On July 17, over a dozen Black and Indigenous activist groups organized a joint rally at Buckingham Fountain, described later as a joyous dance party. Later protesters marched toward the Christopher Columbus statue in Grant Park and attempted to tear it down, leading to confrontations with police in riot gear and with pepper spray.
Ongoing protests around the Columbus statue eventually led to its temporary removal and prompted conversations about what its ultimate fate should be.
More than a hundred years ago, Chicago had a solution for another Columbus statue: melt it.
This statue also sat in Grant Park, and art critics at the time described it as “coarse and bestial,” and a “ridiculous caricature.” It was so disliked that the city took it down and reshaped it into a statue of President William McKinley, the 25th commander in chief who hailed from Ohio. That statue is still a landmark in the Southwest Side neighborhood of McKinley Park today.
Today, many Chicagoans want the city’s monuments (and holiday) to Columbus removed because of the legacy they present. But the story of the Columbus-turned-McKinley statue says a lot about how public art was made in the past – and who could afford to make it.
It also teaches us a lot about who’s had a voice at the table in the past, whose history has been erased and whose voices are prioritized even now.
Andrea Carlson, an Ojibwe artist and scholar, said statues are used as political narratives to keep certain groups in power. The Ojibwe is one of the Indigenous nations whose ancestral lands include Chicago.
“They’re solidified in marble or bronze for a reason, because people want a history that celebrates these people or their friends, and they don’t want those things to be changed easily.”
Universally disliked: an “ungraceful monstrosity”
The reason why Grant Park got its first Columbus statue is tied to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Fair organizer and wealthy Chicago businessman Ferdinand Peck secured funding for the monument in the park, which was hosting additional programming north of the main exposition.
Immediately after the statue debuted, it received an overwhelming amount of criticism. But former Park District historian Julia Bachrach said it had nothing to do with what Columbus symbolized.
“Nobody was questioning Columbus,” said Bachrah. “They felt it was bad art. They thought it was ugly.”
Less than two weeks after the statue’s installation, newspapers published articles condemning it, snidely calling it “the alleged Columbus statue” and describing it as “ungraceful,” “objectionable” and “a monstrosity.”
By the summer of 1897, Park District officials had had enough. Columbus was put into a dump wagon and carted off to Washington Park, where it “reposed on its face in the rear of a barn.”
Columbus is melted down into McKinley
A Columbus statue in storage — it’s reminiscent of where Chicago sits today. But what else can you do with a dethroned statue? Could we really destroy it?
As the first attempt at a Grant Park Columbus statue accumulated dust, the Park District went back and forth about what to do. Some proposed using granite blocks from the pedestal to construct the Jackson Park bridge or melting the bronze into ornamental fence posts for a city park. The town of Menasha, Wisc., even offered to take the statue off of Chicago’s hands.
At the same time, the Park District was in the midst of an ambitious expansion of parks to the South and West sides, part of a plan to democratize access to green spaces. But while the parks themselves were built around ideas of access and equity, a small group of the city’s elite decided which statues were featured in them.
In 1902, after McKinley was assassinated, a Park District official had an idea: recast the idled Columbus statue into the figure of the president.
“From an artistic standpoint, it is an eyesore, and we had better make good use of the metal,” he said.
The following year, 10 tons of bronze from the Columbus statue were melted down for the new statue of McKinley, reducing the original $6,000 price tag — the equivalent of around $175,000 today — by $2,500.
To melt or not to melt?
For Carlson, the Ojibwe artist and scholar, the story of the Columbus-turned-McKinley statue is just an example of “recycled supremacy,” one that represents the version of history by the people who could afford to donate the funds for public monuments.
Carlson also said the statue’s representation of Columbus “in the act of discovering America” is inaccurate.
“You can have firsts, but you have to use the right language around them,” Carlson said. “We talk about discovery and discoverers and it’s like, ‘Nope, this place was already well occupied,’ ” she said.
“The discoverers were the first invaders.”
Unlike at the turn of the century, today’s Grant Park Advisory Council formed an Arts and Monument Review committee to review all of the park’s existing and proposed art — starting with the Columbus statue.
At the heart of today’s conversation is the idea the decision should be made with public input.
“I think that’s something that’s been missing in some of the conversations up ‘til now,” said Leslie Recht, one of the chairs of the committee. Because Grant Park is Chicago’s “town square,” it’s not just a neighborhood park, she added. It’s one people from all over visit.
As a part of that process, the committee members are looking at questions like: What is being memorialized? Who is being impacted negatively by the statute? What history would be lost if you take it down?
And this time around, the committee is asking for feedback from Chicagoans, via a public Zoom hearing on Sept. 8. There will also be a few weeks where the public can submit written comments.
But Carlson worries that even with public input, many Chicagoans may miss a larger point — that the narrative so many are fighting over wasn’t even true to begin with.
“The city has not addressed the truth of how Chicago is established on stolen land. … Until that happens … it’s just window dressing.”
Carlson would say the people who have been most harmed by the city’s choices should have the strongest voice in the decision-making process about Columbus, and in the future production of public art.
“When people fantasize and make their laundry list of people that they want to put on a pedestal in Chicago, I really push back against that,” Carlson said. “Let’s think about Indigenous presence and let’s think about Indigenous agency. … Representation matters, but not just what is being produced, but who is producing it and who has agency.”