City Paper is not for tourists
True story: Some time in the last 30 years, the National Park Service misplaces a monument. Not the Jefferson Memorial—just a small monument, a marble urn. And unlike the city’s marquee memorials, the monument—called the “Cuban Friendship Urn”—recalls an era that everyone has forgotten. Eventually, park officials stop worrying about the missing urn: Who’s going to complain? Fidel Castro?
Fast forward to the present. An anonymous reader sends Washington City Paper two photos, along with a note claiming to have found the pictured urn “in a dump, placed there by the National Park Service.” The reader doesn’t specify which dump but attaches a page from a book on local sculpture that shows the Cuban Friendship Urn in its heyday. “What happens to old memorials in the Nation’s capital that are no longer relevant or needed?” the reader asks.
Good question. The urn’s beginnings, at least, are well documented: The Republic of Cuba gave it to President Calvin Coolidge in 1928 to honor U.S.-Cuban amity, particularly American support for the 1898 revolution that liberated the island from the Spanish. Until the early 1960s, the urn rested on a square marble pedestal in West Potomac Park, not far from the Lincoln Memorial.
According to National Park Service records, the urn has been “in storage” since 1963. For years, local historians believed the urn had fallen victim to the commuter boom, its resting place apparently razed to make way for approaches to the Roosevelt Bridge.
But the park service now says it may have misled historians all these years—or at least kept mum about the urn’s disappearance. “We don’t know where it is,” says spokeswoman Sandra Alley. Some park service officials believe xenophobic vandals stole the urn during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when Soviet nukes were pointed at America from Cuban soil. Others think the park service itself dismantled the memorial—either because of the missile crisis or road construction—and later lost it, Alley says.
Among the approximately 130 pieces of local statuary maintained by the park service—everything from the Washington Monument to the Joan of Arc statue in Malcolm X Park—the urn is the only one missing.
“It was removed [by the park service] or stolen, depending on who you’re talking to,” Alley says. Historian Gary Scott, who has worked for the park service for two decades, says the employees who would know for sure have left or died. “When we’ve done our inventories, people have always just said, ‘It was stolen,’” he says. Two other items are in storage, and both are accounted for, Alley says. Another, the Noyes Armillary Sphere, is missing. The park service thinks someone stole the sphere—an ornate bronze sculpture modeled after an ancient astrological instrument—from Malcolm X Park, where it was placed in 1931.
Alley and Scott hope the Cuban Friendship Urn has survived. They say the markings on the urn in the color photos sent to City Paper match those on the Cuban Friendship Urn. “Whoever sent those pictures, if they could tell us where it is, it would be wonderful,” Alley says.
The urn, sculpted by an unknown artist in the 1920s, is decorated with neoclassical human figures and an eagle with outstretched wings. Alley says a few people—most of them park service employees—have inquired about the urn over the years, but their queries weren’t given high priority because “we no longer have diplomatic relations with [Cuba].”
The urn isn’t the only local monument battered by historical fortune. In 1979, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. (PADC) removed a statue of Alexander “Boss” Shepherd—D.C.’s last territorial governor—from his 70-year perch across from the Wilson Building. Over the years, the statue languished in vacant lots and ended up in a Blue Plains sewage-treatment plant dump. Few seemed to care about a memorial to a white 19th-century official now unfairly vilified as a racist who spent the District into the first of many fiscal crises (see “Rehabilitating the Boss,” 1/14/94).
Three years ago, the blue-blooded Association of Oldest Inhabitants—a 131-year-old civic organization—began lobbying PADC and the city to restore the Shepherd statue to downtown. Just last month, the mayor’s office rejected the association’s latest effort, and Shepherd remains at Blue Plains.
The park service isn’t sure what it would do with the urn if it turned up. Alley says it could be too damaged to repair. And she doesn’t know whether the park service would try to restore the urn to the Mall—no doubt a question for diplomats, not historians.
At press time Wednesday, Alley called to say the park service had found the urn lying on its side in Rock Creek Park. Prompted by our calls, a memorial specialist had searched for the urn near the park service’s former headquarters. “We’re going to see what we can do to better protect it,” Alley says.—John Cloud