The New York Times Magazine last week featured an elegant essay by Sam Anderson titled “Why Does Mount Rushmore Exist?”
His conclusion: “Mount Rushmore is not just big; it is about bigness — a monument to monumentalism.”
Anderson’s essay not only captures the essence of Mount Rushmore, but he captures its creator’s personality as well.
“He was, like the sculpture he would create, a larger-than-life weirdo: John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum, son of a Danish immigrant, friend of Auguste Rodin, publicity hound, populist, salesman, self-styled tough guy with a white Stetson and a flowing scarf and a dark, bushy mustache.”
Borglum, Anderson wrote, was “obsessed with America’s size: the heroic story of a handful of tiny East Coast settlements growing to engulf an entire continent.”
So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Borglum developed his vision and crafted his model of the sculpture in Texas, where bigness was a fundamental facet of the state’s identity. But it also said something about San Antonio, the city that attracted Borglum to Texas in 1924.
At this point San Antonio was the star city of Texas, and no stranger to ambition. A decade earlier, when civic leaders decided to build the state’s first municipal golf course at the young Brackenridge Park, they hired one of the nation’s top golf course architects. A.W. Tillinghast designed many famous courses, including ones that collectively would host at least four PGA Championships, 10 U.S. Opens and a Ryder Cup.
Borglum was already an artistic giant when he came to San Antonio. Born of Danish immigrants in Idaho territory, he graduated from a Jesuit high school in Omaha. He studied art in Paris, where he befriended Rodin.
He returned to the United States and in 1901 sculpted apostles and saints for the magnificent new Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City. By 1906 he was celebrated enough to become the first living American to have a sculpture accepted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Trail Drivers Association brought him to San Antonio to discuss a very ambitious project, a monumental sculpture of a cattle drive. It was to be 40 feet high and would be placed in front of the planned Municipal Auditorium, which would be completed two years later. Borglum moved to San Antonio the next year and took up residence at the Menger Hotel.
He found an abandoned pump house in Brackenridge Park and converted it to his studio. That is where he designed and made the models for Mount Rushmore.
There is so much more to Borglum’s life. He spent years in Texas, at one point becoming head of the state Highway Commission. Before Rushmore he carved the face of Robert E. Lee on the side of Stone Mountain in Georgia, the start of a bigger project that fell apart over a controversy involving one of its sponsors, the Ku Klux Klan. There was his statue of President Woodrow Wilson for a Polish patron, melted down for ammunition when the Nazis invaded. A statue of Thomas Payne, like Wilson designed at Borglum’s studio here, escaped a similar plight when its Parisian owner buried it on his property as the Nazis invaded.
Borglum thought big, and he came here during a time when San Antonio thought big — although it couldn’t always execute. The fundraising effort to cast his 40-foot high depiction of a trail drive failed. Eventually his son cast a one-quarter sized version that stands in front of Trail Drivers Hall next to the Witte Museum.
But, happily, the Mount Rushmore project succeeded and will persevere. As writer Sam Anderson noted: “The granite of Mount Rushmore is so hard that the sculptures will erode at a rate of one inch every 10,000 years.”