J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Washington at the Commander Hotel in Cambridge

The Commander Hotel in Cambridge opened in 1927 during the Colonial Revival. Located near the site of the “Washington Elm,” the hotel was named in honor of George Washington, the commander-in-chief. Some of its architectural details are modeled on Mount Vernon.

A couple of decades later, Frank A. K. Boland was the hotel’s owner. He had once been an attorney representing the American Hotel Association. (He had been disbarred in 1909 for bribing a court clerk and reinstated in 1912; that seems have to have been a normal way of doing business in New York then.)

I haven’t found out exactly when, but at some point a visitor told Boland that a bronze reproduction of Jean-Antoine Houdon’s statue of Washington was available in Somerville. The T. F. McGann & Sons Company was offering it for sale, advertising in School Executive and School Management and Institution. Obviously, the firm thought that it would be appropriate for a school.

Boland went to see the statue. It had turned black from standing out in a storage yard since 1932. The McGann company had made it for Manchester, Connecticut, but “financial disagreement resulted in final cancellation of the order.” Perhaps the Depression had also been part of the problem.

Boland bought the statue and mounted it on the Commander Hotel’s lawn on “a stately base of rough finish granite.” With its base, it stands 6'10" tall and weighs 1,034 pounds. Every so often it gets to wear a Bruins, Celtics, Red Sox, or Patriots jersey during a championship run.

In 1949 Boland started a campaign to commemorate the Washington Elm, which had fallen twenty-six years before. Artist Leonard Craske was already at work on a bas-relief showing Washington reviewing troops under a tree, much like Washington Elm images going back over a century. But by that point historians had turned against the elm legend. The final text on Craske’s monument says nothing about the tree:
General George Washington, having taken command of the Army of the United Colonies at Cambridge, inspects the troops near this spot on the fourth day of July 1775.
Undaunted, Boland planned an unveiling on 3 July 1950, the traditional day of the Washington Elm ceremony. At noon on 2 May he led a committee of Cambridge notables to meet with President Harry Truman and invite him to the unveiling. The Truman Library shows the President’s schedule for that day. Corbis offers a photograph of the committee giving the President a relic of the fallen elm. Boland is the man looking happily at the camera.

The young man at left who looks like an office intern was Rep. John F. Kennedy, who had arranged the meeting. Truman didn’t come, but Kennedy was one of the main speakers at the ceremony that July.

(Photograph above by Wally Gobetz, available via Flickr through a Creative Commons license. Thanks to Ed Guleserian, current owner of what’s now the Sheraton Commander Hotel, for a copy of Boland’s press release about the statue.)


Charles Bahne said...

The facade of the Commander Hotel bears a deliberate resemblance to Washington's home at Mount Vernon -- if you can see past the "temporary" awnings that were installed a few years ago.

J. L. Bell said...

And I’m sure George Washington would have wanted big red neon letters atop his home if he could have had them.

Jeff said...

A 1924 bronze casting of the same Houdon sculpture, produced by Gorham Company Founders, Providence, RI, stands outside the National Heritage Museum in nearby Lexington. Instead of reading "The Commander," at the base, however, it reads, "Washington: The Free Mason." Pictures of the Lexington sculpture can be seen here: http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WMCYAN_George_Washington_The_Free_Mason_Bronze_Statue_Lexington_MA