Mezzara's Lincoln Statue
audio available in podcast episode 2
First Lincoln Statue Erected in U.S.
Lincoln was dead! A period of national mourning swept the nation immediately after his assassination. During this time, Pietro Mezzara--who was listed in the San Francisco city directory as a cameo cutter and a sculptor--began working on a clay model of a large statue of Lincoln.
The Mechanics Institute was soon going to host a fair, and so the Institute suggested that Mezzara cast the statue in plaster for the fair, which opened in Union Square on August 10, 1865. The plaster statue was unveiled the first night of the fair and consequently, became the first statue erected in honor of Abraham Lincoln.
The statue was on display at the fair for 26 days. Afterward, Mezzara offered the statue to the San Francisco Board of Education if they would reimburse him for his expenses. The Board had no funds to allow it to do that, but a group of citizens raised the money and purchased the statue from Mezzara.
Earlier that year--several months before Lincoln was assassinated--the Board of Education named a new San Francisco public boys school after the sitting president. The "Lincoln School" on Fifth, near Market Street, was named on January 13, 1865, and was dedicated six months later in June. Later the next year, the school was to set another milestone in honor of Lincoln when it received Mezzara's Lincoln statue.
At Mezzara's request, the re-unveiling of his plaster statue of Abraham Lincoln was deferred until the first anniversary of Lincoln 's assassination. So the statue was dedicated at 10 o'clock on the morning of April 14, 1866.
George W. R. King, son of James King, was a Lincoln School student who had had the fortune of shaking President Lincoln's hand on April 11, 1865, when George was in Washington. So he was one of the students selected to pull the flag that covered the statue. And so the statue was formally unveiled:
The July 19, 1865, issue of the San Francisco Bulletin reported the statue's near completion before it was unveiled the first time at the Mechanics Institute Fair, reporting the statue to be 9-1/2 feet tall on a 12-foot pedestal:
"[Mezzara's Abraham Lincoln was] standing beside the tree of liberty, with his right foot firmly planted on the reptile of Secession that issues from the roots. The left arm being stretched out at full length with the hand grasping the scroll of the Emancipation Proclamation. His right hand with open palm spread out as a protection to the Constitution and the emblem of Union, that rest upon the trunk of the tree of liberty."
Lincoln Lore (number 899) quotes the Boston Transcript for August 29, 1865. Perhaps the Boston Transcript article used the San Francisco Bulletin account for its source, which is one possible explanation for why the Transcript reported that the statue was “nearly complete” when, in fact, it had already been unveiled to the public:
"Statue of Mr. Lincoln. A California sculptor named Mezzara has nearly completed a colossal statue of President Lincoln. It is 9 feet high, and stands on a pedestal 10 feet in height, making a total of 19 feet. The posture is described in a San Francisco paper as majestic and commanding; the left arm extended in front, and the hand grasping a scroll, supposed to be the Emancipation Proclamation. The right arm hangs at the side, thrown slightly back, as if the subject was speaking. Under the right foot writhes a serpent, and close by it is a broken shackle. An allegorical stump of a tree from which grow 2 clasped hands, stands just behind and to the right of the figure."
The Boston Transcript account is not nearly as eloquent as the San Francisco Bulletin account. It could have been that hometown pride shown through the Bulletin account, or perhaps the Transcript account was simply a distillation of the earlier Bulletin newspaper story that had finally made its way east.
Etched in Stone
The base of the statue was devoid of any literary tribute to Lincoln. The Gettysburg Address had not yet been proclaimed as a great Lincoln speech. Excerpts from Lincoln's Second Inaugural speech were read at the Lincoln School ceremony, but no similar excerpt appeared on the statue's pedestal.
And although J.W. Winens (president of the San Francisco Board of Education) paid tribute to Lincoln by declaring, "
the annals of Greece and Rome and all the free governments of modern times, may be searched through in vain for a name that future times will hold in higher veneration than that of Abraham Lincoln," similar sentiments were not conveyed on the base.
Rather, etched in the marble slab on the base were these "facts:"
Born Feb. 12, 1809
Elected President of the
Re-elected March 1865
Died April 1865
"Facts," of course, is a term used loosely here given that Lincoln was not elected in March but rather, was inaugurated in March.
You Try Holding Your Arm Out for 23 Years!
Mezzara's plaster statue of Abraham Lincoln stood strong at the Lincoln School for 23 years until one day in 1888, the left arm--which had been outstretched at full
length--fell off. The San Francisco Board of Education made an appeal for a more permanent statue, and an anonymous donor gave them such a gift. The plaster statue was removed and another like it--this one once again including an outstretched left arm--was cast by William T. Garratt at his brass foundry on Fremont and Natoma Streets. The statue was made of a white metal known as French bronze.
On January 25, 1889, the new statue was set on its original base. Three days later, the San Francisco Bulletin suggested that the students give it "a coat of bronze paint every year or two."
The Great Quake
Presumably, the boys dutifully colored the statue bronze for the next 18 years or so, until one fateful April day in 1906.
On April 18, the great San Francisco Earthquake rocked the city. Fires erupted immediately and burned for the next three days. It was too much for the metal statue. As the fire of 1906 consumed the city, the French bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln melted away...and only one finger of the right hand remained.
Ewers, Justin. "Nightmare in San Francisco," U.S. News & World Report, April 17, 2006, p. 43.
Shutes, Milton H. Lincoln and California, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1943, pp. 192a, 195-198.
Warren, Louis A. (editor). "Earliest Sculptors of the President," Lincoln Lore, number 899, July 1, 1946, Fort Wayne, Indiana: The Lincoln National Life Insurance Company.