By Rick Dapp, Photography by Cassie Miller
Riverfront Park is singular in its composition; long, narrow and bounded by a river and two to three lanes of one-way traffic. It’s a mecca for walkers and runners, offering a route unimpeded by automobile traffic and obligatory stops at intersections and traffic lights. It also provides an array of visual stimuli, both natural and man-made.
With its roots in the City Beautiful Movement at the turn of the 20th Century, the park has acquired a variety of structures, monuments and artwork with the passing century. The Sunken Gardens located in Riverfront Park between Verbeke and Cumberland streets was one of the original creations, part of it constructed from the foundations of buildings demolished in the 1920s as an effort to clean up the section of Hardscrabble neighborhood that existed between Front Street and the river. To the uninitiated, Hardscrabble was originally a neighborhood populated by loggers and the like, with a reputation to match its name. The neighborhood that has proven most resistant to Midtown gentrification still exists and is still called Hardscrabble by those who occupy it.
What makes the artwork and sculpture of Riverfront Park so intriguing is not, perhaps, the exemplar but, rather, the artists who created it.
Near the Sunken Gardens is the Fireman’s Memorial, originally dedicated in 1924 and honoring Harrisburg firemen who lost their lives in WWI. It was restored in 2002 and rededicated on the first anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attack upon the U.S. when 343 firefighters of the Fire Department of New York lost their lives. The original memorial is a bronze sculpture created by Giuseppe Moretti (1857-1935), an Italian émigré sculptor and thoroughly colorful personality who is probably best known for Vulcan, located in the steelmaking town of Birmingham, Ala., and is the largest cast-iron statue in the world.
Born in Sienna, Moretti began to learn his craft at an early age and later moved to Carrara to perfect his skills, working primarily in marble. As he became better known as an artist, he relocated to Croatia, then Austria and later Hungary. In 1888, he decided to try his hand in America, opening a studio in New York City. His first commission was for the Vanderbilt family, and his U.S. career took off. He became well known in Pittsburgh, creating, among other things, the panther sculpture on the Panther Hollow Bridge in that steelmaking center during his tenure there from 1895 until 1923.
As an artist, Moretti had developed a considerable reputation; as a businessman, quite the opposite. A string of failed financial ventures plagued him throughout his career. And, because he eventually made war memorials a major portion of his business after WWI, Harrisburg is the recipient of one of his memorable works.
At Cumberland Street, another memorial commemorates fallen soldiers from WWI entitled Lest We Forget, with a bronze American infantryman advancing across the top of a boulder that was originally located at the Round Top battlefield at Gettysburg. This heroic vision was conceived by John G. Hardy, a sculptor active during the early part of the 20th Century. Although not as well-known as some of his contemporaries with work in Riverfront Park, this Rhode Island artist created a body of work centered around tributes to veterans of the Civil War and WWI. What is interesting about the “doughboy” sculpture in Riverfront Park is the fact that a similar monument by Hardy exists in Marlborough, Mass. The Massachusetts sculpture, also of an American infantryman, is posed differently than that of the one in Harrisburg. It would be interesting to make a side-by-side comparison of the two – although the citizens of Marlborough might balk at the temporary removal of their sculpture – to see if Hardy used the same model for both sculptures, since he named them both Lest We Forget.
A more contemporary rendering of a male figure can be found at Kunkel Memorial Plaza in Riverfront Park at State Street. Waiting depicts a very lifelike man in a business suit reading the paper on a bench. Life-sized and bronze with patina that makes it exceedingly lifelike, it was created by John Seward Johnson II (born 1930) and is symbolic of the artist’s approach to fine art.
Johnson, also known as J. Seward Johnson and Seward Johnson, is, to say the least, one of the more colorful characters currently working in fine arts. Best known for his life-sized bronzes depicting living people engaged in daily activities, Johnson is the grandson of Robert Wood Johnson, the co-founder of Johnson & Johnson, the global medical, pharmaceutical and consumer-goods manufacturer whose common stock is a component of the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
Born in New Jersey, the sculptor had an early start in the family business until his uncle, Robert Wood Johnson II, fired him in 1962. He turned his attention to painting and eventually to sculpture in 1968. Criticized for art that is considered “kitschy” by purists, Johnson persists and creates in a medium that appeals to many. Waiting is typical of his work and can be seen not only in Harrisburg, but in Sydney, Australia as well. His studio makes a limited number of copies, usually no more than seven, and then destroys the mold, thereby ensuring their rarity and value. Another Waiting was sold at auction in 2014 after, according to the catalogue description, “living outdoors on a terrace in Coral Gables, Florida for many years.”
Yet another contemporary sculpture, this one symbolic and not of a human figure, completed by a currently active artist can be found in Riverfront Park at Sayford Street. The Holocaust Memorial for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is a poignant and powerful memorial to those lost in the Holocaust. Conceived by a committee of Holocaust survivors in 1992 representing the Jewish Community Center of Harrisburg, it was designed by Israeli-American sculptor, David Ascalon.
Ascalon, who lost his grandparents and other family members to the Nazis during WWII, was born in Tel Aviv, Israel in 1945, emigrating to the United States as a teenager and graduating from Beverly Hills High School in 1963. He later earned a degree in art and design from Pratt Institute in New York. After working in the fields of interior design and architecture, Ascalon turned his attention to sculptural metalwork and abstract composition. In 1977, he formed Ascalon Studios and began to focus on site-specific artwork for worship and public places. His commitment to this field attracted the attention of the Jewish Federation of Greater Harrisburg who commissioned the Holocaust sculpture for Riverfront Park.
An emotionally charged subject represented in an abstract and symbolic form should have been yet another inspiration for trekkers in Riverfront Park, but a little-tested 1990 amendment to the U.S. Copyright Code made it an interesting federal case.
The Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) prevents owners of artworks of “recognized stature” from destroying or altering them without the artist’s approval. A portion of the Ascalon sculpture representing barbed wire had rusted more rapidly than expected, and the Harrisburg group asked Ascalon to repair it. He volunteered to do the restoration, asking only to be reimbursed for the costs. Unfortunately, the Parks and Recreation Department of Harrisburg chose a restorer who replaced the original – and intentionally rusted – barbed wire element with another made of stainless steel and, to add extra provocation to the circumstances, scratched out Ascalon’s name and inserted his own. Fortunately, an amicable settlement was reached, avoiding a trial in federal court, and the sculpture was restored to the artist’s original vision.
These four sculptures, created by four outstanding artists – two living and two long since departed – are but a few of the works that make Riverfront Park one of the singular, enjoyable and free (well, depending upon where you park) experiences one can have in Harrisburg. Take a lunch, and make an afternoon of it.