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In Defense of Fragile Architecture

September 23, 2015

I never imagined that my set of handwritten seminar notes from ARLH759: Power and the Built Environment, and in particular several pages of scribbled notes from the session, “Power and Commemoration,” would become a valuable source of research materials that I would use in my early career as an architectural historian.

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(www.austinpostcard.com)

This past summer, I was hired as an expert witness (through the introduction of a personal friend of mine) in a legal case that was brought against the University of Texas at Austin. At issue was whether or not the university could remove two bronze statues of historical figures from a war memorial, which had been constructed at the bequest of a former regent and the university’s largest donor; the plaintiffs’ sought an injunction to block the removal. My task, as an architectural historian, was to provide testimony on behalf of the plaintiffs as to the significance of the war memorial, generally and of the statues in particular.

To prepare for my day in court, which required working on a tight deadline (less than ten days), I began with those seminar notes, reviewing them for general background information in order to place the subject memorial in its historic context of war memorials erected from the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries. But for more specific information, I read some relevant journal articles, especially those contained in Commemoration in America, Essays on Monuments, Memorialization, and Memory, edited by SCAD Architectural History Professors, David Gobel and Daves Rossell. My next task required more specific research on the sculptor of the statues and the architect of the war memorial in Austin; a research trip to the Athenæum of Philadelphia, one of the country’s premier archives of American architectural drawings and documents provided a treasure trove of primary and secondary source materials that would form the basis of my testimony.

As a result of my research, I learned that the memorial has a complex and fascinating history. George Washington Littlefield, a Confederate Major, wealthy Austin businessman and former Regent of the University of Texas, bequeathed $250,000 to UT to build a memorial to honor the Confederacy and intended to be a grand gateway to the university. The Roman-inspired triumphal arch would include five colossal bronze statues of prominent men who served in the Confederacy and had personal ties to the state of Texas, including President Jefferson Davis. While Littlefield’s triumphal arch was not realized due to the financial constraints of the bequest, the statues were executed in clay by Italian-born sculptor, Pompeo Luigi Coppini in his Texas studio and cast by the Roman Bronze Works in Brooklyn, New York.

In 1919, plans for Littlefield’s memorial were revived. Coppini’s design integrated the completed bronze statues displayed on a plaza surrounding a fountain, to be dedicated to UT alumni who were killed in the “Great War:” this proposed memorial would jointly commemorate the sacrifice of those who served in the Civil War and World War I and Coppini completed another bronze statue of President Woodrow Wilson as a companion to President Davis, symbolizing a reunified America fighting against a common enemy abroad. This plan likewise was never executed and future plans for the memorial languished until Paul Phillippe Cret, the French-born architect and Chair of the Architecture Department at the University of Pennsylvania was hired by UT to complete a master plan for the campus in 1930. Cret’s master plan included several buildings, most notably the iconic Main Building and Tower and a final plan for the Littlefield’s memorial with a fountain, complete with a Roman quadriga, and Coppini’s six bronze statues sited on the hill along oak-lined walkways leading up to the limestone steps of the Main Building.

Bill Tanner with UT Facilities Services works to remove graffiti from a statue of Jefferson Davis on the south mall at the University of Texas campus in Austin, Texas, on Tuesday, June 23, 2015. (Deborah Cannon/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

Bill Tanner with UT Facilities Services works to remove graffiti from a statue of Jefferson Davis on the south mall at the University of Texas campus in Austin, Texas, on Tuesday, June 23, 2015. (Deborah Cannon/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

Following the horrific murder of parishioners at a Charleston, S.C. church and related anti-Confederate sentiment, the university sought to remove Jefferson Davis’ as the statue was deemed to be “offensive” in the wake of the tragedy in Charleston. Wilson too would be removed to maintain a symmetrical appearance of the south mall. As an architectural historian, I was not as concerned with the underlying cause célèbre but with the university’s wanton destruction of an eighty-year-old war memorial, erected to honor and commemorate sacrifice and a symbol of Texas’ shared cultural heritage located just steps from the statehouse. Further, the removal of these statues would not only alter a masterpiece of one of America’s greatest architects and urban planners of the twentieth century, but removing Messrs. Davis and Wilson would forever destroy the central iconographic meaning of the monument and fountain.

I prepared talking points, elevator pitches and curated images for a PowerPoint (drawing on what I learned in COMM740: Professional Presentations) and headed to Texas. Appearing in a Travis County District Court was an experience that I will not soon forget. First of all, this was a big local news event and I was a bit unprepared for all the media attention this case was getting. In fact, the courtroom was packed, not only with supporters of both sides, but with every local television news outlet and newspaper jockeying for position on the front row for the best view of the action. But, I had a job to do and while I was not able to deliver all my pithy comments (e.g “architecture is fragile” and “we inherit our monuments from our ancestors and borrow them from our children,”) I successfully answered counsels’ questions, remained poised under cross examination and made the points I needed to—and I ended up on the 6:00P news and my picture was in the newspaper (one resourceful reporter accessed my LinkedIn profile for his article on the proceedings).

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Glen Umberger on the stand. (Austin Chronicle)

Even though the plaintiffs’ motion was denied, and the university hastily and unceremoniously removing the “offensive” statues mere hours after the court’s ruling, the case is currently at the appellate division, which means I may have a second chance to advocate in court for the preservation of an historic cultural landscape and the replacement of the statues. But the moral of the story is two-fold: first, this is proof that Richard Nickel’s famous quip, “[g]reat architecture has only two natural enemies; water and stupid men,” is true and secondly, take good class notes—you never know when you may need them for a future research project.

Editor’s Note: Glen Umberger is an alumnus of our Architectural History program (M.F.A. 2015).

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