Sunday, August 10, 2008
The broad granite southeast face of 5,725-foot (1,750-meter) Mount Rushmore, neat Rapid City, South Dakota, is carved with the massive portrait heads of four U.S. presidents—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. For its sheer engineering ingenuity and ambitiousness of scale—Washington’s head is 60 feet (18 meters) high—the ensemble may be regarded as an architectural feat.
In 1923 South Dakota’s state historian Doane Robinson suggested carving giant statues in the Black Hills. Perhaps he was prompted by the knowledge that a colossal Confederate memorial had been commissioned a few years earlier for Stone Mountain, Georgia, but it is more likely that the idea was first conceived as a tourist attraction. Initially, Robinson wanted to have a cluster of tall granite outcroppings known as the Needles carved to form a procession of the Amerindian leaders and European explorers who shaped the Western frontier. Conservationists resisted the idea, and there was no public support. Nevertheless, in 1925 the financial backers of the proposed memorial approached the sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who was known to specialize in large-scale sculpture and was then rather unhappily employed on Stone Mountain.
Borglum suggested that the southeast face of Mount Rushmore would make an ideal site for a monument. He proposed to carve the heads of the four presidents beside a table inscribed with a history of the United States. Such a composition would have more than regional significance; it would commemorate “the foundation, preservation and continental expansion of the United States” and be a shrine to democracy. And behind the figures a hall of records would preserve national documents and artifacts.
President Calvin Coolidge dedicated the memorial in 1927, and Borglum began drilling. But although less than half the time was spent on actual carving, the work would take fourteen years to complete. Most of the delay was due to money shortages during the Great Depression. Borglum lobbied at every political level, playing on nationalistic feelings and stressing that public works created jobs and won votes. As a result of his persistence, nearly 85 percent of the monument’s $1 million cost came from federal coffers. The Washington head, 500 feet (150 meters) up the mountain, was formally dedicated in 1930, when the name “Shrine of Democracy” was officially adopted; Jefferson followed in 1936, Lincoln in 1937, and Roosevelt in 1939. Borglum died in March 1941 and his son Lincoln supervised the completion of the sculpture.
Borglum’s plaster maquettes were based on life masks, images, and descriptions, but the differences between them and the finished heads demonstrate that the sculptor did not simply transpose from plaster to stone. Once the dimensions were scaled up to the finished size and marked out on the mountain, the team of carvers was faced with the problem of removing the unwanted granite. Despite Borglum’s first inclination against its use, dynamite was the only practical way to do that. Once an oval-shaped mass of rock was formed for each head, explosive experts blasted its surfaces to the approximate final measurements. Carvers suspended in bosuns’ chairs shaped the features. They used pneumatic drills to cut closely spaced holes that nearly defined the final surface, and the honeycombed granite was ultimately chiseled away to expose the smooth surfaces of the presidents’ faces. Viewed from a distance, stone miraculously became flesh; as the architect Frank Lloyd Wright observed, “The noble countenances emerge from Rushmore as though the spirit of the mountain heard a human plan and itself became a human countenance.”
A similar feat, already mentioned, deserves a little more detail. The north face of Stone Mountain, 16 miles (26 kilometers) east of Atlanta, Georgia, is carved with a 138-foot (42-meter) equestrian bas-relief of the Confederate heroes Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson B. Davis. What began in 1915 as a commission for Borglum to produce a 70-foot (21-meter) statue of Lee developed into a proposal for the group portrait. Preliminary work started soon after World War I and carving began in June 1923. Irreconcilable differences with the client caused Borglum to quit in March 1925—just as he received the Black Hills commission—when little more than Lee’s head had been finished. Augustus Lukeman replaced Borglum, dynamited most of the earlier work, and started again. Disputes over property ownership halted the project in 1928, and it was not revived until 1960, when an international competition led to the appointment of Walker Hancock as chief carver. He started work in 1964, making only slight modifications to the Lukeman design. The use of thermo-jet torches allowed for rapid, accurate removal of the stone and, in collaboration with Roy Faulkner, Hancock had the gigantic memorial finished by 1972.
The grandiose neoclassical character and the gigantic size of Mount Rushmore and similar projects call for comment about our seemingly irresistible need to enshrine ideals that are anything but inhuman through overwhelming and inhuman scale. Consider, for example, the 150-foot (45-meter) Statue of Liberty or the Cristo Redentore above Rio de Janeiro. On the other hand, colossi have been built for reasons of vainglory: the Colossus of Rhodes collapsed after one generation; the 120-foot (36-meter) statue of Nero (originally near the Roman Colosseum and providing its name) is long gone. One of the multitude of Egypt’s Ramessean statues is described by the poet Percy Shelley as a colossal wreck, “two vast and trunkless legs of stone.” Destroyed by nature or by conquerors, such works are at once monuments to our engineering ingenuity and our transience.