George Washington statues are all about symbolism – usually integrity or unity or both. Chicago’s Heald Square Monument is all about unity, bringing civilians together with military forces, Christians with Jews, even Revolutionary War backers with hipsters. Let me try to explain.
The monument shows Virginia’s own General Washington flanked by two Philadelphia financiers, Robert Morris and Haym Solomon, each of whom personally guaranteed loans to Washington and his army during the Revolutionary War. You’ll note that neither Virginia nor Philadelphia is in Chicago, so why them and why here? It’s the symbolism: a prominent Jewish attorney in Chicago, Barnet Hodes, was part of a group called the Patriotic Foundation of America, which aimed to do away with anti-Semitism by illustrating “the historical fact that peoples of all groups participated patriotically in the founding and building of America.” And nothing would prove that fact better than a statue of Christians, Morris and Washington, with Solomon, a Polish Jew, working together to bring the United States into existence. Actually, Hodes originally planned to just have Solomon and Washington together, but figured Morris had given so much money to the Patriot cause he probably ought to be in there too. Sort of like a 3D donor wall.
Hodes launched a $50,000 fundraising campaign, drew support from all over the country, and enlisted Lorado Taft, an accomplished local sculptor, to put the piece together. Taft built a scale model of his design, but had to stop at that on account of dying in 1936. A team of Taft’s students built the full-size monument, including a memorable quote from Washington: “The government of the United States which gives to bigotry no sanction to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it in all occasions their effectual support.”
Barnet Hodes had intended to recognize diversity in history, but he soon realized he’d done much more than that – the statue was dedicated on December 19th, 1941. That’s right, just days after the US had entered World War II against openly anti-Semitic Nazi Germany. It was as if Chicago was saying, you may have the blitzkrieg, Hitler, but we’ve got Jews and Christians working together with George Freaking Washington!
The message of the Heald Square Monument lives on today – it outlived Heald Square itself, which was torn down in 2001. And it’s still bringing people together – if you stand at the corner of Wacker and Wabash Streets, and you look directly behind the Heald Square Monument, you’ll see the Marina Towers, known to hipsters for their appearance on the cover of the Wilco album “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” Attention Jeff Tweedy: George Washington is an American aquarium drinker, and he is trying to break your heart.