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Architecture

French Delegation to Baltimore, May 1917: A Botanical Memento

Memo by Robert Weir with pansies from ground breaking ceremony on the site for the Lafayette Monument in Mount Vernon Place, Baltimore.  May 14, 1917.

Memo by Robert Weir with pansies from ground breaking ceremony on the site for the Lafayette Monument in Mount Vernon Place, Baltimore.
May 14, 1917, Vertical File, MdHS.

One hundred years ago today these pansies bloomed in a lush and colorful bed on the east side of Mount Vernon Place. Three days later, on May 14, 1917, thousands of Baltimoreans gathered as city officials escorted a French war delegation to the proposed site of a monument to the Marquis de Lafayette, American ally during the Revolutionary War and a celebrated hero for decades afterward. Robert Weir, among the crowd and close enough to the flowers “got these pansies out of the bed,” later noting that he had planted them in his yard and they were still growing “nicely on July 1.” The French visit was one stop of many on a tour of the United States as the country prepared to join its European allies.

PP128.2 Groundbreaking for Lafayette memorial, Mount Vernon Plac

Groundbreaking for Lafayette memorial, Mount Vernon Place, Baltimore, 1917.
Shows Joseph Jacques Cesaire Joffre (Marshall of France), M. Rene Raphael Viviani, Marquis de Chambrun, and James H. Preston (Mayor of Baltimore), PP128.2, MdHS.

By late winter 1917 the U.S. had severed relations with Germany and declared war on April 6th. Six days earlier, anticipating the declaration, French Prime Minister Ribot asked Marshall Joseph Joffre to travel with commissioners René Viviani, vice premier and minister of justice, and the marquis Pierre de Chambrun, Lafayette’s great grandson for meetings with American military leaders and Congress on how to best utilize American troops. The group also partook of dozens of public appearances, rich in patriotic adulation of Lafayette’s role in securing American independence and garnished with wreath laying ceremonies, haircuts, and visits to presidential homesteads.

Their stop in Baltimore lasted just one hour, around which city officials choreographed school and business closings and shepherding an entourage of dignitaries that included Mayor James H. Preston, British, French, and Belgium consuls, and the former ambassador to France. Crowds waving French flags met the train, bands played and men from the Fifth Regiment Armory escorted the visitors to City Hall for a formal welcome before winding their way up Charles Street to the Washington Monument.  After a brief dedication, all three Frenchmen took turns breaking through the ground in the pansy bed from which Robert Weir plucked these flowers. One reporter noted the flowers in the surrounding lapels wrote that in years ahead someone would be looking at a “crisp brown thing.”(1) Another quoted Joffre’s approval of the city and the festivities:

“Brief as it was, Baltimore’s reception of the French Mission deeply impressed Marshall Joffre. Shaking hands with Mayor Preston, he said, as he was about to start for the train: ‘There was no more beautiful, dignified, or suitable reception in any city of the United States.’”(2)

View of Baltimore looking by E. Sachse & Co.

View of Baltimore looking South, c. 1872, E. Sachse & Co., Large Prints Collection, MdHS.

Delving further into the story brought out long forgotten discussions. The statue, installed seven years later, stands at the top of the south side of the square, directly beneath George Washington and facing the same direction, clearly the most prestigious spot in all four squares. Yet Weir wrote that the French officials “each took a spade and broke the ground in a bed of pansies on the lower end of Monument Square on St. Paul St. for the site of the Lafayette monument.” What changed?

President Coolidge attending unveiling of Lafayette statue in Baltimore, September 6, 1924. Library of Congress Collection, LC-DIG-hec-32535.

President Coolidge attending unveiling of Lafayette statue in Baltimore, September 6, 1924.
Library of Congress Collection, LC-DIG-hec-32535.

In 1919, two years after the dedication, the Sun carried an acidic commentary on the decision to move Lafayette — or rather the decision to move Severn Teakle Wallis in order to put Lafayette in the coveted south square. The unidentified writer believed Wallis, imprisoned during the Civil War and “one of the greatest legal figures Maryland ever produced,” should not be relegated to an “obscure piece of lawn.” The majority of those with influence, including sculptor Andrew O’Connor Jr., resolutely argued that Lafayette should not spend eternity on the east square facing the penitentiary.  Rather, he should stand with Washington, both facing south and welcoming those who traveled north on Charles Street.(3)

On September 6, 1924, crowds once again overflowed Mount Vernon Place as President Calvin Coolidge presided over the unveiling and dedication of the Lafayette memorial. Former Mayor Preston commented that the French hero now stood “under the shadow of his best friend.” He did not mention the pansy bed on the east side of the square or the jubilant and patriotic hour of transatlantic unity as the United States stood on the threshold of the Great War just seven years earlier. (Patricia Dockman Anderson)

Dr. Patricia Dockman Anderson specializes in U.S and Maryland History, Nineteenth Century; Social and Cultural History; Catholic History; and Civil War Civilians. She has served as a member of the History Advisory Council for the Women’s Industrial Exchange, the Baltimore History Writers Group, and the Maryland War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission. Dr. Anderson is the Director of Publications and Library Services for the Maryland Historical Society, editor of the Maryland Historical Magazine, and a professor at Towson University.

Inscriptions

Lafayette, immortal because a self-forgetful servant of justice and humanity. Beloved by all Americans because he acknowledged no duty more sacred than to fight for the freedom of his fellow-men. [Woodrow Wilson] 

In 1777 Lafayette, crossing the seas with French volunteers, came to bring brotherly help to the American people who were fighting for their national liberty.

In 1917 France was fighting, in her turn, to defend her life and the liberty of the world. America, who had never forgotten Lafayette, crossed the seas to help France, and the world was saved. [Poincaré, from the original French]

……………………………………………………………….

With particular thanks to Lance Humphries, Mount Vernon Place Conservancy, for bringing this brought this treasure to our attention during his planning for the one hundredth anniversary of this event. Details for the centennial celebration are provided below:

Ceremony Commemorating 100th Anniversary of Lafayette Statue, May 16 @ 5:00 pm – 6:00 pm

Join the Conservancy and numerous dignitaries in the South Square the evening of May 16th for a ceremony commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Groundbreaking for the impressive statue of Lafayette in Mount Vernon Place.

Giant French and American flags raised on Baltimore City Fire Department trucks will adorn the space, and Mayor Catherine Pugh, Consul General Michel Charbonnier of the French Embassy, and Col. Robert Dalessandro, the Chairman of the National World War I Centennial Commission, and others, will speak.

Music will be provided by a brass quintet from the The Maryland Defense Force Band MDDF BAND, who will perform the American and French national anthems, and after a wreath is presented, both Taps and Aux Morts.

In the event of rain the ceremony will be held in the Engineers Clubs on West Mount Vernon Place.

Sources and further reading:

(1) Baltimore Sun, May 15, 1917

(2) Ibid.

(3) Baltimore Sun, June 30, 1919

Baltimore American, May 15, 1917; Baltimore Sun, September 7, 1924.

Lance Humphries, “Baltimore and the City Beautiful: Carrére & Hastings Reshapes an American City,” Modernism and Landscape Architecture, 1890–1940 (NGW-Stud Hist Art, 2015)

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