Si monumentum requiris

July 18, 2012, 5:14 am

My usual short bike ride in San Francisco — about 25 minutes starting from my home near Dolores Park — is to head northwest via the Wiggle to Golden Gate Park, on to the Concourse between the California Academy of Sciences and the De Young Museum, and loop back home. Along the way, there’s a series of monuments which I read as an index of our civic preoccupations from, say, the last quarter of the 19th century, into the first quarter of the 20th.

At the gateway to the gateway to the park, so to speak, the east end of the Panhandle, a robed bronze figure, massive but reserved in her grief, holds up a palm branch in memory of President McKinley.


Just inside the park proper, on the right, McLaren Lodge, headquarters of SF Park and Rec, remembers John McLaren, father of the park. It’s a heavy Romanesque affair in tan stone — I believe there’s a meeting room inside panelled in leather.

Further ahead on the right, just before the Conservatory of Flowers, stands the monument to Garfield, far more emphatic than McKinley’s (1881 rather than 1901), with an inconsolable black figure weeping at its base.

(Past the Conservatory, off the road a bit to the right, is a Garden of Humanitarians — a different mode of commemoration, for a later age. Also nearby, but off my loop, is the National AIDS Memorial Grove, a genuinely impressive garden set in a kind of glen or fold in the hills.)

Turning left, we are greeted at the entrance of the Concourse by two facing statues: on the left, Junipero Serra brandishes a cross as he strides north from Mexico founding missions, while on the right Don Quixote and Sancho Panza kneel in homage before the bust of Cervantes, who looks down benignly on his creations. This placement can’t possibly be coincidence — is the founding of Catholic churches being glossed as delusional Hispanic knight-errantry?

Further on, approaching the De Young, a pumped-up athlete presses cider on our left
(I thought it was wine, but no); while on the right, a sculptural miscellany stands guard before the museum. There’s a pair of sphinxes with curious Art-Nouveau noses, which once guarded the doors of the museum, in its Mediterranean stucco form (homier than the present stark post-industrial metal shell, by Herzog and de Meuron); a tremendous urn or vase in bronze, swarming with a good hundred putti; and an optimistic sundial (with obligatory Latin motto, which if I read it right denies the existence of fog).

Wheeling on past the sculpture garden of the museum proper, and past the Hagiwara Tea Garden, we make a roundabout at Ninth Avenue, and re-enter the Concourse from the west. Immediately before us on the right is a brooding beetle-browed bust of Beethoven, with an attendant muse.

But if we remember to look back, we see a matching bust of Verdi — indeed, more than matching, blazing with gilt. Speculation is irresistible: I’m afraid to look it up and disconfirm my theory that the Verdi was put up by the Italian-American community as a response to the canonized German.

Now, on our left, Robert Emmet stands facing the Concourse from in front of the California Academy of Sciences. Did the Irish-American community decide he was a better-known candidate for commemoration than any famous Irish musician — John Field, say, or Carolan?

Toward the east end of the Concourse, a double statue of Goethe and Schiller stands on a high stone plinth on our right. They may have been intended to match the Beethoven toward the other end, but they don’t quite face him. What meets their gaze instead is the most prominent memorial of all — an arresting temple-cum-throne, surmounted by eagles, from which Francis Scott Key surveys the broad declivity of the Concourse and the band shell at the west end.

The last statue on the Concourse proper is Black Jack Pershing, modest compared to his neighbors, and somewhat withdrawn into the shrubbery. (I’ve heard it said that many pieces in the Park are half-hidden in this way because John McLaren disliked statuary, but Ockham would prefer the explanation of mere vegetable abundance.)

Now we leave the loop, turning back east along JFK Drive. To our right, up a bank and back into the bushes, stands Robert Burns. Nearby, the Rhododendron Dell commemorates McLaren again. (There’s also a McLaren Park, in the southeast of San Francisco, distinguished by a tall blue water tower — I read once that the zookeepers gather eucalyptus for their koalas out there.)

And finally, the last piece on our tour is the Baseball Player.

It’s by Douglas Tilden, whose Football Players, at UC Berkeley, I’ve written about here before. That’s a better sculpture, I think, but this one conveys more concrete particulars of the sport. The player is a pitcher, and he throws with the upright stance and sidearm motion of a hundred years ago — quaint and fussy, but recognizable, even familiar, across the gulf of years.

Photos reproduced from Flickr under Creative Commons licenses.

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