History's Headlines: The man behind the monument (2024)

Almost every day many people, from school children to dog walkers, pass a statue of a soldier in Allentown’s West Park. On permanent guard duty since 1917, he represents a time, between the Civil War and World War I, when monumental art reflected the culture. This is a story of the artist behind the monument.

The First Defenders were disappointed. By 1916, of the Civil War era soldiers who had been the first troops in 1861 to answer President Lincoln’s call to come to Washington, D.C., only 43 out of the original 530 were still living. So, when the Pennsylvania Legislature agreed to allocate $1,500 for the erection of a tablet to honor them, they were thrilled. But it was only to have their hopes dashed. Governor Brumbaugh vetoed the request because the funds he said were just not available. Some felt doubly hurt because the governor was Pennsylvania German and widely popular in Dutch country.

That was when General Harry C. Trexler stepped in. Born in 1854 Trexler had been a child of 11 when the troops came home, and it was probably among his first memories. Whatever it was, by his later years Trexler had developed a profound knowledge of some of the most obscure skirmishes of the War Between the States, often shocking his business associates. He once surprised a southern executive with whom he was negotiating by noting his middle initial was a Z and that it was for a little-known Confederate officer named Zollicofer who died early in the war. “General, you are the first northerner I have ever met that made that observation,” he replied.

History's Headlines: The man behind the monument (1)

History's Headlines: The man behind the monument (2)

To help out his beloved veterans, Trexler announced he would donate not just for a plaque, but an entire statue dedicated in West Park to the veterans. He named a committee of three to supervise the project: Allentown Mayor Al Reichenbach, a Republican; former Mayor James L. Schaadt, a Democrat; and A. S. Weishampel, one of the city’s leading architects and a close student of the prevailing style known as Beaux Arts classicism. Trexler aide Nolan Benner would later note that a competition was held and that designs for a heroic statue flowed in from around the country. Finally a decision was reached. The winner was George T. Brewster of Tottenville, Long Island.

Any records that may have existed from the competition have vanished long ago. We don’t know what sort of role Trexler may have had in the selection, although it is hard to imagine he did not have a significant one. But as the only professional in the field of the arts on the committee, Weishampel must have had a decisive opinion. So as one of the best known and respected creators of monumental art in the country, Brewster must have been a logical choice. In the period between the Civil War and World War I in particular he was one of the most popular and prolific figures in the field. Only August “Gus” Saint Gaudens (1848-1907) was considered his superior.

Brewster was born on February 24, 1862 to Altheus Brewster and Mary S. Cushman in Kingston, Massachusetts, a seafaring town that was founded in the 17th century, shortly after the arrival of the Pilgrims. He could trace his lineage back to William Brewster, one of the leaders of the Mayflower Pilgrims. In a time when such things were considered more important than they are today, the fact that Weishampel’s wife was a Mayflower descendent whose family in the 18th century had relocated to Cape May, New Jersey may have given Weishampel entre to Brewster to take on the Allentown commission when his sculpture was in high demand across the country.

Unfortunately, Brewster’s early years are pretty much a blank slate. He emerges in 1877 as a student when he attended the Massachusetts State Normal Art School. Brewster’s skill must have been judged exceptional early on because 1881 finds him in Paris and a student at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, considered in the 19th century the most prestigious art school in the world. The Ecole had been founded in the 17th century and it built its ideals of art around the classical arts of Greece and Rome as reinforced during the Renaissance. These were the styles, whether in painting, architecture and sculpture, that aspiring artists were expected to follow. “Order, symmetry, formal design, grandiosity and elaborate ornamentation,” notes one source, were the Ecole’s hallmarks.

History's Headlines: The man behind the monument (5)

History's Headlines: The man behind the monument (6)

It was not an easy target that Brewster set for himself in Paris. One source described it this way:

“Although hundreds upon hundreds took the five-part entrance exam (which was a mark of the Ecole’s prestige) the school only admitted 60 students per term, 45 French and 15 foreign. Students received broad instruction in painting, sculpture, history, geometry, philosophy, and mathematics. Student training at the Ecole was uncommonly rigorous. Students were driven with punishing workloads. Projects routinely required dozens of highly detailed drawings accurately produced in a short time-these then were to be routinely critiqued by elevated faculty or atelier (studio) masters. It could be a humbling experience for many a young man.”

History's Headlines: The man behind the monument (7)

History's Headlines: The man behind the monument (8)

Brewster was one of the 15 foreign students admitted in 1881. He studied with the most famous professors of the day. Two were Augustine Dumont and Antonin Mercie. Both came from a long line of sculptors. He emerged after four years with a first prize a distinction, received by no other American student before.

On his return to America in 1884 Brewster settled in New York and in 1886 founded the molding course at the Art Students League. From 1892 to 1893 he was instructor at the Rhode Island School of Design. It was apparently while he was at the Art Students League that Brewster worked with August Saint-Gaudens, America’s leading monumental sculptor. When Saint-Gaudens took over designing sculpture for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893-94, aka the White City, many young artists flocked there to work with him.

History's Headlines: The man behind the monument (9)

History's Headlines: The man behind the monument (10)

One of the fair’s architects, Charles Follen McKim of McKim, Mead & White, declared the style for the fair’s buildings would be classical. “The scale is Roman, and it will have to be sustained,” he said. This was later to start the City Beautiful movement of the early 20th century. “Frank,” said Danial Burnham to a young architect named Frank Lloyd Wright, “the Fair has shown our people the beauty of the classical. They will never look back.” Wright was to have other ideas.

The many commissions of Brewster were numerous, everything from college campuses to war monuments. By the time he was selected to do the First Defenders monument in Allentown he was at the height of his profession. It is not known if Brewster came to Allentown to select the location or relied on photographs. Weishampel, who died in the late summer of 1916 from a combination of heat stroke and heart disease at age 49, almost certainly never saw the finished statue.

Several years ago, the late Richard “Dick” Matthews of the Civil War Roundtable of Eastern Pennsylvania was asked by the Morning Call to inspect Allentown’s Civil War monuments for accuracy. Along with another member of the group, he declared the soldiers on the Soldiers and Sailors Monument extremely accurate in terms of the era’s actual uniforms. They found one flaw in Brewster’s work: the First Defender’s uniform was held together with large buttons with the letter I, which were used only in the Confederate Army.

History's Headlines: The man behind the monument (11)

History's Headlines: The man behind the monument (12)

Apparently, no one noticed in 1917 as the statue was unveiled in a steady rain. That it was symbolic of the First Defenders’ heroism was the point.

The speaker chosen for the day was General Thomas J. Stewart, the elderly adjutant general of Pennsylvania and a close friend of Trexler. But it would be Stewart’s last speech. “The exposure to the rainstorm did its work,” writes Benner. “He was chilled through and through and upon return home, he contracted pneumonia and died within a week.”

As for Brewster he went on to a successful career that included a statue atop the Rhode Island State House and 23 statues for the Vicksburg National Military Park. He died in 1943, long after modern sculpture was going in a different direction that could not have been possibly imagined at the 19th century Ecole des Beaux Arts.

History's Headlines: The man behind the monument (2024)
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