The History of the National Columbus Memorial


The history of the National Columbus Memorial began in 1906, when a bill (H.R. 267) was introduced in Congress by Rep. Joseph Goulden of New York to establish a national memorial to Christopher Columbus.  Introduced at the urging of the Knights of Columbus, the bill was passed several years later and signed into law by President William Howard Taft on March 4, 1910.  It provided for construction of a Columbus Memorial in Washington, and provided $100,000 to cover the cost.  The bill also established a commission to oversee the project, and its members included the secretaries of State and War, the chairmen of the House and Senate Committees on the Library of Congress, and the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, at that time Edward Hearn.  Although Hearn retired from the post of Supreme Knight in 1909, he remained on the commission and was in charge of the unveiling ceremonies in 1912.


The first order of business of the commission was to select a site for the Memorial, and they chose a spot directly in front of the recently-completed Union Station, just a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol.  Next, they solicited proposals for a design from artists of the United States, Italy and Spain, "the idea of the commission being that a pleasing sentiment would be embodied in the work if it should be from the hand of an American, the land which Columbus gave to the word; from an Italian, the land which gave Columbus to the world, or from Spain, the land which made Columbus's achievement possible." [New York Times, June 2, 1912]


In the end, an American sulptor from Chicago, Lorado Taft, was chosen to do the work.  He was an accomplished sculptor who had done many of the sculptures prepared for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, and was known especially for the many fountains he created.  Aside from the Columbus Memorial, perhaps his best known work is the 126-foot long Fountain of Time in Chicago.


The Columbus Memorial that Taft designed is 45 feet tall, with a 15 foot high figure of Columbus on the front, a ship's prow figurehead below him, and figures depicting a Native American representing the New World (on the left) and an elderly man representing the Old World (on the right).  Atop the central shaft are four eagles, and on the back is a medallion with images of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Spanish monarchs who made Columbus' voyages possible.


The dedication of the Memorial on June 8, 1912 was said to be the biggest event in the nation's capital since the triumphal march of Union soldiers there at the end of the Civil War.

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