How George Washington came to the University of Texas

Mary Frances Campbell – known as “Frances” by her friends – was the daughter of a successful cotton merchant who brought his family to Austin in 1876. Two years later, Frances wed Thomas S. Maxey, an up-and-coming attorney also new to the community, who would later be appointed by President Grover Cleveland as the federal judge of the Western District of Texas. Judge Maxey would serve 28 years and be counted among the prominent citizens of Austin.

In the meantime, Frances became involved with the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), as well as the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, the nation’s first historic preservation group, dedicated to the promotion and conservation of George Washington’s home along the Potomac River (image at left). Though Mount Vernon was more than 1,500 miles from Austin, Frances didn’t let the distance get in her way. By the 1890s, she was the Texas representative for the Association’s governing board, and was determined to contribute.

An opportunity presented itself with the popularity of electric trolley systems during the last decade of the 19th century. Faster and more reliable than the old horse-drawn trolleys, the new mode of transportation brought with it a swell of thousands of sightseers to the Mount Vernon grounds. It quickly became apparent that a main ticket gate was needed to handle the ever-increasing crowds.

Frances decided that Texas would provide the facility. She organized a state-wide grassroots fundraising campaign, where school children donated nickels and dimes to the project, while members of Masonic lodges arranged for larger donations. The “Texas Gate” was dedicated in 1899. More than a century later, it still serves as the main portal to the Mount Vernon estate for millions of visitors.

Above: The Texas Gate at Mount Vernon, from the early 1900s (left) and in more recent times, has welcomed millions of visitors to George Washington’s estate.

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In 1924, a news report declared that Texas was the only state in the Union without a statue of George Washington. Surprised and dismayed, Frances knew she had to do something about it. The issue stayed in the back of her mind for years until discussions began within her DAR chapter on how best to observe the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birth, coming up in 1932. Frances had the answer.

At their July 1930 meeting, the Board of Regents of the University of Texas unanimously approved the idea of a “suitable monument honoring the memory of George Washington,” and “cordially invites the daughters of the American Revolution to place the monument on the campus of the University.” The goal was to unveil the monument on February 22, 1932, Washington’s 200th birthday. Details of the project would be coordinated with Dr. William Battle, then the chair of the Faculty Building Committee, and newly-hired architect Paul Cret, who had just begun work on a campus master plan for the University.

The immediate questions were about design, cost, placement, and an artist. By early 1931, the DAR had decided upon a replica of an existing, well-known Washington statue, rather than create something new. Their first choice was the Washington equestrian monument on the Place d’lena in Paris, France (photo at left), sculpted in 1900 by American artist – and appropriately named – Daniel Chester French.

Paul Cret, who was born in Lyon, France, studied architecture at the lauded Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, immigrated to the United States, and was then head of the architecture school at the University of Pennsylvania, heartily approved. He provided a drawing of campus with several possible locations, but the obvious and favored spot was on the proposed plaza directly in front of a new Main Building, facing toward the Texas Capitol.

Above: Architect Paul Cret’s original scheme for the Washington memorial. An equestrian statue was placed on a high pedestal near the front of the Main Mall (look closely at the lower right). Click on the image for a larger view.

The estimated cost was an ambitious $60,000. Frances hoped to recreate the fundraising strategy that worked so well for the Texas Gate. “It is the plan that this monument,” reported The Daily Texan, “be paid for by the school children of Texas. Each child will be given the opportunity of contributing whatever he wishes through his school.”

However, the rules had changed since the 1890s, and state regulations no longer permitted fundraising of this kind. And the 1929 stock market crash and Great Depression that followed were being felt in the state. The DAR’s fundraising efforts earned only a few hundred dollars at a time, far short of what was needed.

To have something dedicated on the target date, the DAR arranged for a large, five-foot tall granite boulder to mark the spot of the future Washington statue. Attached to the boulder was a bronze plaque which read: “The National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution on February 22, 1932, has marked this site on which will be erected a monument of affection and gratitude to George Washington, who is the father of our country, and has given the world an immortal example of true glory.” (The plaque can still be viewed, installed in the sidewalk directly behind the base of the statue.)

University President Harry Benedict found the idea droll. “I have to thank them for a boulder!” he scribbled in a note to Dr. Battle. Benedict would later call the boulder the world’s only “monument to a monument.”

Above: The dedication ceremony for the boulder marker for the Washington statue, with the Texas Capitol dome in the distance.

February 22nd was cloudy and chilly, but a generous-size group huddled in front of the old Main Building to celebrate the bicentennial of the birth of George Washington and dedicate the site to a future monument. The Longhorn Band played patriotic tunes, President Benedict’s nine-year old son, Harry, Jr., was dressed in a Washington costume, and Frances, now elderly and frail, made the journey from her home just north of campus to personally unveil the boulder.

Above left: The boulder on the future Main Mall marked the site of the Washington memorial, with Garrison Hall in the background. 

As the Great Depression dragged on, the project lost momentum. The monument was revised from an equestrian statue to a less expensive standing Washington. The boulder, with permission of the DAR, was moved in 1934 when construction began on the Main Mall, to a place better favored by Cret at the head of the South Mall. Frances passed away in 1938, which left the monument without its initial champion. In 1941, Dr. Battle received a letter from the DAR: “In regards to the Washington memorial, the Daughters of the American Revolution will not proceed at the time because of world conditions . . . when conditions are more favorable, they will again consider the matter.” Fundraising was suspended for the duration of World War II.

Above: The view of the South Mall from the UT Tower observation deck. At the bottom center of the photo is the Washington statue boulder.

Not until the post-war, economically improved mid-1950s did interest in the statue return. Enough money had been collected for a Washington likeness, and Pompeo Coppini, the Italian-born sculptor who produced the University’s Littlefield Gateway was recruited to add one more piece to the South Mall. The 85-year old Coppini had already sculpted two George Washington statues: one for Mexico City and the other for Portland, Oregon. He spent four months crafting the Washington monument for the University of Texas. It would be his last project to close out an extensive and highly distinguished career.

Above left; Artist Pompeo Coppini, in his San Antonio studio, works on the statue of George Washington. 

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Thirty-one years after Frances Maxey had learned that Texas didn’t have a bronze likeness of George Washington, the statue was officially dedicated on February 20, 1955, still the first in the state. Coppini, who attended the ceremony, had cast Washington as he appeared on the day he was made Commander-in-Chief of the American Continental Army in 1775.

Dr. Battle, who retired in 1948 but was still professor emeritus, spoke at the proceedings. “I take special pleasure in congratulating the Daughters of the American Revolution on the completion of their movement to present to the University a statue of George Washington.  . . . Certainly the first function of the University of Texas is the development of high ideals of citizenship in the young men and women who study here and who will be the leaders of the coming generation. As an effective aid in this task I welcome the conception of keeping constantly before the eyes of students a noble presentation of the man to whom, more than anyone else, is due the existence of the nation, and who embodied in himself the highest qualities that a citizen of the Republic ought to posses.”

Photo of Coppini at work on the Washington statue is by Carl J. Eckhardt and found in the William J. Battle Papers, di_11305, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin

 

 

2 thoughts on “How George Washington came to the University of Texas

  1. Great post, Jim! A fitting story for Presidents’ Day! Can you add anything to it about the “urban myths” surrounding the statute and whether there is any truth them?

  2. Another great story about our university that I was unaware of, Jim. Thanks for publishing, and thanks to DAR for pursuing the project.

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