WOONSOCKET — They say you can’t rewrite history, but this city where heritage is a cottage industry is helping people see President Abraham Lincoln from a few new angles.
They’re all right there, in a new 7-foot-tall sculpture of the 16th president of the United States that was officially installed at One Depot Square by city officials on Wednesday.
A work in progress for several years, the steel artwork offers an interpretive rendition of Honest Abe in his signature black top hat. It’s not artistic realism – like Lincoln’s glowering visage upon Mount Rushmore – but a modern take on Lincoln’s iconically angular figure.
“I like it,” Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt said after the installation ceremony. “It’s chiseled. I find Abraham Lincoln was an individual who looked very sculptured and chiseled. Having these very defined lines within this piece of art I think reflects those characteristics of him.”
Commissioned by the city in March 2017, the sculpture is designed to commemorate Lincoln’s campaign stop here in 1860. Arriving from Providence, he disembarked at the train depot now known as One Depot Square and later delivered a stump speech at Harris Hall, across the street, where an entryway plaque has long commemorated the famous visit. A brief inscription on the inside of the sculpture summarizes the event.
The sculpture was fabricated by The Steel Yard in Providence, based on a design the organization’s Public Projects Director Tim Ferland calls a group effort that involved city officials and The Steel Yard’s public projects team.
“We took his silhouette and made it a little longer,” said Ferland. “Obviously we abstracted it a little bit.”
Though the city opened bids for the black metal figure in 2017, the project’s roots actually reach back at least a year earlier, when the city received a philanthropic grant of $8,500 to pay for it. The money came from the Rhode Island Foundation.
Located off Valley Street in Providence, The Steel Yard is a non-profit educational and job-training center that offers classes in welding, ceramics, blacksmithing and jewelry that has created other art installations for the city previously.
The Steel Yard also created the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “silhouette garden” at Mason and South Main streets that serves as the backdrop for the annual wreath-laying ceremony on the occasion of King’s birthday. The site, which depicts the civil rights champion and famous orator ministering to a flock of children – was designed by students at Riverzedge Arts, a city-based educational organization, and later fabricated by The Steel Yard, according to Ferland.
“This was a collaborative, team effort,” said Ferland as workers affixed the 400-pound ode to Lincoln to a slab of concrete, using massive steel bolts. “It involved our public projects team and city employees.”
And it wasn’t easy, said Ferland. At least a half-dozen versions of the figure were scrapped before they came up one that seemed to meet the city’s goal of creating a likeness of Lincoln that hewed to tradition, with an edgy, modern flair.
A photo of the installation is probably worth a proverbial thousand words of description, but here goes: The sculpture is essentially a cut-out silhouette of Lincoln, crafted from heavy-duty slabs of steel. There are two pieces of the silhouette fashioned as mirror images of each other, depicting the angularity of the Lincoln’s profile.
Baldelli-Hunt said the city was shooting for a work of art that would engage members of the public. The two sides of the silhouette are designed to have enough space between them to allow a visitor to poke his head in and take in the inscription on the interior of one of the panels. There, they’ll find a brief recap of the historical event the sculpture commemorates, and why it’s located at One Depot Square.
“It’s a different approach to art,” said the mayor. “We felt we wanted interaction with this art. We didn’t want someone to just walk up the steps and say, ‘That’s a statute of Abraham Lincoln.’ What we wanted was to draw curiosity to the piece of art and for them to actually engage with it.”
Another fan is Blackstone Valley Tourism Council Director Robert Billington, whose yuletide Polar Express train ride draws thousands to the historic depot every year.
“I think 20,000 people at least this year will be seeing this statue when they come to the Polar Express,” he said. “I think it’s going to get a lot of conversation going. They’re going to say, ‘Why was Abraham Lincoln in Woonsocket?’ it only helps with the story.”
Preliminary reviews of the Lincoln installation from more casual observers were generally favorable.
“It does look like him, sorta,” remarked Vin Bono, president of the Boston Surface Rail Company, which is leasing One Depot Square from the Rhode Island Department of Transportation. “It looks like an ink-blot. It’s kinda cool, I think.”
City officials and RIDOT approached him several years ago to see if he had any objection to a Lincoln figure at One Depot Square, which BSRC hopes to resurrect as a hub of passenger rail service for the first time in a half-century. He expected something to happen sooner, but Bono was generally pleased with the results when he saw them for the first time yesterday.
“It’s art,” said Peter Tenney of Warwick, one of the contractors who was helping anchor the new face of Lincoln to the concrete platform. “You have to use your imagination. Everybody is going to look at it and get their own interpretation.”
Of course, Lincoln is best remembered as the president whose Union Army prevailed in the Civil War, and whose Emancipation Proclamation declaring African-American slaves free men and women not only helped turn the tide against the Confederacy, but set the stage for a new social order that was based on equality. He survived the war with furrows etched more deeply in his face than when it began, only to be felled by an assassin’s bullet in Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., in April 1865.
As the synopsis on the sculpture explains, Lincoln, then a Republican senator from Illinois, arrived in the city on March 8, 1860, at the invitation of Edward Harris, the city’s most prominent industrialist, abolitionist and philanthropist. Lincoln later gave a speech in Harris Institute Hall, now known simply as Harris Hall, which later became a part of City Hall, across the street from One Depot Square.
Historians differ on what Lincoln did after the speech, but some think he spent the night at Oakley, the mansion in the North that Harris called home.
“At this location,” the inscription reads, “Lincoln disembarked from the train and entered the town before speaking at Harris Institute.”
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo