

2300 Block of Monument Avenue from Historic American Buildings Survey, c. 1933, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

2300 Block of Monument Avenue from Historic American Buildings Survey, c. 1933,
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Writing on his visit to Richmond, Henry James in his American Scene, maligned the city which he thought impoverished of culture and art. As he contemplated the Lee Monument, James  recognized the “Southern hero,” the product of “far-away uninterested Paris,” the

great soldier, sitting his horse with a kind of melancholy nobleness, raises his handsome head as he looks off into desolate space. He does well, we feel, to sit as high as he may, and the appear, in his lone survival, to see as far, and to overlook as many things; …. The place is the mere vague centre [sic] of two or three crossways, without form and void, with a circle half sketched by three or four groups of small, new, mean houses. It is somehow empty in spite of being ugly, and yet expressive in spite of being empty.[12]

The architectural eclecticism of the avenue with houses ranging in styles from Colonial, to English, and French Renaissance revivalist examples, and Arts and Crafts, among others, clearly reveals the desire of architects and patrons alike to combat such accusations of cultural provincialism and embrace instead contemporary trends of cultural Cosmopolitanism. Through their patronage of monumental sculpture, Richmonders not only paid homage to their partisan memories of the Civil War, but they also answered the mandates of American ideals of progressivism and public edification through sophisticated and varied architectural and sculptural references that demonstrated their economic and cultural ascendancy.


[1] For the widespread usage of classical models and the return to the Colonial past in the American Renaissance as a reaction to the complicated social tensions of the period see Richard Guy Wilson et al., The American Renaissance 1876-1917 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1979), 11-51.

[2] “The Memory of Lee,” The Richmond Dispatch, 9 February 1890, 8, 1.

[3] “The Memory of Lee,” The Richmond Dispatch, 9 February 1890, 8, 2. The quote about Harris weeping is cited in Mark Robert Wilson, William Owen Carver’s Controversies in the Baptist South (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2010), 7.

[4] For the significance of pageants in validating the ideological connection to the ideal world of Greece and Rome and providing an opportunity for community building, see Annelise Madsen, “Model Citizens: Mural Painting, Pageantry, and the Art of Civic Life in Progressive America,” (PhD. diss. Stanford University, 2010), and Trudy Baltz, “Pageantry and Mural Painting: Community Rituals in Allegorical Form,” Winterthur Portfolio 15, 3 (Autumn 1980): 211-228.

[5] Robert H. Wiebe, The Search for Order 1877-1920 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux: Hill and Wang, 1967), 39.

[6] Richard Guy Wilson et al., The American Renaissance 1876-1917 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1979), 27.

[7] Savage, 149-150. On the selective historical narratives employed to attract northern tourists to Richmond in the post-bellum period see Reiko Hillyer, Designing Dixie, Tourism, Memory, and Urban Space in the New South (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2014), 88-134.

[8] “Local Matters: Meeting of the Lee Monument Association Yesterday,” Richmond Times Dispatch, June 19, 1886, 1, 3.

[9] Charles M. Robinson, Modern Civic Art or the City Made Beautiful (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904), 169

[10] Robinson, 170.

[11] Jan Cigliano, Sarah Bradford Landau, Eds. The Grand American Avenue, 1850-1920 (San Francisco, California: Pomegranate Artbooks, 1994).

[12] Henry James, The American Scene (London: Chapman and Hall, 1907), 393.