Orpheus with the Awkward Foot

Francis Scott Key in Allegorical Form

The massive bronze sculpture of Orpheus at Fort McHenry represents an early 20th century celebration of the man who wrote the Star-Spangled Banner.

One of the most striking monuments related to the Battle of Baltimore is the nearly forty-foot tall statue of the Greek god Orpheus greeting visitors to Fort McHenry since 1922. Dedicated to Francis Scott Key as well as the Old Defenders, the sculpture takes a more allegorical approach than monuments to others involved in the Battle of Baltimore.

The U.S. Congress appropriated $75,000 for a sculpture at this site in 1914 to mark the centennial of the Star-Spangled Banner-though the song did not become the national anthem until 1931. The Fine Arts Commission hosted a national contest to select the design, with Charles Niehaus' twenty-four-foot depiction of the Greek god of music and poetry selected as the most fitting memorial to Key. The bronze statue of a nude Orpheus playing the lyre stands atop a white marble base fifteen feet high. The low relief frieze on the base include a likeness of Key as well as other figures from mythology.

World War I delayed the project for a eight years. President Warren G. Harding dedicated the monument on Flag Day in 1922 with a live broadcast from WEAR—the first time a president had been heard on the radio. Congress paid Niehaus $33,121 (above the original appropriation) for Orpheus with the Awkward Foot.

Fort McHenry continued to serve as a military installation into the twentieth century. The Fort was briefly used as a city park from 1914 to 1917, when it returned to federal service as General Hospital No. 2 around World War I. When President Harding visited the Fort to dedicate the monument, the buildings had grown increasingly dilapidated. The Baltimore News American described the contrast between the empty fort and the new statue in August 1924:

"Deserted barracks and shacks gradually sink into ruin and weeds flourish where a great American victory of arms was won in the War of 1812. A movement is gaining headway to restore the ancient fort and transform it into a Federal park, worthy of its traditions and sightly to the tourists who come from distant places to visit the spot where a brilliant chapter of American history was written."

The movement to restore the fort, with vocal support from locals in Baltimore, successfully reinvigorated the site. President Calvin Coolidge signed legislation in 1925 preserving Fort McHenry as a national park under the War Department--the first national park related to the War of 1812. Baltimoreans and visitors could stroll the grounds, walk along the water, and access this historic site freely once again. The National Park Service assumed stewardship in 1933.

Six years later, the fort became the only NPS site with the dual designation of National Monument and Historic Shrine. Park service officials sought to distinguish historic sites of military importance with expansive natural landscapes in the west by using the categories of "National Monument" and "National Park." Outspoken locals pushed for the inclusion of "Historic Shrine" as it described the fort as a place of inspiration (for Key). James Hancock, President of the Society of the War of 1812, explained his position in a 1938 letter to Congressman Stephen Gambrill. The Fort, he argued, was "a distinctly historical place where people can go to review and renew those patriotic impulses that had much to do in making the national character."

The defense of Baltimore took place both on land, at North Point, as well as by sea at Fort McHenry. However, interest in the Star-Spangled Banner story in the twentieth century—embodied by Orpheus—came at the expense of North Point. Decades of federal resources have focused public attention to the Battle of Baltimore on Fort McHenry.

Images

Orpheus Statue

Orpheus Statue

Source: Monument City | Creator: Bryson Dudley View File Details Page

Orpheus with the Awkward Foot

Orpheus with the Awkward Foot

Source: Hughes Company Collection, University of Maryland, Baltimore County | Creator: Hughes Company View File Details Page

President Harding, Statue unveiling, 1922

President Harding, Statue unveiling, 1922

President Harding giving a speech at the unveiling of the statue of Orpheus at Fort McHenry. | Source: Library of Congress | Creator: Harris & Ewing View File Details Page

Statue unveiling, 1922

Statue unveiling, 1922

Unveiling of the statue of Orpheus at Fort McHenry. | Source: Library of Congress | Creator: Harris & Ewing View File Details Page

Access Information:

The grounds of Fort McHenry are open 9:00 am to 6:00 pm during the summer (Memorial Day to Labor Day) and 9:00 am to 5:00 pm the rest of the year.

Street Address:

2400 E. Fort Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21230 [map]

Cite this Page:

Auni Gelles, “Orpheus with the Awkward Foot,” Explore Baltimore Heritage, accessed March 1, 2017, http://explore.baltimoreheritage.org/items/show/570.
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