To drive into downtown Hartford is to drive back in time. Shopping malls and 7-11s give way to quiet brownstones, corniced Victorians, and brick factory buildings. Near the city’s center, the gold-domed State Capitol rises above the billboards of I-84. The Capitol is a fairy-tale structure, built in high Gothic Victorian, more at home in a novel by Bram Stoker than in “the Insurance Capital of the World.” Surrounding the Capitol are statues and commemorations of every kind, including Greek goddesses, Civil War cannons, busts of American writers, triumphal arches, and a squat, sword-wielding Confucius. A towering Marquis de Lafayette, mounted upon a stallion, always catches my eye as I drive past the Capitol towards the Hartford Public Library. He is trotting off to help Washington at Valley Forge. I am off to return overdue books.
A bit further down the green, less than a block from the Marquis, stands another figure, an eleven-foot high Christopher Columbus, coppery-green, perched on a nine-foot marble pedestal.
Looking at the statue, one imagines Columbus aboard the Santa Maria (a ship he disliked), clutching a nautical chart, gazing to his right, beyond Hispanola perhaps? But the Admiral needs to watch where he’s sailing. Just beyond the bowsprit, look out, Leviathan-Ho!
What were the city fathers thinking? They have set Columbus, discoverer of the New World, on a collision course with the soaring backside of Lafayette’s mount. Perhaps, I thought, Columbus’s remove from Lafayette made this visual insult hard to see. Clearly this had to have been an unintentional joke, the unwitting error of a middle-manager in the Parks Department, invisible to the good people of Hartford, obvious only to prurient-minded people like me. Still a joke is a joke and, seeing as this one involved Columbus, I wanted to know more.
The story of Lafayette and Columbus turns out to be a lot more complicated than I thought. Connecticut has at least seventeen monuments honoring Columbus. While the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893 was the biggest Columbus event ever organized (about 27 million people attended the fair, a number that equaled half the U.S. population), most of Connecticut’s monuments were built, with considerably less fanfare, in the twentieth century. The Chicago Fair, while nominally celebrating Columbus, was really a showcase of White Anglo Saxon Protestant achievement in the New World, a paean to American Exceptionalism.
By contrast, most of the Columbus monuments of the twentieth-century were built by Italian-American groups. One expects that the new ranks of Italian immigrants pouring into American cities, most of whom were working-class Catholics, did not endear themselves to members of the WASP ruling class. Nor did the Sacco-Vanzetti trial, which led to the execution of two Italian anarchists in 1927, do much to help relations between classes. Or, for that matter, the Italian Mafia, which catered to the thirstier citizens of the Prohibition Era.
In this climate, one imagines that monuments to Columbus offered the American public a subtle reminder of the greatness of Italian heritage. Tea-totaling Protestants may have held the reins of power in the U.S., but Italian-Americans wanted it made clear: the tower of Anglo-Saxon prosperity rested on the foundations laid by a Catholic, wine drinking sailor from Genoa.
In Hartford, the plan to commemorate Columbus started auspiciously enough. Italian-Americans raised $15,000 to put up their local Columbus on Lafayette Green, then unoccupied by any other statue. Columbus was unveiled on 12 October 1926 before a crowd of three thousand, accompanied by a two-mile parade, floats, and speeches by the mayor of Hartford, the Governor of Connecticut, congressmen, and the Italian vice-council. Prize for “best-looking girl float” (for the float, the girl?) went to the Yolando Club of Waterbury. All in all, it appeared to be a happy event, a win for the Italian community and the civic-minded citizens of Hartford.
This lasted about ten months. Problems began the following year when organizers of the Columbus monument sought to change the name of Lafayette Green to “Columbus Green” in time for the Columbus Day celebration of 1928. The Board of Aldermen, unsure of what to do, referred the issue to the Park Commissioners, who, in turn, referred the issue back to the Board.
Meanwhile, the forces of Lafayette had gathered to launch a counter-attack. The French-American Republican Club drafted a resolution condemning the name change. They were soon joined by a phalanx of societies including the Connecticut Society of the Colonial Dames of America, the Connecticut Historical Society, the Committee on Historic Sites, the Connecticut Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, the French Social Club, the Franco-American Foresters, and L’Association Canado-Americaine, all of whom protested The Great Admiral’s annexation of this small tuft of grass.
Katherine Day, Chairwoman of the Committee on Historic Sites, explained her opposition:
Why intrude Columbus on this area? Or, if so, why not the statues of Leif Ericson, Cabot and all the other brave explorers? … Should not our own soldiers and sailors and civil heroes have first place near the seat of our State life?
Day must have forgotten that Lafayette was a French aristocrat. As Hartford’s ethnic groups squared off against each other, the Board of Alderman quickly tabled the motion to change the name of the green. There matters stood until an Italian-American alderman raised the motion again in 1930.
A plan had been in the works for some time, at least five years, to erect a statue of Lafayette on the Green named after him but it had not moved forward for want of funds. Suddenly, after this second petition to change the name, an anonymous donor offered funds to complete the project. By 1932, Lafayette and his horse had found their new homes on the Green, showing their faces forever to the Capitol, and their backsides eternally to the Mariner of the Seas.
I had assumed that the monumental mooning of Columbus was unintentional. Now I’m not so sure.
Next Post: Columbus on the Green, Part II