Memphis Downtowner - August 2009

Sculpted Freedom

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story and photographs by Devin Greaney Film master Francis Ford Coppola did not give her a speaking role, but he did use her to open his 1997 film adaptation of John Grisham’s The Rainmaker. Not bad for a then 87-year-old girl who today — celebrating her 100th birthday — is still working a full-time job of watching over the Shelby County Courthouse. Her name is Justice. She and her sisters, Liberty, Peace, and Prosperity, and her brothers, Wisdom and Authority, are the six courthouse statues at 140 Adams, and with a little help over the years, they still look great for their age. As recognizable as these statues are, there is more to the courthouse statuary than these six. We’ll get back to them shortly. Inside the courthouse, a bust of Andrew Jackson sculpted by John Frazee in 1835 and purchased by the city in 1858, is old enough to be their great-grandfather. Jackson was the first Tennessean to occupy the White House. His statue was the first to stand in the middle of Court Square in Memphis, and it was Memphis’s first statue controversy. The controversy comes and goes, but some complain today that statuary honoring Confederate soldiers is insensitive and should be removed. Likewise, some Memphians of the 1860s — presumably Confederates — did not approve of Jackson’s quote on the pedestal: “Our Federal Union! It must and shall be preserved!” so someone removed the text. The statue was repaired in 1908, an obvious mend of newer marble that serves as a visual reminder of an angry Memphian armed with hammer and chisel, chipping away at the offending words. Another thing: Andrew Jackson is facing Adams Avenue, named for the father of the man he defeated in the 1828 election. It’s almost as ironic as General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s statue facing Union Avenue. Now to the outside. The Circuit Court Clerk’s Chief Executive Secretary, Sheri Carter, is often the tour guide for groups such as the Hickory Ridge Elementary students who visited in May, walking through the halls and visiting courtrooms. Students and teachers posed for photos around the six giants sitting at the Second Street and Adams Avenue entrances. “It helps me to remember them if I say them in alphabetical order,” Carter says. “Authority, Justice, Liberty, Peace, Prosperity, and Wisdom. They represent the justice system.” They do, indeed. Think about how these all work together. Our society is based on the protection of the inherent rights of individuals, which is known as liberty. And it takes wisdom to protect those fundamental freedoms without interfering with the rights of others. That is the concept of justice, which is merely a concept without the authority to enforce it, because a society based on authority without justice has no liberty. And with an expectation of justice and authority being met, our society maintains relative peace, which is necessary for citizens to pursue the freedoms and dreams that enable prosperity to follow. “I like giving tours, and I learn something new every time,” says Carter, who first came to work at the courthouse in 1975, left for 12 years, then returned in 1992. “I always bring up the statues even though people do not often ask about them.” Perhaps they should because the story is compelling. The craftsman behind these works is a Scotsman, John Massey Rhind, who has works in Gettysburg Battlefield, New York City, and Philadelphia and who was one of the founders of the National Sculpture Society, the oldest organization of professional sculptors in the U.S. Each piece is cut from a single piece of marble — Tennessee white marble, of course. And each one has its own distinct character. There is the youthful face of Prosperity, an attractive young woman. Authority has a stern look in his eyes as he presses his fist down on the chair’s armrest. Wisdom is the old sage who resembles Moses, and Justice is blinded to everything except law and facts. Peace could be Prosperity’s older sister, but still one who could turn heads. And Liberty? Ironically, she looks like a monarchy’s queen, but the liberty bell at her feet serves as a reminder. The $5,000 that Shelby County paid for each of the sculptures was no small change, especially by 1909 standards. But how many other investments stay in that great of shape for 100 years? In the early part of the past century, Shelby County’s courthouse — which was formerly a hotel and a Civil War hospital for both sides — sat where the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts is today. But the county was growing and needed a new courthouse, and architect James Gamble Rogers was selected to build the massive edifice that was something unlike Memphians had ever seen. His lifetime resume reads just as impressively as Rhind’s, with structures throughout the Northeast and several buildings at Yale University — his alma mater — where one of his creations, the Sterling Memorial Library, houses four million volumes. “James Gamble Rogers was one of the foremost architects of the day,” says Memphis attorney Charles Perkins, who chaired the committee that restored the courthouse and grounds from 1980, when planning began, until 1992 when the sidewalks were improved. “The educated people of the day were educated in classical Greek and Roman architecture. I think the statues were keeping with that theme.” So whether you know your Doric columns from your Ionics and Corinthians, anyone can see that this Neoclassical Revival-style structure — whose statues turned 100 this year — is a magnificent building to behold. Zeus and Hera would be right at home here. And so is Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom. Her head emanates along with others from pediments at the top of the courthouse. Some three stories above the streets, these sculptures lend that Parthenon look as well, representing the different types of law: religious, Roman, common, civil, and criminal. Two of the pediments have had their share of bad luck. The Washington Avenue side of the courthouse has statues representing Prudence, Courage, Integrity, Learning, Mercy, and Temperance. In 1943, the westernmost statue in the group, Learning, was struck by lightning, beheading her. She was repaired shortly afterwards. Then the easternmost statue, Integrity, lost her head — twice. First when she was hit by a crane in 1965, then 11 years later when her head fell into the back window of a 1976 Chevy Nova. Newspaper photos depict the car’s owner as not in the mood to joke about any ironies. In the past 100 years, Memphians have introduced the automobile and its pollution to the statues, but in the early 1900s, most everyone heated their homes and businesses with coal, which made the air of 1909 quite dirty, as well. In their lifetimes, the statues have withstood a 108-degree Memphis sauna (1980), a minus 13-degree deep freeze (1963), and everything in between. They have been buried in as much as 18 inches of snow (1968), suffered merciless Hurricane Elvis (2003), and endured enough rain and humidity to invite any species of moss and mold to visit our town. And other issues arise. “The only maintenance I think we need is for the pigeon — ” Carter stops herself mid-sentence. Say no more. No one has any idea what Memphis will be like in 2109, but it’s not hard to imagine the statues still keeping watch outside the courthouse while a judge inside determines justice. Between now and then many other cases will be heard, more John Grisham films will be shot, and more people will walk through and around the courthouse, take a second look at those statues, and ask, “Who are those people?” Sources: Memphis Public Library & Information Center; Metropolis of the American Nile: A History of Memphis & Shelby County Tennessee by John Harkins; The Shelby County Courthouse: Renovation & Restoration 1980– 1992 by Janette C. Russell; and websites library.yale.edu and dcmemorials.com.

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