The Thrasher-Ward Memorial at the American Academy in Rome, an Historic American Landscape

by James O’Day, ASLA

Dedication Ceremony, Thrasher-Ward Memorial, 1925, American Academy in Rome, Italy / image: Photo Archive, American Academy in Rome, photographer unknown, used with permission
Dedication Ceremony, Thrasher-Ward Memorial, 1925, American Academy in Rome, Italy / image: Photo Archive, American Academy in Rome, photographer unknown, used with permission

Since 2010, landscape architecture preservation enthusiasts from every state have been challenged to complete at least one Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) short format history to increase awareness of particular cultural landscapes. The 2018 HALS Challenge theme is Memorialization, Commemorating the Great War. The submission deadline is July 31, 2018.

The First World War had a profound effect on the American Academy in Rome, and the Thrasher-Ward Memorial bears witness to its impact upon the institution and its Fellows. Europe was already immersed in the conflict when the academy held a dedication ceremony on October 1, 1914 for its new home on the Janiculum Hill. Despite the dire circumstances and the Trustees’ concerns, the academy remained open even after Italy joined the conflagration in the spring of 1915. Eventually, the Fellowships were upended when America entered the war in the spring of 1917. The academy was closed, the Fellows were dispersed, and its buildings were repurposed to serve the Italian Red Cross.

The Thrasher-Ward Memorial with Barry Faulkner’s fresco “Voyage of Life,” American Academy in Rome / image: Peter A. Juley, Smithsonian Institution

The academy’s Trustees encouraged its able-bodied and draft-eligible Fellows to do their patriotic duty or be returned home. Some Fellows volunteered in the American Red Cross in Italy while others enlisted in the armed services.

Harry Dickinson Thrasher (FAAR ’14) and Walter Lester Ward (FAAR ’15) were two Fellows who joined the military and who later died in service. Lieutenant Thrasher served in the 40th Engineers USA in the Camouflage Corps of the Army Engineers. Thrasher was killed in action on August 11, 1918 at Fond DeMeziers, France. Warrant Officer Ward, a graduate of Princeton, served aboard a warship in the American destroyer fleet but was later stationed at the Naval Camouflage Designing Bureau in Syracuse, New York. He died from complications following surgery on October 6, 1918. The loss of these talented young men was deeply felt by the academy’s community and beyond. The sculptor Lorado Taft eulogized Thrasher as “an artist of undoubted ability whose gifts held great promise for the future.” After Ward’s death, his Princeton classmates created an endowed scholarship in his honor, which continues to provide financial aid to undergraduate students.

Dedicated in 1925, the Thrasher-Ward Memorial honors the memory and sacrifice of these two Fellows. It is significant for its association with historic events and persons, its high artistic value, and as the work of masters. As such, its cultural and historic import has now been recorded through the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) as part of the 2018 HALS Challenge, Memorialization: Commemorating the Great War. Historical data about the memorial (HALS-10-A) will also be archived in the digital collection of the Library of Congress.

Laying a wreath at the Thrasher-Ward Memorial (undated), American Academy in Rome / image: Photo Archive, American Academy in Rome, photographer unknown, used with permission
Laying a wreath at the Thrasher-Ward Memorial (undated), American Academy in Rome / image: Photo Archive, American Academy in Rome, photographer unknown, used with permission

Built for the Fellows by the Fellows, this memorial was made possible through the collaborative efforts and talents of architect Eric Gugler (FAAR ’14), muralist Barry Faulkner (FAAR ’10), and sculptor Paul Manship (FAAR ’12). Mr. Gugler was responsible for coordinating the ensemble design, Barry Faulkner painted the allegorical “Voyage of Life” fresco, and Paul Manship designed the sculpted marble bench with its stoic effigies of kneeling American soldiers in Doughboy uniforms.

Located in the courtyard of the academy’s McKim, Mead & White building, the memorial is principally comprised of Manship’s monolithic bench and Faulkner’s elegiac fresco. The polished bench, fabricated in breccia marble, is flanked by vigilant effigies of Doughboys wearing their ubiquitous Brodie helmets. Two truncated marble columns flank the bench, which are symbolic of a life cut short by an untimely death. A tableau decorates the front panel of the bench and illustrates soldiers engaged in combat. Winged angels flank this relief holding swords and shields. The bench back is inscribed with bas-relief memorial plaques honoring Lieutenant Thrasher and Warrant Officer Ward and a clasped-hand motif represents loss and the hope of reunion in the afterlife. Inscribed across the top panel of the bench is an excerpt from the British Poet Laureate John Masefield’s narrative poem “Philip, the King” about the ruins of war:

Man with his Burning Soul has but an Hour of Breath to build a Ship of Truth in which his Soul may sail
Sail on the Sea of Death, for Death takes toll of Beauty, Courage, Youth, of all but Truth

Sailor and Constellations from “Voyage of Life” fresco / image: James O’Day, ASLA, 2009

Surmounting the bench, Faulkner’s allegorical fresco “Voyage of Life” further animates Masefield’s words with emotive visual content. It depicts a solitary and youthful sailor navigating his bark through treacherous seas. Rendered in a stark and haunting musculoskeletal fashion, he sails the waters with a candle-lit lantern tenuously tethered to the mast—a testament to hope against all odds. Above the sailor is an expressive heavenly sky adorned with outsized celestial hosts and Zodiac hieroglyphics. Two winged angels appear in the luminous sky: one has a shrouded head and the other one wears the helmet of a Roman Legion soldier. Together, they hold up a wreath and a cross, inscribed with the date 19 AD 18, indicating the year the Great War ended. They also clutch an infantryman’s service coat and a Doughboy’s helmet. The perimeter of the mural is trimmed with an oxblood band and a sinuous foliated motif populated with symbolic iconography, which include griffins, wheat sheaves, grape bunches, vitis vines and leaves, and costumed figures.

Sailor with detail musculoskeletal painting technique / image: James O’Day, ASLA, 2009

The Thrasher-Ward Memorial possesses the classicism and monumentality characteristically found in the Beaux-Arts idiom, yet Paul Manship also infused it with contemporary elements—restrained ornamentation and streamlined massing—reflecting the trends found in the popular Art Deco style of the period. His use of the Doughboy effigy also expresses a sense of modern-day realism that is otherwise absent in classically inspired works. Barry Faulkner’s fresco further contributes to the mastery of the ensemble. By using trompe l’oeil, he transforms a two-dimensional wall surface into a three-dimensional mural—creating an optical illusion that suggests an apsidal space, which draws the viewer into his pictorial narrative of the war and life’s epic journey.

Detail of Doughboy effigy by sculptor Paul Manship / image: James O’Day, ASLA, 2009

James O’Day, ASLA, is a Historical Landscape Architect and HALS Liaison to the Potomac Chapter of ASLA. He is a Contributing Editor to the Library of American Landscape History (LALH)’s recently published Warren H. Manning: Landscape Architect and Environmental Planner (2017) and is currently revising and republishing his cultural landscape report, Brendonwood: The Legacy of George E. Kessler Upon the Indianapolis Landscape (1988).

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One thought on “The Thrasher-Ward Memorial at the American Academy in Rome, an Historic American Landscape

  1. CeCe Haydock April 25, 2018 / 9:35 am

    Thank you for mentioning the HALS Challenge and deadline AND this beautiful analysis of a very moving memorial. What a combination of poetry, art, architecture and sculpture, as a reminder of the human cost of war.

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