Scene Shift

The impermanence of landmarks, and the artist’s prerogative

First, a correction to my recent column about Knox County’s once liberal usage of the word Farragut. In our nation’s capital recently, I made my way, for the first time ever, to Farragut Square. It’s just a few blocks north of the White House, along K and Connecticut, but it’s off most of the tour-bus routes, unmentioned in many guidebooks. It’s mostly a 9-5 business section now, central to several major modern office buildings and restaurants, but it was once a stylish residential address.

In the middle of the square is a small park, and in the middle of the park is a statue of a West Knox County native, Admiral David Glasgow Farragut. It’s an impressive statue in bronze of the Navy’s first admiral, glowering in a jovial way, holding a telescope, facing south and keeping a weather eye out for Confederate mines. Installed in 1881 and dedicated by President Garfield during his very short term, the statue was a big deal at the time, and may have played a part in inspiring Knox County to start naming things for its native son.

Farragut Square is still a pretty big deal. The name Farragut heads two separate subway stops on DC’s wonderful metro system: the stations called Farragut North and Farragut West are on two different lines. The square figures in a 1943 movie called The More, the Merrier, a wacky comedy about D.C.’s wartime residential boom, starring Charles Coburn. His first day in town, Coburn’s eccentric character discovers Farragut Square, as if it’s a definitive Washington landmark, and finds some inspiration in a bold inscription on the statue featuring Farragut’s most famous remark from Mobile Bay, “Damn the torpedoes! Full steam ahead!” The line becomes the old man’s motto, as he finds that line applicable to several occasions throughout the movie.

I referred to that inscription in my column about Farragut. It’s in the movie, sure enough. Lawson McGhee has a copy of The More, the Merrier, and I checked. But it’s nowhere to be found in the park. Either it’s been removed since 1943 or, more likely, it was made of plaster and brought from Hollywood.

Directors grant themselves some discretion in creating scenes, as I recently learned. A video crew making an up-market TV ad for a luxury car chose to shoot part of it under the marquee of the Tennessee Theatre. The only problem was that an old Raleigh bicycle was chained to an apparently secure post in front of the theater. I learned that it’s a director’s prerogative to decide whether a battered 20-year-old bicycle should be in a shot. This director decided, Perhaps Not. Walking back from a late lunch, I discovered the shot’s resourceful crew had used a wrench to unbolt the post from the very pavement, and carried my bike, post and all, to an obscure corner where it would cause less offense.

Anyway, the statue doesn’t have that inscription about torpedoes, and I regret that I alleged that it did. All the statue says is FARRAGUT. No other words would have been necessary, at least not when it was installed in 1881. That one word spoke volumes. Now, I doubt most of the pretty, smartly dressed people who pace past it every day, on the way from office to espresso, have any idea.

A couple of readers responded to the interesting mystery of the setting of one particular painting now hanging in the Knoxville Museum of Art’s new, fascinating, and fortunately, permanent exhibit, Higher Ground. The modernist/realist painting, by the American Realist Charles Griffin Farr, who grew up in Knoxville, is called, simply, “Street in Knoxville.” It appears to portray an urban neighborhood with a predominantly black population, and a laundry called Bell—and, in the background in an angular intersection, a tall-spired church with two steeples.

I might assume that it was all pure fancy, artistic license taken by an artist who had left town a couple of decades before he painted this canvas—except that Bell Laundry was real, known to exist ca. 1920, and with a very similar logo to the one in the painting. The problem is that it had several different locations in town.

John Rozek made an interesting suggestion that it might have been the vicinity of the First German Lutheran Church, which stood at the corner of Broadway and Fifth, across from the Minvilla project, before it was torn down many years ago. In photographs, the church does bear a strong resemblance to the one in the painting, except that it didn’t have a double steeple, wasn’t in a predominantly black neighborhood, and I couldn’t make it work with one of the locations of Bell Laundry—though its headquarters was nearby. I suspect the painting was another example of the artist’s prerogative to alter scenes, based in Farr’s case on a jumble of memories from childhood.

It’s a very interesting, and lightly sinister, piece of work. Have a look at it, and the rest of the museum’s interesting new permanent collection, if you haven’t already.

A known foe of retail chains and strip malls may have to acknowledge, in the closing of the Kmart on Kingston Pike, some unaccountable melancholy. If Kingston Pike can be said to have landmarks, it’s one. It’s older than nearly anything else in its neighborhood, four years older than West Town.

Forty years ago, Kmart was the main reason most folks were willing to drive all the way over Bearden Hill. When Kmart was built, it was at the bottom of the Deane Hill golf course, with the elegant old country club up on top of the hill.

It says something, maybe, that even though they’ve got a huge free parking lot on Kingston Pike near I-40, it’s no longer optimally profitable—and, moreover, there are no immediate plans for the property.

Assessments of the success of city-subsidized Turkey Creek, in terms of its adding to the city’s tax revenue, have to be considered in balance of some of the things that have closed elsewhere in the last few years, especially on Kingston Pike. Turkey Creek’s revenue is not all new; much of it’s borrowed from other parts of town.

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