Gutzon Borglum’s dream

When we crossed the border between South Dakota and Wyoming, I noticed several things right away. The road got better, the grass got greener, there were brown cows as well as black ones, and there was this weird “artistic” tepee at the visitors center. A work of art in some benighted century no doubt.

Speaking of benighted centuries, being at Mt Rushmore was a bit like being at a religious retreat—no, a religious pilgrimage. There was the long walk through the crowd of people, really more of a casual international gathering, through the arched halls carved with the names of the 50 Faithful, to the Perfect Viewing Location, from where we could view The Four Visages.

They suddenly are three dimensional in a way no photograph or painting I’ve ever seen has depicted. These are real heads, not just bas-relief. Lincoln with a full head of hair, fortunately.

The sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, son of Danish immigrants, had grandiose plans for Mt Rushmore and had to be restrained. He originally wanted 700 steps leading up the mountain to the faces themselves, and a Hall of Records, where the original copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution would be displayed.

Borglum fought hard for control over the project. He had left his previous commission–carving Stone Mountain’s Confederate Memorial Carving—over a kerfuffle with its commission, so he wanted say over this one.

He won it briefly. There’s a telegraph exulting in the news from mother to son in the monument’s museum, news that the U.S. Senate had granted it to Borglum as he desired

But he would not have his way for long. Costs were soon out of control, and the Senate soon appointed a commission to tame him, and keep the Declaration and other sacred documents safely behind their fence. Borglum’s hall of records would remain an aborted 16′ tunnel behind the face of Washington until 1998, when his daughter, Mary Ellis Borglum Vhay, spearheaded the effort to memorialize her father’s vision with an enclosed monument, intended to be opened in 10,000 years. It would contain a complete record of the monument, its creator, its meaning, and its context.

The monument commemorates approximately 150 years of American achievement, a blink by the standards of any self-respecting European country.

Yes, American ideals are great ones to idealize, but it seems grandiose to lock them away for 10,000 years as if they are secrets that will be so lost that future generations will be ever so grateful to rediscover. I can just picture Future Person Dana stumbling on the hidden treasure and thinking, “My, goodness, I must spread the word! It’s all about free speech!” Really.

 

 

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