Despite our Baltimore destination, our journey begins in Washington, D.C. If you live in or have visited Washington, you may have seen Montgomery Meigs’ Pension Building, now the National Building Museum. Built from 1882 to 1887, this magnificent structure is one of the few utilitarian American Victorian buildings which can stand up against the finest ones in the UK.

Pension Building (National Building Museum) south façade. Photo: Geraldshields11. Wikimedia Commons.

Here I’m focusing for a moment on the wonderful bas relief frieze that encircles the building in a register at a level marking the division between the ground and first floors. Here is a description in the Washington City and Capital Guide of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (1937):

“The walls . . . are decorated on the exterior between the first and second floors with a 3-foot high terra-cotta frieze carried completely around the building. Designed by C[aspar] Buberl, a Bohemian artist, the frieze portrays the infantry, cavalry, artillery, naval, quartermaster’s, and medical forces of the Union in the Civil War. On each façade the frieze comes to a climax over a central portal or gate in a plaque whose motif gives a name to the doorway under it. Thus, on the north is the Gate of the Invalids; on the west, the Gate of the Quartermaster; on the south, the Gate of the Infantry; and on the east, the Naval Gate.”

A few non-copyrighted images will give you a feel for the 1200-foot-long frieze, and you’ll see in the long extract of the south (infantry) frieze below that it is broken up into individual terra-cotta plaques, and that figures and elements of composition get repeated across the several plaques in a scattered way for (one assumes) reasons of economy. It’s like how Peter Jackson portrays the ride of the Rohirrim with a hundred riders and thousands of CGI “extras.”

Caspar Buberl, Pension Building frieze, Union artillery. Buberl signature under central horse. Photo: Carol Highsmith. The George F. Landegger Collection of District of Columbia Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
Caspar Buberl, Pension Building frieze, Union quartermaster corps. Photo: Carol Highsmith. The George F. Landegger Collection of District of Columbia Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
Caspar Buberl, Pension Building frieze. Infantry panel. Note repetition of figures. The George F. Landegger Collection of District of Columbia Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
Caspar Buberl, Pension Building frieze over south entry. Union infantry. Detail. Wikimedia Commons.

An ancient art historian glancing at these images would see in them Buberl’s inspirations: the Parthenon frieze (of a sacred procession) from Athens’ golden age, and the running friezes the Romans placed just below the attic of their triumphal arches.

Parthenon Frieze north XLI, Detail. Photo: Twospoonfuls. Wikimedia Commons.

Credit should be given at this point to Joyce L. McDaniel, who has anticipated this observation and many other surmises made here in her worthwhile “Caspar Buberl: The Pension Building Civil War Frieze and Other Washington, D.C. Sculpture,” in Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, DC, Vol. 50 (1980) pp. 309-344. Anyone interested in the physical objects of the terra-cotta plaques ought to have a look at the page cataloging one of the plaques auctioned off by the Potomack Company. It is a copy of the plaque of the general in the image above from Meigs’ own collection, sale 123, lot 471.

There was something in the air in the late nineteenth century, for you could point to near-contemporary examples in the frieze of London’s Royal Albert Hall (1870), the Villino Ximenez (1902) in Rome, and a bunch of others. Taking only the ancient exemplars, one could read the ideas “sacred work” and “victory” into Buberl’s frieze, and in fact, one function of the Pension Building was as a monument to the Union Forces.

Turning now to Louden Park National Cemetery. There is a monument to the ‘Sons of Maryland’ who served in the Union army constructed by ‘D Mc Menamin,’ based in D.C. The firm’s work can also be seen in the Hardin Monument in Rock Creek Cemetery.

Sons of Maryland Monument, Loudon Park National Cemetery. Dedicated 1885. Photo: author.
Sons of Maryland Monument, Louden Park Cemetery. McMenamin signature. Photo: author.

The form of the monument is highly conventional for 1885, consisting of an obelisk stacked on a base stacked on a plinth stacked on bases of its own. One wouldn’t give it a second thought but for the terra-cotta relief, much degraded by the elements, that encircles the plinth.

It’s Buberl’s frieze, or rather a pars pro toto representative section of the infantry reliefs. You can see it easily when they are juxtaposed:

For ease of reference, I’m going to call the Pension Building frieze “the original” from here on. From start to finish, it is clear that the Loudon Park relief is an assemblage of terra-cottas from the original. A few changes to the original have been made: the final parading figure in low relief—looking out at us wonderfully—has been deleted to better close the Loudon scene’s composition. Whether he was abraded from a fired plaque or removed before firing, I can’t tell.

There are three men smoking pipes in the stretch of the original. For the moment let’s just number the figures in accord with the lowest image, which is an extension to the right of the middle image, from left to right. There are ten figures. 2 has a pipe in his mouth with the bowl turned out toward us; 4 is holding his pipe in front of him; 5 has his pipe in his mouth. It is clear that the panel with figures 3-6 and the one with figures 7-10 are identical but for the detail that figures 8 and 9 are not smoking. Buberl has added or altered rifle tips and bayonets to make the reliefs join scenes properly since the sense of movement is supported as much by the visual rhythm of the rifles sticking up as by the legs. In the Loudon Park relief, the images have been syncopated to eliminate figures 5-8. So, Buberl had molds that could bang out as many identical reliefs as needed, and these could be doctored or sawed up and joined as needed to avoid making the repetition too obvious.

Oddly enough, neither Oates in the article cited above, nor the estimable authors of the Caspar Buberl page on the Pedia of Wiki, nor yet indeed the compilers of the Loudon Park National Cemetery page in that selfsame Pedia have noticed this monument. Happily, the author of the NPS brochure for Loudon Park National Cemetery noticed the relief’s source. I quote the relevant passage:

The Sons of Maryland Monument, dedicated on Memorial Day 1885, is among the most significant monuments in the national cemetery system. The Loyal Women of Maryland commissioned the elaborate memorial, which features a three-foot-tall terra cotta frieze replicated from Caspar Buberl’s frieze that adorns the Pension Building in Washington, D.C. The frieze depicts four war scenes: “The General Taking Command of His Forces,” “The Battle Scene,” “The Wounded After Battle,” and “Peace.”

But to continue our examination of the monument:

Sons of Maryland Monument, Loudon Park Cemetery. South frieze. Photo: author.

The south face shows, again pars pro toto, cavalrymen. Were you to wish to purchase the photo from the excellent DepositPhotos firm, you might see a shot depicting the left half of the Loudon Park panel here. I can’t find the right side of the panel even among copyrighted online images I can’t show you.

Sons of Maryland Monument, Loudon Park Cemetery. East frieze. Photo: author.

The east frieze is stunning in its forthright acknowledgement of the true costs of war, admittedly done with complete sympathy for the crippled. The leftmost seven figures here can be seen in an image of the Pension Building frieze published by Allen Browne, while the rightmost three figures can be seen in a posting by Wally Mlyniec (scroll far down the page).

Sons of Maryland Monument, Loudon Park Cemetery. North frieze. Photo: author.

Taking the titles of the friezes in Loudon Park at face value (Buberl or Meigs would not have used these titles), I take the north frieze to be “The General Taking Command of His Forces.” The east frieze is plainly “The Wounded After Battle.” Maybe the cavalry scene, with a mid-stride conversation between two horsemen is the “Battle Scene.” That leaves “Peace” as the line of marching infantry. In any event, the titles are poorly chosen to impose a chronology onto the four friezes taken from a larger and more complex program, and I can’t help but feel that since my identifications require the list of titles as given not to refer to contiguous sides, I must be wrong.

The standard bearers at the corners are taken right from the Pension Building relief’s corners. I couldn’t find a public domain image of the one on the Loudon Park monument I photographed, but I did find one similar enough on the original frieze to make the point:

The Loudon Park monument was dedicated at the end of May 1885, effectively 20 years after the war’s end. One imagines that the work composing appropriately sized assemblages of figures, casting, doctoring, undercutting and firing them took some time, though the firm making the terracottas, the Boston Terracotta Company, must have had a system down. The relief that was in Meigs’ possession was dated 1883, and as it was the basis for the Loudon Monument’s north frieze, it must have been possible for McMenamin to have had a copy by about that year. What is clear is that somehow the McMenamin firm must have had inside information about Buberl’s relief, perhaps because the firm was in the District. Meigs, who had very strong ideas about the commemoration of the dead, must have been perfectly willing to help.

Relief tomb of John Rodgers Meigs, Arlington National Cemetery, designed by his father, Montgomery Meigs, 1864. Photo: Tim1965. Wikimedia Commons.

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Arlington, VA

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