Saturday, September 11, 2010

Benjamin Franklin (1858) - RI's 1st Public Sculpture. Last seen in 2000.

Benjamin Franklin (1858)  is the first public sculpture in RI and an early example of cast zinc with a bronzed finish. It is listed in the Smithsonian Inventory of American Sculpture and was last seen by a Smithsonian expert in 2000, only ten years ago. Recent efforts to discover where Citizens Bank disposed of it have not been successful.
When last seen in 2000 at a Citizens Bank branch, this six foot  five inch statue had been spray-painted gold. Please help bring RI's first public sculpture back to downtown Providence.

“This is the first public statue in Rhode Island!  
Let it be but the beginning of a phalanx of statues!” 

So proclaimed Providence, RI artist Francis Hoppin at the dedication of this 6’5” statue on downtown Westminster St. where it stood proudly in a niche of the new Franklin Lyceum until that building’s demolition in 1926. The statue shows Benjamin Franklin as the common man printer who stepped up to help his country as a diplomat during the American Revolution.

The Providence Benjamin Franklin is one of the first zinc statues cast in the United States. The Franklin Lyceum ordered their cast zinc sculpture from James Bogardus, the American pioneer of cast-iron architecture, and it was shipped to RI from NYC in 1858. The possibly surviving receipt documents that the statue was ordered with a bronzed painted finish (R); this would have made the statue an important example of a documented 19th c bronzed zinc finish.

In 1980, Robert Freeman and Vivienne Lasky included this statue in their important survey Hidden Treasures: Public Sculpture in Providence (p.39). At that time, Benjamin Franklin was installed on Empire Street and had come into the possession of Old Stone Bank. When Citizens Bank acquired Old Stone Bank, the statue must have been moved to the Citizens Branch at 870 Westminster St. 

In 2000, Carol Grissom, a senior Objects Conservator from the Smithsonian, photographed Benjamin Franklin in a back corridor of that Citizens Bank branch. At that time, she also viewed at the bank the historic records on the original sale of the sculpture.  Grissom’s research is published in Zinc Sculpture in America, 1850-1950 (p.24, 27, 66-7, 463-4, 483).  

As of September 1, 2010, Citizens Bank has not been able to locate this over life-size cast zinc sculpture of Benjamin Franklin. My conversations with them suggest the statue was donated or otherwise removed. I have not been able to discover what happened to the important documentation on the sale that survived from 1858 to at least 2000.

This missing sculpture is a reminder of the need for updated policies on the fate of cultural heritage owned by private companies – so subject to the vagaries of frequent mergers and sales today. How can private for-profits work together with private non-profits and the state to assure best practices of cultural heritage stewardship?

I continue to be optimistic and hope someone will come forward and help bring Benjamin Franklin, Rhode Island’s first public sculpture, back to DownCity Providence. 

© Nancy Austin, 2010
Newport, RI

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