Editorial: A beautiful way to honor Saint-Gaudens

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The pros and cons ping pong somewhere behind the forehead. Tout a favorite place, a trout pool or swimming hole, that little restaurant with great food where you can always get a table, or stay silent. Silence seems selfish, but publicity is risky. As Yogi Berra allegedly said about a favorite nightspot that became popular, “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.”

The Augustus Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish has long been a favorite place of those who know about it. It’s exquisite – an estate with sweeping lawns, views of Connecticut River Valley fields and Vermont’s Mount Ascutney, and an aura of peace and timelessness in a frantic, warring world. It’s also home to the art of a man many call America’s preeminent sculptor. They are works of beauty, power, mystery and majesty. Yet relatively few visit the site donated to the nation by the artist’s family.

If Congresswoman Annie Kuster succeeds, and she’s halfway there, that’s about to change. Last week, a bill sponsored by Kuster that would redesignate the site as a national historic park passed the House. It should pass the Senate as well.

Much of Saint-Gaudens’s work was inspired by watching as volunteers marched off to join the Civil War, seeing the wounded and dead returning north, and viewing Abraham Lincoln as a presidential candidate before the war and while lying in state after his assassination. The history Saint-Gaudens depicted should be understood by every citizen.

The 190-acre estate, called Aspet after the French village where Saint-Gaudens’s father was born, is about an hour-and-a-half drive from Concord. The fastest route is up Interstate 89 to Lebanon and back down on Route 103. The scenic route goes through Newbury and Claremont and then up along the Connecticut River.

According to the Park Service, a historic site typically honors one person and his or her impact. A historic park celebrates the effect a group of people had on history and society. Saint-Gaudens formed the nucleus of a group of artists called the Cornish Colony, which thrived in the last decades of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th. Many came by train from New York to summer in Cornish and nearby Plainfield. Among the colony members were New Hampshire native Maxfield Parrish, a painter whose works, in poster form, still decorate many a dorm room or apartment; the famed dancer Isadora Duncan; actress Ethel Barrymore; sculptors William Zorach and Daniel Chester French; novelist Winston Churchill; and artist Frederic Remington.

Each year, from May to October, 40,000 people visit Aspet to view Saint-Gaudens’s masterworks: a monumental relief depicting Robert Gould Shaw, the white Massachusetts colonel who led the first African American regiment into the Civil War; statues of Lincoln; and the $20 gold piece the sculptor designed at the request of President Teddy Roosevelt. It’s considered the most beautiful American coin ever minted.

The estate, which hosts concerts, sculpture workshops and other events, is a great place to soak up some history, bathe in the beauty of the site and its artworks, and picnic on the lawn. It well deserves to have its status upgraded to a national historic park.