A corridor of 900 feet of interpretive signs is now encircling a section of Boston Common where the famous Colonel Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial, part of a $3 million restoration of the city’s most famous statue.
The interpretive signage tell the story of the American Civil War, the 54th Black Infantry, the Shaw Memorial and the immigrant sculptor who created the masterpiece, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. In addition, the panels include handwritten letters by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, and initial sketches and portraits by Saint-Gaudens.
Boston’s most iconic public monument, the Shaw Memorial, was officially unveiled on May 31, 1897. The homage to the 54th Black Infantry Regiment of Boston is considered one of America’s most significant Civil War memorials. It was the first public monument to accurately depict black soldiers in military uniform.
A group of partners have come together to oversee and fund the restoration, including the National Park Service, City of Boston, Friends of the Public Garden and Museum of African American History.
According to the Friends of the Public Garden, all of the bronze and stone is being removed from the plaza level up. These materials are being taken offsite to a conservation studio, and new waterproofing will be installed under the plaza’s brick. A new concrete foundation is being built under the bronze.
Saint-Gaudens was born of French and Irish parents in Dublin, Ireland, and moved to Boston with his family in September 1848, at the height of the Irish Famine. The family later moved to New York, where Saint Gaudens began studying art and sculpture, later moving to Paris, France to enhance his skills and knowledge of classical sculpture traditions.
It took Saint-Gaudens fourteen years to complete the memorial, partly because there was an early disagreement within the memorial commission about how the piece should look, but also because the perfectionist artist approached the project in a painstaking manner: seeking out forty black men in New York to use as models, from which he chose 16 to appear on the final memorial. He also spent considerable time wrangling with the commission about the exact wording of the inscriptions.
Of the delay, Saint Gaudens wrote, “My own delay I excuse on the ground that a sculptor’s work endures for so long that it is next to a crime for him to neglect to do everything that lies in his power to execute a result that will not be a disgrace….A poor picture goes into the garret, books are forgotten, but the bronze remains, to amuse or shame the populace.”
Created in 1634, Boston Common is the nation's oldest public park, and the site of important gatherings over the past 390 years.