Bolivar in Bedford Square
Tiny Bedford Square in Guilford, at the intersection of St. Paul and North Charles streets, hosts a life size bronze bust of Simón Bolivar. Also referred to as the “George Washington of South America,” the Venezuelan-born Bolivar was the military and political leader of the revolutions against Spanish colonial rule across the continent in the early 19th century. The bust sits on a limestone pedestal, with the words “Simón Bolivar, 1783-1830, Liberator of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia” carved on the front. On the back it reads, “Presented to the Citizens of Baltimore by the Government of Venezuela, April 19, 1961.”
Guilford is a neighborhood known for its large houses and tree lined, curving streets, not for its political monuments. Built by the Roland Park Company, the houses are stone and brick in Neoclassical and Colonial Revival styles. The noted American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. designed its streets and parks. It opened in 1913, and, like the nearby neighborhoods of Roland Park and Homeland, included a racial covenant preventing African Americans from owning homes within its borders, which was overturned in 1948.
The Bolivar bust was created by the Austrian-American sculptor Felix de Weldon. He is best known for his work on the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, which shows soldiers raising the American flag at Iwo Jima in 1945. Throughout the 20th century Venezuela gave statues and busts of Bolivar to a number of American cities, including New York, Washington D.C., New Orleans, Bolivar (West Virginia), and Bolivar (Missouri).
In April 1959 President Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke at the reception of a bronze equestrian statue of Bolivar in Washington D.C., making reference to the recent democratic election of President Rómulo Betancourt after over a decade of military dictatorship. He declared, “The Venezuelan people have steadfastly maintained their faith in the ultimate realization of Bolivar’s democratic ideals. It is therefore fitting that this ceremony should follow closely upon the inauguration of President Betancourt, chosen by his countrymen in an election so conducted as to typify the true meaning of democracy.”
The symbolic value of these gifts held extra resonance during the Cold War. The United States was concerned with suppressing communist movements in Latin America, especially after the 1959 Cuban revolution established the first communist state in the region. Oil companies were anxious for influence and continued access to oil rich Latin American nations like Venezuela. By 1961 relations between the United States and Latin America were at a low point and discontent, inequality, and violence was growing. In response, the newly inaugurated President John F. Kennedy proposed the “Alliance for Progress,” a ten-year, multibillion-dollar aid program for the region.
A few months after the proposal, and just two days after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, a small ceremony took place in Bedford Square to unveil this bust. Baltimore Mayor J. Harold Grady accepted the gift from the Venezuelan ambassador on a windy and rainy April 19th, Venezuelan Independence Day. Dr. Frank Marino, president of the Park Board (the predecessor to The Department of Parks and Recreation) seemed to reference the tensions with Cuba at the time, saying “It is very appropriate that the Ambassador’s remarks should come at this time in our history.” Chosen because it had space for the statue, for a few minutes in 1961 little Bedford Park in Baltimore reflected the drama of the greatest geopolitical forces of the time.