Name a local statue. (“Jeopardy” theme plays.) Sorry, one caveat: It’s not Mary Tyler Moore.
Hmm. The gold horses atop the Capitol? Sure, but not quite accessible. Er … Paul Bunyan? There’s a Paul Bunyan around somewhere, isn’t there? No. The Indian chief outside the Thunderbird Hotel in Bloomington? He hit the trail years ago. Sid Hartman at Target Field? Sorry, that’s actually Sid. He does that standing-still-for-hours trick you see in tourist spots.
There’s a reason why not many spring to mind — and it might be traced to something we didn’t do in 1917.
If you spend any time downtown, some non-Mary examples will come to mind. There’s the happy family outside the 5th Street towers, looking like they stepped out of a 1970s granola commercial. It’s by Douglas Freeman, a local sculptor, and was years ahead of its time: Now it looks like the family is trying to catch the light rail, instead of flagging down a nonexistent cab.
There are the two bulbous dancers by Botero a block from the Milwaukee Road depot. There are two others just like it elsewhere in the world, one of which recently fetched $1.7 million. It’s remarkable to think that there’s something worth that much money just sitting outside. (The Minneapolis Botero was valued at half a million dollars when it was installed in the early 2000s.)
Downtown used to have a statue of pioneers in the plaza in front of the Post Office, but as you might have noticed, there’s no plaza anymore. The statue was moved to B.F. Nelson park in northeast Minneapolis.
There used to be a statue of Thomas Lowry, father of the parks and streetcars, facing the hellish traffic mess by Loring Park.
Hennepin and Lyndale avenues smashed together around a plot of ground where Lowry stood, top hat in hand, his expression possibly expressing disappointment that these drivers weren’t taking the trolley. When the area was reconfigured for the Lowry Tunnel, the statue was carted off down Hennepin. Lowry now stands in a small park by Temple Israel.
He’s not the only civic father ossified for the ages: John Pillsbury — whose name people know more than Lowry, if only for the giggling flour sprite who bears his name — has his pitted and weathered replica on the University of Minnesota campus, which was the recipient of his largesse.
Each of these is modest. None is monumental.
That seems to be how we like it. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s statue in St. Paul’s Rice Park wears a small wry smile, an intimate and knowing expression. When the last surviving members of the Grand Army of the Republic pitched in to fund a statue of Lincoln in 1929, they may have been forgiven for going the civic-deity route and putting up a Big Abe. But the statue off Memorial Drive is remarkably modest — elevated on a base to indicate our reverence, but humble in its dimensions, almost lost in the bower that shelters it. If you don’t know it’s there, you might not see it as you drive by.
And that, perhaps, is the problem with our statues: They’re something you see — or miss — as you speed past. Which brings us back to 1917.
After the Columbian Exposition of 1893, also called the Chicago World’s Fair, “classical” urban design, known as the City Beautiful movement, became the default style for visionaries and planners. The traditional grid was re-imagined, with diagonal arteries slashing through the city, opening into broad European plazas where you could plant a plinth with a man on a horse.
A plan was commissioned for Minneapolis in 1917, and it made the Mill City look positively Parisian. All the buildings were the same height. Importing Parisian styles and limitations would have made for a lovely city, but American cities wanted to leap up, not stretch out. The plan was beautiful, romantic — and utterly unsuited for the skyscraper era en route, which might be why everyone smiled, nodded and went on to do something completely different.
One U.S. city exemplifies this style, and it was laid out long before City Beautiful fired the minds of planners. Surprise: It was laid out by a Frenchman. Charles L’Enfant drew diagonals through the city, with traffic circles that begged for a general or a politician to be stuck in the center. You can’t walk 10 blocks in Washington, D.C., without coming across Amberson T. Whiskerman, hero of the Battle of Pigeon Perch, sitting on a horse. The sculptures are integrated into the city’s fabric, because the fabric itself was woven around spaces that required civic monuments.
Not here. You might notice some of them if traffic backs up and you have binoculars. Olson Memorial Parkway, for example, is named after Floyd B. Olson, popular governor in the 1930s. He died at the age of 44, still in office, and the highway took his name. A statue was erected in 1940, designed by the St. Paul Brioschi-Minuti Co. A small weedy park surrounds it, and the plants that poke through the cracks suggest Floyd’s advocates have dwindled. You have to park on a frontage road and walk to see it up close — which, of course, few do.
Bull the international star
Even if Floyd was plopped in a park, it doesn’t mean he’d be well remembered. Consider Ole Bull. He’s been sawing away on his violin in Loring Park since 1897, and if you don’t know who he is, the statue doesn’t help: Thorny bushes smother the base, and you can draw blood if you wade in to see the name. Bull was an international star, a friend of the Norwegian independence movement, and he visited Minneapolis on tour a few times, to the delight of the local Oles. Context for baby boomers: Imagine coming across a statue in 2076 for Jimi Hendrix.
You don’t need an explanatory plaque anymore. Wikipedia has Bull’s story. That’s the good part about our statuary situation: For decades after fame faded, the statues stood like geological formations revealed when the glaciers retreated, mute and secretive. Now you can call up their bios, read their stories. If you see a young person standing by the Mary Tyler Moore statue, they might be trying to figure out why this woman is throwing her hat in the air. Oh, I get it. She’s going to make it after all.
Could we do better? Of course. If you asked people whether they wanted statues of, well, people instead of abstract things, they’d go for people every time — even if it’s just lots of “Peanuts” characters, or Fran Tarkenton and Bud Grant standing on a heap of Packers helmets like the skulls of the vanquished. We might even have them on traffic circles, now that we’ve learned that those don’t end in innumerable wrecks. The pioneer statue mentioned above is in a pedestrian roundabout, and it fits perfectly.
By the way: If the Nicollet Mall redesign has any money left in the budget for public art, consider a statue of the lady with the scarf over her head who looked at Mary as she threw her hat, and surely thought, “Well, that’s different.” No need to put her up on a pedestal; she was one of us.
James Lileks • 612-673-7858