#ThrowBackThursday: Postcards from Plymouth
Today’s #TBT post comes from Chris Kearin, author of The Rotograph Project:
This granite monument at Plymouth, Massachusetts was designed by Hammatt Billings (1818-1874), an architect and artist whose varied output included the 1846 Boston Museum (demolished in 1903) and the oft-reproduced illustrations for the first edition of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. His original 1855 proposal, according to historian Richard Stoddard, was for “a colossal composition 153 feet high — comprising a figure of Faith 70 feet high on an 83-foot-high pedestal, projecting from the base of which were four buttresses supporting 40-foot figures of Law, Morality, Education, and Freedom.” Though the patrons were enthusiastic, construction delays and inflation eventually led to the downscaling of the project to an 81-foot structure incorporating a 36-foot statue of Faith in addition to the smaller subsidiary figures. It would not be completed until 1889, fifteen years after Billings’s death.
The National Monument to the Forefathers still stands, but not so another Billings design, shown above and below, for a granite canopy over Plymouth Rock, the much abused and traveled glacial erratic, unmentioned in 17th-century accounts, that Thomas Faunce, a nonagenarian scion of one of Plymouth’s early settlers, had fingered as the very stone on which the colonists had first set foot.
Agnes Rothery, whose 1920 book The Old Coast Road recounting a seaside trip from Boston to Plymouth includes a skeptical, if charitable, account of the Rock’s history, was one of the detractors of the Billings canopy:
“Just as the mind of man takes a singular satisfaction in gazing at mummies preserved in human semblance in the unearthly stillness of the catacombs, so the once massive boulder — now carefully mended — was placed upon the neatest of concrete bases, and over it was reared, from the designs of Hammatt Billings, the ugliest granite canopy imaginable — in which canopy, to complete the grisly atmosphere of the catacombs, were placed certain human bones found in an exploration of Cole’s Hill. Bleak and homeless the old rock now lies passively in forlorn state under its atrocious shelter, behind a strong iron grating, and any of a dozen glib street urchins, in syllables flavored with Cork, or Genoese, or Polish accents, will, for a penny, relate the facts substantially as I have stated them.
It is easy to be unsympathetic in regard to any form of fetishism which we do not share. And while the bare fact remains that we are not at all sure that the Pilgrims landed on this rock, and we are entirely sure that its present location and setting possess no romantic allurement, yet bare facts are not the whole truth, and even when correct they are often the superficial and not the fundamental part of the truth. Those hundreds — those thousands — of earnest-eyed men and women who have stood beside this rock with tears in their eyes, and emotions too deep for words in their hearts, “believing where they cannot prove,” have not only interpreted the vital significance of the place, but, by their very emotion, have sanctified it.
It really makes little difference whether the testimony of Thomas Faunce was strictly accurate or not; it really makes little difference that the Hammatt Billings canopy is indeed dreadful. Plymouth Rock has come to symbolize the corner-stone of the United States as a nation, and symbols are the most beautiful and the most enduring expression of any national or human experience.”
Around the time Rothery’s book appeared, the canopy was in fact demolished and replaced by a more sober McKim, Mead, and White structure that still stands. A few elements were salvaged; in particular the sea shells on the top of the structure were relocated to the grounds of the Monument of the Forefathers. Ungainly and garish as it may have been, the original canopy seems to have had a certain offbeat charm, and I suspect it would be better appreciated now, had it only survived.
Read the rest of this blog post here.