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Saturday, October 31, 2015

Gutzon Borglum, the man behind Mount Rushmore

Fired by the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia, John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum headed back west to South Dakota where he had fallen in love five months before.

With a granite mountain.

For the rest of his life, Gutzon Borglum would raise money, sculpt, raise money, and sculpt some more as he built a tribute to Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Lincoln.

“I want to create a monument so inspiring that people from all over America will be drawn to come and look and go home better citizens,” Borglum said in 1927.

He did.
Born on March 25, 1867, in St. Charles, Idaho, when it was still a territory, Borglum's father was a Danish immigrant and Mormon polygamist with two wives who were sisters. His father was a woodcarver who became a doctor. He moved the family to Fremont, Nebraska, where the doctor also had a ranch, In 1884, the family moved to Los Angeles, but his father returned to Fremont a little while later. Borglum stayed and studied art under Elizabeth Jaynes Putnam, a painter and divorcee 18 years his senior. They did more than study and they married in 1889. He was 22.

She had money and connections. General John C. Fremont sat for him. Borglium's patrons included Governor Leland Stanford, the railroad millionaire who founded Stanford University, and Teddy Roosevelt, a future president.

Later Borglum studied at the Académie Julian in Paris, where he met Auguste Rodin, best known for his Thinker statues. At the same time, Borglum's younger brother, Solon Hannibal de la Mothe Borglum, had become a successful sculptor. He later founded the School of American Sculpture in New York City. While Solon Borglum took the usual commissions for churches and the like, he was best known for his depictions of cowboys and Indians.

Gutzon Borglum packed away the paints and got out the chisel. He also packed away his marriage. In 1901, he headed home alone, leaving his wife in Paris. On the ship, he met his second wife, Mary Montgomery, who had just received a doctorate from the University of Berlin, the first ever issued a woman by that institution.

Born in Marash, Turkey, on November 21, 1874, when it was part of the Ottoman Empire, her parents were missionaries, she was an expert in Oriental languages, having mastered Turkish, Arabic, Greek, Egyptian, Hebrew and Sanskrit. It took eight years, but in 1909 his divorce went through and they married.

Borglum could be prickly. Commissioned to make statues of the Twelve Apostles for the new Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, he got into an argument over the faces and nature of angels. This delighted the press over the years, until a cathedral official said many years later, “The angels still stand serene in their places where Gutzon Borglum first placed them.”

Do we really want a sculptor who isn't temperamental?

His biggest commission before World War I was a six-ton marble bust of Lincoln for the Capitol Rotunda in the nation's capital. He also sculpted General Philip Sheridan's statue in Sheridan's Circle in Washington, D.C.

His work for the heroes of the Union would trigger a commission to pay tribute to the Confederacy.

Under Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, the KKK was on the rise. The president delighted in the sanitized and revisionist history of the KKK in the 1915 film, "The Birth of a Nation." The rise of the KKK led to the call to build a tribute to the terrorist organization on Stone Mountain in Georgia. The klan paid to carve depictions of Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee on the north side of the granite mountain.

The klan commissioned Gutzon Borglum but fired him in 1925 after only a few months of work. Years later, he repudiated his involvement with the klan. Historians now argue over whether he was racist, but given his love of Lincoln -- he named his son Lincoln -- it is unlikely Stone Mountain was anything more than another commission.

Getting fired was the best thing that happened to him.

Meanwhile, in South Dakota, state historian Jonah LeRoy "Doane" Robinson and other officials sought to carve a tribute to the nation on a mountainside to bring tourists to the state. There were a series of granite spindles called The Needles that piqued Robinson's interest. Borglum visited the site, pronounced The Needles too spindly for his work, and searched for a suitable candidate. He dismissed the first few sites offered. Far off the beaten path he found a mountain named for Charles Rushmore, a New York City attorney, and fell in love.

“No piece of granite comparable to it in the United States,” Borglum told the Rapid City Journal.

For all the bluster and self-promotion an artist must show, he was correct. Geologists inspected the property and found that the fissures were minor, and the mountain was solid.

Rushmore, the man, was born on December 2, 1857, in New York City. He grew up and became a successful lawyer.

Investor James Wilson sent Rushmore west in 1885 to research titles in the Black Hills of South Dakota. After that trip, Rushmore came back each summer to hunt big game. Over the years, they came to call Slaughterhouse Rock "Mount Rushmore" in his honor. Borglum was not about to name his project Slaughterhouse Rock, and so Mount Rushmore it became and still is. Rushmore donated $5,000 to the project, the largest individual donation.

Ah yes, the project. Robinson envisioned a tribute to western heroes such as Lewis and Clark, Red Cloud, and Buffalo Bill Cody. Borglum would have none of that. He wanted to do four presidents from the waist up. Robinson thought about it and decided to back that idea. He even let Borglum pick the presidents. Borglum'ss choices were brilliant. Washington was the father of our country. Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln freed the slaves. Roosevelt made America a world power for peace and prosperity.

Money was a problem throughout the carving of the mountain. Republican Senator Peter Norbeck, who had been the ninth governor of South Dakota, championed the cause. Norbeck succeeded in getting an appropriation through President Coolidge. Such spending went against the grain of both men. Norbeck had written in his first year in the Senate, As a freshman Senator, Norbeck wrote to his constituents about life in the nation's capital: "Nearly everybody in Washington spends from 100 to 110 percent of what they can earn. This is the first place I have ever struck where nearly everybody believes he has some particular standard to be maintained. I never realized there could be so much that is artificial about our lives. There is less independence of thought and action here than any place I have ever been."

Nothing has changed in the century since.

But the tight-fisted president and senator believed in the project. They also believed the public should pay for most of the project.

On October 4, 1927, at age 60, Gutzon Borglum began the project that would consume the rest of his life. He told his son, Lincoln Borglum, then 12, "Nothing but the Almighty can stop me from completing this task."

Borglum did not carve this magnificent sculpture by himself. It took 400 men using pneumatic hammers and dynamite to turn the mountain into a national memorial. Originally, Jefferson was at Washington's right, but when the rock would not hold, Borglum blew it up and moved Jefferson to the other side.

Nor did Borglum supervise the crew the whole time. He had to rise funds, which required him to visit the East Coast and even Europe to get the money.

A perfectionist, he often fired his best workers out of frustration, only to hire them back.

He was a stubborn man, a vain man, a brilliant artist, and a devoted father who taught Lincoln Borglum how to sculpt and engineer the project. The father knew his time was near, which is why he trained his son. After Borglum died on March 6, 1941, just before his 74th birthday, his son took over the project, completing it on October 27, 1941.

More than 2 million people visit the memorial each year. The memorial is a tribute to five men -- four presidents and an artist who tamed a mountain.


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  1. Some people have suggested that Obama be added to the monument. Not to worry - the way gummint contracting works today the granite will have crumbled long before any work even starts.

  2. It's truly impressive. North By Northwest movie site, too.

  3. And do not forget the Hall of Records: