Mount Rushmore National Memorial

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Robinson wanted his sculptures to stand at the gateway to the west, where the Black Hills rise from the plains as a geographical prelude to the Rockies. Here, granite outcroppings resist erosion to form the Needles, clusters of tall, thin peaks reminiscent of the spires on a Gothic cathedral. Robinson imagined the Needles transformed into a parade of Indian leaders and American explorers who shaped the frontier. Robinson's own enthusiasm did not translate into public support. Many people were skeptical or downright hostile. "Man makes statues," proclaimed local conservationist Cora B. Johnson, "but God made the Needles." Undaunted, the memorial backers called in the master sculptor of Stone Mountain.

In an era when many artists scorned traditional patriotism, Gutzon Borglum made his name through celebration of things American. As his style evolved, "American" came to mean "big." "Our age will some day be called the 'Colossal Age,'" complained Borglum, "There is not a monument in this country as big as a snuff box." Born in Idaho in 1867, this son of Danish Mormons studied art in Paris. Back home he worked in the shadow of his artist brother Solon even after several works brought Gutzon moderate fame. Among them was a remodeled torch for the Statue of Liberty, saints and apostles for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, a seated Lincoln in Newark, N.J., and an oversized Lincoln bust for the U.S. Capitol. In 1915 he began the Stone Mountain memorial that brought experience in large-scale granite carvingand in showmanship.

Borglum scouted out a location far better than the fragile Needles: 5,725-foot Mount Rushmore, named in 1885 for New York lawyer Charles E. Rushmore. Its broad wall of exposed granite faced southeast to receive direct sunlight for most of the day. Borglum's choice of subjects promised to elevate the memorial from a regional enterprise to a national cause, "in commemoration of the foundation, preservation, and continental expansion of the United States." Borglum envisioned four U.S. presidents beside an entablature inscribed with a brief history of the country. In a separate wall behind the carved figures the Hall of Records would preserve national documents and artifacts.

President Calvin Coolidge dedicated the memorial in 1927, commencing 14 years of work; only six and a half years were spent on actual carving. Money was the main problem in the Great Depression years. It was here that Gutzon Borglum's self-appraisal as a "one-man war" was earned. He personally lobbied state officials, congressmen, cabinet members, and presidents. "The work is purely a national memorial," he insisted at a congressional hearing in 1938. Country prideand the fact that public works created good jobs and good willchanneled $836,000 of federal money toward the total cost of nearly $1 million.

The Washington head was formally dedicated in 1930, followed by Jefferson in 1936, Lincoln in 1937, and Roosevelt in 1939. Borglum died in March 1941; the final dedication was not held until 50 years later. Son Lincoln Borglum supervised the completion of the heads. Carving stopped in October 1941, on the eve of our entry into World War II.

Dimension of Washington's Head:
Forehead to chin - 60 feet
Width of eye - 11 feet
Length of nose - 20 feet
Width of mouth - 18 feet

Figures would be 4/5 the height of the Washington Monument (555 feet) if carved from head to toe.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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