Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Nineteenth Century Today: In My Own Backyard

As you can imagine, I spend a lot of time envisioning life in England in the early nineteenth century. So, finding touches of nineteenth century England in the Pacific Northwest is quite exciting! And to find them in my own backyard, here south of Tacoma, Washington, is priceless.

My search took me to the north end of Tacoma today, to Wright Park. In 1886, Charles Wright, through his company, donated approximately 20 acres of land in what was then the center of town for a public park. The idea was to mimic Central Park in New York. He even stipulated that at least 300 ornamental shade trees were to be planted in the first four years. The city hired a landscape architect to design the park and set about clearing stumps and bush. At first, the “park” looked like nothing so much as bare ground, but the second landscape architect on the project saw to the planting, beginning in 1890, of more than 350 varieties of trees from all over the United States and eventually the world. Many of the trees in Wright Park today are more than 100 years old.

But trees weren’t the only things to spring up in Wright Park. Tacoma businessman Colonel Clinton P. Ferry encouraged the city to include classical art in the park as well. In 1891, he brought back from Europe nine statues patterned after those sculpted by Italian masters and cast in a sandstone/concrete composite. Five still survive today.

Here’s where the early nineteenth century and England come into the picture. Two of the statues are of “dancing girls.” The originals were sculpted by Antonio Canova between 1806 and 1810. He is the highly celebrated artist who sculpted Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker, which was given to the Duke of Wellington after his victory at Waterloo; the statue currently resides in the museum that was once Wellington’s home in London. I’ve had the honor of viewing it there. Canova himself visited England in 1815 to view the Elgin Marbles and was instrumental in the British Museum's purchase of them.

One of the two statues in Wright Park is a copy of “Dancing Girl with Hand on Chin.” You might notice in the picture above that her hand is most definitely not on her chin. Apparently, it was when she arrived and was installed in 1892. Since then, she was broken (haven’t found anyone willing to fess up to how and by whom). Whoever fixed her (also unknown), put her hand across her waist instead.

There’s a historical reason behind their nicknames as well, for they were quickly called Annie and Fannie. Annie Wright was the daughter of Charles Wright. Her name also graced a girls’ seminary nearby. The heroine of my October 2021 book, A View Most Glorious, was graduated from that school. Fannie Paddock donated land for a hospital that would bear her name until it was transferred to Tacoma General Hospital.

Of course, once I learned this history, I had to go visit them. When the nineteenth century comes this close, you embrace it. Or at least marvel.


Mindy said...

How interesting!!!
I always find it thrilling to see the history that surrounds us without our even noticing.

Regina Scott said...

Me too, Mindy! When I was in elementary school, visiting Wright Park was an annual field trip, usually in the autumn because of all the many different kinds of leaves you could pick up. Wonderful to know the history behind it all.