- Associated Press
Monday, February 20, 2017

CINCINNATI (AP) - He’s not quite like the others.

That’s obvious. And that hasn’t changed.

Not in 100 years.

There’s something a bit ragged and a lot rugged about the bronze Abraham Lincoln in Cincinnati’s Lytle Park.

His clothes are as wrinkled as his folded hands, as disheveled as the cowlick atop his furrowed brow. Not even a beard masks the concerned creases in his thin face.

We see every line in this Lincoln. All the rough, lean edges that made the man.

This is not the Great Emancipator. Not the noble statesmen that sits in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., his most famous tribute today. This is not the dignified, pensive president we keep in our pockets, on pennies and $5 bills.

This Lincoln is the Rail-Splitter. The Kentucky-born son of the American frontier. He’s a hard-working man who was hardened by the land he loved, with big, rough hands and even bigger feet.

That, of course, was the intention. That’s the Lincoln of sculptor George Grey Barnard’s imagination. That’s what Charles P. Taft, the Cincinnati lawyer and younger brother of President William Howard Taft, bought and paid for. That’s the gift he gave to the city of Cincinnati on March 31, 1917.

But what happened next was not by design. And is not obvious looking at the statue now.

A hundred years ago, this Lincoln wasn’t just different. It was divisive.

A debate raged among designers and artists, historians and politicians around the country. It played out in the editorial pages of major American newspapers for weeks, from New York City to Philadelphia to Kansas City. The statue was a “hideous caricature,” ”a lie in bronze.” It “makes a sort of scarecrow of the noblest figure in American history,” one particularly colorful writer mused.

Or, as some preferred, it was “the greatest statue of our age.”

This Lincoln even prompted public protests from Lincoln’s own son, calling it “grotesque.” An official objection from a representative in the United States Congress. And in the years following its unveiling here, it provoked a diplomatic kerfuffle across the pond.

Back in the Queen City, people didn’t care. They celebrated Barnard’s Lincoln.

Some 20,000 Cincinnatians welcomed him to Lytle Park that March day in 1917. Ten thousand school children, boy scouts, city officials paraded there. Once there, admirers crammed into the small downtown park. Others had to hang out of windows to catch just a glimpse of Lincoln. More gawked from the roofs of nearby factories.

And it was all types of people, too. All of Lincoln’s America. A rabbi, a bishop and a former Confederate soldier officially dedicated the statue.

The 1917 ceremony was just the culmination of Barnard’s years of industrious research.

Before this Lincoln, the Pennsylvania-born and Illinois-bred sculptor was best known for his public pieces at the Capitol Building in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and at Columbia University in New York City.

When Barnard received the commission from Charles P. Taft, his approach to Lincoln was different from the very beginning. Unlike other artists who took him on as a subject, Barnard did not study photographs of the beloved president, then dead for almost 50 years.

He said he didn’t trust them. That the photographers “retouched his face, fearing that its ugly lines might lose him the presidency,” he wrote.

Instead, Barnard studied Lincoln’s life masks, casts of his face taken before his assassination on April 15, 1865. The entire pose of the figure, Barnard said, grew out of that study. He memorized the veins in the casts that were taken of his hands, too.

But why were these nationwide organization’s eyes on this Lincoln? Why were so many people, from so many corners of this country, compelled to share their opinions of Barnard’s vision?

That’s because this Lincoln wasn’t supposed to just stay in Cincinnati.

Charles P. Taft wanted to send a replica of Barnard’s Lincoln to London. The tribute to the man who led our country through war was to be a celebration of peace between America and England.

And Taft would cover all the costs to make the copies and send them there, to the tune of about $100,000. (That’s more than $2 million today.) The city just had to provide a place to put him.

It wasn’t that simple, after all.

One New York newspaper summarized the scandal this way: “The status of this gift statue, indeed, is complicated by so many considerations that it should be left to the Hague to determine it.”

Abraham’s son, Robert T. Lincoln, had a clear opinion. When he heard of this plan, he penned a letter to Taft’s brother, William Howard Taft, pleading with the former president to convince his brother to abandon this awful ambition.

The young Lincoln viewed the work as “a monstrous figure, grotesque as a likeness of President Lincoln and defamatory as an effigy.”

A congressman wanted sitting President Woodrow Wilson to also get involved. He proposed a resolution requiring the White House to stop the gift before it was given, peppering his request with a slew of insults.

He said the statue had “a neck like Alice in Wonderland after she swallowed the wrong piece of cake.” ”A pose patterned after a crane.” ”Shapeless canal-boat structures instead of boots or shoes.” It was “more simian than human.” And so on.

London officials had to respond.

At first, they still enthusiastically accepted Taft’s gift, planning to display it across from Westminster Abbey.

But eventually, they caved to the critics.

Instead, they accepted a different Lincoln statue replica. One that wasn’t marred by debate, a copy of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Abraham Lincoln. The more traditional Lincoln - note the beard - still stands in Lincoln Park in Chicago.

Taft’s offering didn’t exactly end up at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, however.

It just got moved to Manchester.

Still, Cincinnati wasn’t alone in admiring Barnard’s piece. It received high praise from a high-profile person. Former President Theodore Roosevelt was the one who called it “the greatest statue of our age.”

“I have always wished that I might see him,” he said upon viewing the piece. “Now I do.”

We still agree with Roosevelt.

Barnard’s version was actually Cincinnati’s second Lincoln. The statue of Lincoln and Lady Liberty was unveiled in Avondale in 1902.

Yet, it’s the Lytle Park version - with all its realistic flaws and frank strangeness - that receives tributes on Lincoln’s birthday, Feb. 12.

That’s when an admirer laid a wreath recently at Lincoln’s feet. The foot-long ones.


Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer, https://www.enquirer.com

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