The Meaning of Monuments: Six Greater Cincinnati Public Art Works and How Their Context Has Changed Over Time

These six art monuments in Cincinnati are all located in and around downtown. Some are universally loved; others, not so much. Yet over time, public opinion has often changed about each one.

Sep 14, 2020 at 10:22 am
click to enlarge A statute of abolitionist James Bradly in Covington's Riverside Drive Historic District - Photo: Grace Lawler
Photo: Grace Lawler
A statute of abolitionist James Bradly in Covington's Riverside Drive Historic District

In the aftermath of Breonna Taylor’s killing in Louisville on March 13 and George Floyd’s in Minneapolis on May 25 — and the murder of countless other unarmed Black citizens before and since — people of all ages, races and ethnicities have come together to protest racial injustice, demanding an end to racist policies and actions today. And they’re also calling for the removal of certain public monuments — those which symbolize the inequalities of the past — sometimes defacing and toppling them themselves.

And the protests are not confined to Southern cities where Confederate monuments abound. Even here, north of the Ohio River, people are demanding the removal of particular memorials. Case in point, the proposed motion by Cincinnati City Council member Chris Seelbach to remove the William Henry Harrison equestrian statue in Piatt Park. Harrison — the first U.S. President from Ohio — once owned enslaved peoples, participated in the slave trade and politically supported slavery.

Cincinnati’s Harrison monument features a bronze-man-on-horse mounted atop a tall granite base. It represents the quintessential definition of “monumental” — something large, permanent and unchanging. But even if the sculpture’s physical appearance has remained the same for decades, its meaning has changed as society’s values have evolved.

By strict definition, a “monument” doesn’t need to be big. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a monument is “a statue, building, or other structure erected to commemorate a famous or notable person or event.” So, the piece can be as modest as a metal placard or as grandiose as a neoclassical colonnade. And many incorporate works of art, whether conventional, like an equestrian sculpture, or daring, like a stainless-steel portal supporting a big rock (more on that later).

Regardless, a public art monument is just that — public — and it reflects the public’s many opinions and interpretations, often leading to differences and controversies.

These six art monuments in Cincinnati are all located in and around downtown. Some are universally loved; others, not so much. Yet over time, public opinion has often changed about each one.

click to enlarge The Tyler Davidson Fountain — or "Genius of Water" — on Fountain Square downtown - Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
The Tyler Davidson Fountain — or "Genius of Water" — on Fountain Square downtown

“Tyler Davidson Fountain”

Artist: August von Kreling (Royal Bavarian Bronze Foundry) // Date: 1871 // Location: Fountain Square

The Tyler Davidson Fountain is arguably the city’s most beloved public art monument. For nearly 150 years, this urban icon has served as a gathering place for citywide celebrations. Commissioned by Henry Probasco (who made his fortune selling hardware in the early 1800s), the fountain commemorates Tyler Davidson, Probasco’s one-time business partner and brother-in-law. And this popular monument is also dedicated to the people of Cincinnati (as evident in the opening credits of WKRP in Cincinnati).

Some say the fountain is also a monument to temperance. In 19th-century beer-drenched Cincinnati, it served as a source of clean water. German artist August von Kreling designed it to be easily accessible, providing an alternative to the ever-plentiful ale. The four sculptural figures marking the fountain’s perimeter represent boys with aquatic animals — turtle, snake, duck and dolphin — and water streams from each animal into small basins designed to be (and still functioning as) drinking fountains.

Typical of high-Victorian eclecticism, the style and detailing are all over the place, incorporating Gothic, Baroque and Classical elements, which often seem to fight one another. However, the artist modeled the human figures according to Beaux-Arts conventions, each realistically proportioned and naturally posed.

What was controversial at the time — even radical — was Kreling’s incorporation of both allegorical and non-allegorical figures within the same work of art. “The Genius of the Water,” standing atop the monument with outstretched arms, is allegorical. From her hands, rain pours down on the figures below who represent everyday people — farmer, bather, healer and fireman — all benefitting from the many uses of water.

Another bit of controversy: When first installed, the Fountain displaced the city’s butcher markets, then located along Fifth Street. In 1871, the majority of Cincinnati’s outdoor public spaces were devoted to commercial use; Piatt Park was the only downtown recreational area. But the city relocated the butchers closer to Findlay market, and the fountain moved to its new home: a tree-lined “island” running down the center of Fifth Street between Vine and Walnut streets.

In honor of its centennial in 1971, the fountain was relocated to the Fountain Square we know today. But over the past 50 years, more and more structures have cluttered the square and slowly encroached upon the artwork, decreasing the open space around it and making it less of a focal point. 

Yet, despite all that, the Tyler Davidson Fountain still remains very accessible — and popular.

click to enlarge A statute of President William Henry Harrison in Piatt Park - Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
A statute of President William Henry Harrison in Piatt Park

“William Henry Harrison”

Artist: Louis T. Rebisso // Date: 1896 //  Location: Piatt Park

Cincinnati’s only bronze equestrian statue is located downtown in Piatt Park. Unveiled in May of 1896, the sculpture represents William Henry Harrison, “Ohio’s First President” (and it says so — in huge letters — on the sculpture’s base).

The movement to create and install a monument to honor our ninth U.S. President followed a long and circuitous route. Ten years before its unveiling, in 1886, a “Special Committee on Programme Recommendations” for Cincinnati’s centennial celebration of 1888 suggested “the erection of a monument to General William Henry Harrison, first President of the United States from Ohio, to be located in this city.”

The timetable proved to be overly ambitious. A “Memorial Committee” was soon formed and secured $25,000 in funding from the Ohio State Legislature (nearly $675,000 today). But that was the easy part. In the following years, the process was slowed down by accusations of embezzlement, objections to the choice of artist (eventually Louis T. Rebisso), delays in approval of the design and the necessary time needed to model and cast the sculpture.

Rebisso, a Cincinnati transplant from Italy, studied art in his home country, so the sculpture’s forms and proportions follow classical models. The bronze horse-and-rider was placed atop a 13-foot-tall granite pedestal, way up high. The monument feels very inaccessible, especially when compared to the Tyler Davidson Fountain, which was unveiled 25 years prior.

A contemporary newspaper account from 1896 reported on the festivities surrounding the unveiling of the Harrison monument “amid the blare of trumpets and wild huzzas of the assembled thousands.” In his speech, Judge John F. Follett of the monument commission asked the city of Cincinnati to “faithfully and conscientiously protect and preserve this magnificent testimonial to one of our greatest citizens...a perpetual example to our aspiring youth that virtue will ever bring its own reward.”

The speeches of 1896 gave no mention of Harrison owning enslaved peoples and supporting the slave trade.

Born in Virginia on Berkeley Plantation in 1773, Harrison grew up in a family that owned slaves. In 1791, after his father’s death, he joined the U.S. Army and headed west to Fort Washington (located where downtown Cincinnati is today). Harrison made his way through the ranks and was eventually appointed first governor of the Indiana Territory in 1800. Around that time, he also inherited 11 or 12 enslaved people from his mother (sources differ) and reportedly kept seven as indentured servants at Grouseland, his plantation-like home in Vincennes, Indiana.

But Harrison was also personally engaged in the slave trade, purchasing enslaved people from Kentucky on several occasions. Once transported to Vincennes, he changed their legal status from slave to indentured servant (which was little different than slavery itself).

Harrison’s political support of slavery served to entice white Southerners to relocate to the Indiana territory, helping to force out Native American tribes. He fought against the Shawnee and a confederation of American Indians at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, and his victory there helped to evict all Native peoples from the territory, despite a treaty guaranteeing their right to live on the land.

Later, Harrison moved to North Bend, Ohio, his wife’s hometown and became an Ohio politician. He ran for U.S. President, winning the office at age 67 in 1840. His only distinction: the shortest term of any President — only 31 days in office. (He contracted pneumonia after giving a 1.5-hour inauguration speech in the pouring rain.)

And so, today’s battle rages on. Do we keep the Harrison monument in place, preserving it as a symbol of Ohio’s pride of being “The Mother of Presidents”? Or remove it from its place of public prominence, to make a statement against the entrenched racism that continues to plague our society?

click to enlarge "Law and Society" at Sawer Point - Photo: Grace Lawler
Photo: Grace Lawler
"Law and Society" at Sawer Point

“Law and Society”

Artist: Barna Von Sartory // Date: 1972 // Location: Sawyer Point

In 1972, one year after the Tyler Davidson Fountain was re-dedicated on its centenary celebration, an unconventional — and very controversial — monument appeared on Fountain Square. It soon became the sculpture that everybody loves to hate and is now exiled to a location underneath the Big Mac Bridge.

Titled “Law and Society,” this work of public art commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Cincinnati Bar Association. It was financed through a private gift from Charles Sawyer, a past president of the Bar Association and former Secretary of Commerce under President Harry Truman. A committee of contemporary art lovers (including Joseph Hirshhorn, the namesake of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden) chose an obscure Hungarian artist named Barna Von Sartory to create the sculpture.

Sartory’s design is purposefully abstract; no representations of people or animals, but instead architectural in form. It features a 35-ton, rough-hewn, Indiana limestone block — nicknamed “The Rock” by Cincinnatians — which sits atop a polished stainless-steel portal. Sartory constructed the monument on Fountain Square where the public could see his process.

But most were baffled by what they saw. According to contemporary newspaper accounts, a common question was: “What is it supposed to be?” Others concluded, “It’s a mess,” “It’s a disgrace,” “It’s a urinal for the winos.” Then-Cincinnati City Council member Jerry Springer called it a “giant rip-off,” even though the city hadn’t paid a dime for the sculpture. Yet Springer’s sentiment seemed to resonate with many Cincinnatians who compared “Law and Society” to the fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes and cautioned: “Let the buyer beware.”

Although abstract, the artist intended the sculpture to be symbolic. According to Sartory, the giant limestone block represents “Society” and the reflective portal represents “Law” (upholding society). He conceived the sculpture as a kind of gateway to Fountain Square, and local art critics suggested various architectural precedents for its form, including prehistoric megaliths (think Stonehenge), Roman triumphal arches and Japanese torii.

Writing in The Cincinnati Enquirer shortly after the monument was unveiled, art reporter Owen Findsen admitted that “(‘Law and Society’ is) viewed by most with astonishment,” but then he poked fun at Cincinnati’s conservative tastes, adding that “anyone who expected a figure of George Washington in a toga was doomed to disappointment.”

“Law and Society” was meant to be on display on Fountain Square for a short time. But the sculpture stayed in place for about six years before it was relocated to Government Square, partially obscured by the bus shelters along Fifth Street. Around 1985, “Law and Society” moved again, this time to Sawyer Point, the former junkyard turned riverside park — with funds donated by the same Charles Sawyer — and installed by the small amphitheater.

In 1988, with the creation of Bicentennial Commons, “Law and Society” was moved yet again, this time to a rather undistinguished location under the Daniel Carter Beard Bridge (aka the Big Mac Bridge). Here’s where it stands today, with no marker or label telling visitors the name of the artist or the title of the sculpture or the history behind it. And its title and location are missing from all the Bicentennial Commons maps.

Adding insult to injury, the stainless-steel cladding was vandalized and severely damaged. Cincinnati Parks removed the cladding, revealing the steel structure underneath, which has been painted black. But the steel is now rusting due to its exposure to the elements.

Still no love for this unusual monument. 

click to enlarge A statue of abolitionist James Bradley in Covington - Photo: Grace Lawler
Photo: Grace Lawler
A statue of abolitionist James Bradley in Covington

“James Bradley”

Artist: George Danhires // Date: 1988; restored in 2016 // Location: Riverside Drive, Covington

Trends in art come and go — and often, these trends are cyclical. For much of the 20th century, the trend moved away from representation and toward abstraction. But naturalism and realism eventually made a comeback in the 1960s and 1970s. 

Around the time “Law and Society” was relocated under the bridge, a new monument was installed along Covington’s Riverside Drive. This installation, sponsored by the Greater Cincinnati Bicentennial Commission, features bronze likenesses of seven historic individuals who represent a range of personalities with connections to the region spanning time, race and gender. From east to west along the route, these figures are:

  • Daniel Carter Beard, founder of the Boy Scouts
  • James Audubon, naturalist and artist
  • Chief Little Turtle, military leader
  • James Bradley, abolitionist
  • Mary B. Greene, steamboat captain
  • Simon Kenton, explorer
  • John A. Roebling, bridge engineer

Each sculpture was created by a different artist — and the quality of each varies. (Sadly, Chief Little Turtle’s pose is awkward, his proportions are off and he’s not well modeled. If this sculpture is intended to be about the idea of the man, rather than his actual likeness, then it’s missed the mark. Chief Little Turtle was a great leader and warrior — nothing about this sculpture conveys that idea.)

However, the best by far is the bronze of James Bradley, a noted abolitionist. The artist, George Danhires, chose to model the figure according to standard human proportions. The Bradley sculpture sports a natural pose as it sits on a park bench, facing Cincinnati’s skyline, and reads a (bronze) book. It invites interaction with viewers; many sit down next to the figure and take photos, enjoying a spontaneous social media moment.

What we know about James Bradley is largely through Oberlin College. He attended the Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati (where Walnut Hills' Thomson-MacConnell Cadillac is located today) as its first African American student before the "Lane Rebels" relocated to Ohio's Oberlin College. Bradley was kidnapped from West Africa at the age of 2 and brought to the United States by slave traders. He was sold to a slave owner in Pendleton County, Kentucky, but eventually escaped and made his way to Ohio where he became an important figure in the Underground Railroad. Bradley participated in the Great Lane Seminary Debate of 1834, held at the seminary in Walnut Hills, where he argued in favor of the abolition of slavery, but not the return of former enslaved peoples back to Africa.

There are no existing portraits of Bradley, so artist Danhires imagined Bradley as a thoughtful, educated man who fought with the power of his intellect to free himself and others.

Right across the river, in Smale Riverfront Park, is another monument to African Americans. These men fought physically for freedom — and for the protection of the whole city — during the Civil War. Cincinnati’s Black Brigade, a volunteer contingent of 718 men, dug defenses and built fortifications in Northern Kentucky to repel Confederate forces. Their story is told by four artists: Tyrone Williams (writer), Eric Brown (graphic designer), John Hebenstreit (sculptor) and Carolyn Manto (sculptor). Completed in 2012, this monument represents a trend in collaboration between artists of diverse backgrounds and talents, bringing more voices together in the conversation.

This is a welcomed change from the traditional Civil War monuments of an earlier era which typically commemorated a single personality, conceived by a single artist. In the South, the subject is often a Confederate leader; in the North, it’s often Abraham Lincoln in the role of the “Great Emancipator.”

click to enlarge A beardless statute of Abraham Lincoln in Lytle Park - Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
A beardless statute of Abraham Lincoln in Lytle Park

“Abraham Lincoln”

Artist: George Grey Barnard // Date: 1917 // Location: Lytle Park

In 1917, on the centenary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, Charles P. Taft (brother of President William Howard Taft) and his wife Anna Sinton Taft presented a sculpture of Lincoln to Cincinnati. 

Today, more than 100 years later, people walk and jog past this statue of Lincoln and think “Oh, it’s Lincoln,” but when unveiled in 1917, the bronze likeness stirred up a lot of controversy. It was viewed by many — especially art critics — as a caricature of the 16th President of the United States, in contrast to the idealized hero the public was accustomed to seeing.

The artist, George Grey Barnard, modeled his figure of Lincoln with oversized hands and feet and a beardless, wrinkled face, which included a pensive look. Some considered this representation to be disrespectful of the great man who was credited with preserving the Union and freeing the enslaved.

But looking at the sculpture today, through our contemporary lens, Lincoln’s enlarged hands and feet give the statue a sense of strength. And the pensive qualities of Lincoln’s face convey the huge import of his decisions and responsibilities while in office. (And, reportedly, Lincoln hadn’t grown a beard until he ran for President in 1860 at age 51 — up to that point, he had a clean-shaven face.) 

Currently, the bigger controversy involving a traditional “heroic” likeness of Lincoln revolves around the “Emancipation Memorial” (1876) in Washington, D.C. and its copy in Boston. The monument, created by sculptor Thomas Ball, depicts a Black man wearing broken chains kneeling at Lincoln’s feet, apparently in gratitude for his freedom. Protestors have called for the removal of this particular memorial. For now, the original in D.C. is staying in place, but the Boston Art Commission has voted to remove their casting from Boston’s Park Square. Currently, art conservators in Boston are researching the best way to move it — and Boston officials have not yet determined where the monument will go.

Nearly 150 years after the unveiling of D.C.’s “Emancipation Memorial,” our telling of history is more inclusive, and our monuments reflect that. Cincinnati’s aforementioned “Black Brigade” conveys the role of African Americans as active participants, not as passive viewers. And the people relaying these stories are more diverse, too, reflecting the true nature of our society today. 

click to enlarge ArtWorks' "Armstrong" mural downtown - Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
ArtWorks' "Armstrong" mural downtown


Artist: Eduardo Kobra and ArtWorks muralists // Date: 2016 // Location: Sixth and Walnut Streets

Cincinnati’s public art of the past 50 years — from the time “Law and Society” was unveiled  — counters the notion that monuments are reserved for military generals and national politicians. Today, monuments commemorate a variety of people who manifest the idea of heroism in different ways.

And, these monuments don’t need to be sculptural works of art created from cast metals and carved stone — they can be paintings, too.

For the past 25 years, ArtWorks has produced outdoor murals in and around Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. Many of these large-scale works commemorate famous (and not-so-famous) Cincinnatians, including James Brown, Ezzard Charles, the Isley Brothers, Elizabeth Nourse, Annie Oakley, Susan O’Malley, Mamie Smith, Jim Tarbell and even Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon.

By far, the largest ArtWorks mural to-date is located in downtown Cincinnati’s arts district, facing Walnut Street across from the Contemporary Arts Center and the Aronoff Center for the Arts. Truly of monumental proportions, this work pays tribute to astronaut Neil Armstrong, an Ohio native, and the first person to walk on the moon in 1969, not quite 50 years before the mural was completed in 2016.

Simply titled “Armstrong,” this monumental painting was designed by world-famous Brazilian street artist Eduardo Kobra. His style features photorealistic human figures, typically rendered in black-and-white, and incorporates rainbow colors in a variety of patterns. 

But Kobra didn’t create this work on his own. He had help from four student apprentices. An objective of ArtWorks is to employ local students, ages 14 through 21, to help — and learn from — professional artists. To date, ArtWorks has engaged 3,600 students in this creative process since its founding in 1996.

If only there were some controversy to inject into this work, but with “Armstrong,” there isn’t much. In fact, most of the murals commissioned through ArtWorks have garnered high praise. “Armstrong” is a great example of the type of public art being created in Cincinnati today. Its message is clear, and its aesthetics are highly accessible.

The question is: Will the meaning and relevance of today’s contemporary monuments change in the future? And if so, how? And should we even worry about it? It seems that monuments speak more to the people who create them, than to the posterity they are intended to engage.

As for removing those historic monuments which offend today’s audiences, council member Seelbach now says removal can be a “slippery slope.” In a recent phone conversation, he suggests the need for standards to help decide which monuments to remove and where they should go. To achieve this, Seelbach is creating a committee of citizens to formulate guidelines, bringing “the public” back into the discussion of public art.  

*An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the location of the Lane Seminary debates of 1834, which were held at the Lane Seminary in Cincinnati — down the street from the current Harriet Beecher Stowe House — not at Oberlin.