Beginning in 1897, a former farm in the picturesque Berkshires Mountains of western Massachusetts became home to the famous sculptor Daniel Chester French, his wife Mamie, and their daughter Margaret. Both Daniel’s middle name and the name of his estate — Chesterwood — honor Chester, N.H., where Daniel’s ancestors had once lived. The Frenches stayed at Chesterwood during the warm months, returning to their townhouse in New York City only when the weather grew cold. At Chesterwood Daniel and his assistants were able to work on his sculpture projects in a spacious studio, built in 1898. The architect for both the studio and the fine house later built on the property was Daniel’s friend, the talented architect Henry Bacon.
On Feb. 9, 1911, the U.S. Congress established the Lincoln Memorial Commission for the purpose of building a permanent federal monument in Washington, D.C., to honor President Abraham Lincoln. This was the beginning of a process that would lead to the creation of the magnificent Lincoln Memorial, dedicated in 1922. The architect for the project would be Henry Bacon, and the sculptor who would design the memorial’s iconic seated Lincoln statue would be Daniel Chester French. Today, the Lincoln Memorial is considered the most important accomplishment in the stellar careers of both of these men.
The Lincoln Memorial was not the first monument honoring Lincoln erected in Washington. The first public monument depicting Lincoln was dedicated on April 15, 1868, on the third anniversary of his death. This full-sized figure of a standing Lincoln, carved in white marble, was the work of Irish immigrant Lot Flannery. The statue was installed 40 feet above the plaza in front of the District of Columbia City Hall, on top of a tall blue stone base and pillar. Flannery had claimed that he had witnessed John Wilkes Booth shoot Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, and therefore that he wanted to make the statue as vandal-proof as possible. Unfortunately, it was so high up it couldn’t be seen well except through binoculars.
There’s no indication that French, who was 18 in 1868, was present at the monument’s dedication, but if he had been, he would have witnessed his uncle Benjamin Brown French play two prominent roles. The first was to officiate as the Grand Master over the formal Masonic Dedication ceremony. He ended the ritual with the words, “I now pronounce this foundation properly prepared, well-laid, true, and trusty; and this statue, erected by the citizens of Washington to the memory of Abraham Lincoln, duly and fully dedicated to the American people.”
Benjamin Brown French also delivered the program’s main address. His moving speech could only have been given by a man who had known and loved Lincoln. This New Hampshire native had become a friend and confidant of the President while serving in the role of Commissioner of Public Buildings. Benjamin Brown French spoke movingly of Lincoln’s life and of the nation’s great mourning after his death. He also told personal stories that illustrated Lincoln’s “kindness of disposition” and earthy sense of humor.
Among the stories he shared was this one: “The basement of the Executive Mansion was at one time so infested with rats as to render it almost uninhabitable. I called the President’s attention to the fact, and he said to me, with that inimitable twinkle of the eye … ‘Can you not procure a ferret; one of those little fellows that drive away the rats? And while you are about it, perhaps it would be well to get several and distribute them about the Departments, for there are rats everywhere!’ And the good President was so pleased with the idea that he asked me afterwards if I had got those ferrets!”
The dedication event was attended by 20,000 people, but only a few dignitaries seated in the front rows would have been able to hear French’s speech. Fortunately, it was published later that day in the local Evening Star newspaper.
Flannery’s Lincoln still stands in front of the former District of Columbia City Hall (now the District of Columbia Court of Appeals). It was reinstalled on a 6-foot-tall granite base in 1923, and unfortunately later suffered from vandalism on several occasions.