A slim granite figure stretches its arms out towards the D.C. waterfront, an arresting figure with an air of mystery. It sits at the end of an out-of-the-way promenade at the northern tip of Fort McNair, and its placement seems almost accidental. Get close enough to read the inscription and the plot thickens: “To the brave men who perished in the wreck of the Titanic - April 15 1912. They gave their lives that women and children might be saved.”
So how and why did a Titanic memorial end up here, in this quiet corner by a Washington army post? The short answer is, it didn’t start out here.
The Titanic Memorial first lived further north, in a coveted spot along the Potomac. At the southern end of Rock Creek Park between Georgetown and the Lincoln Memorial, the statue first stretched those elegant arms out towards the city, with the wide river flowing just behind. It was unveiled in 1931 by Helen Herron Taft, widow of William Howard Taft who had been president at the time of the sinking.
The figure had been chosen in a competition, restricted to female artists, sponsored by a group who called themselves the Women’s Titanic Memorial Association. It’s about 15 feet tall standing on a wide granite base, and was designed by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. She was not only an artist but a prominent socialite patron of the arts, benefitting from the double wealth whammy of being a Vanderbilt and marrying a Whitney.
Her design was chosen in 1914, two years after the disaster, but it took almost 20 years to collect the funds—which they did not from Whitney, but mostly from small dollar-by-dollar donations. (Ironically, by the time it was paid for and unveiled, it was the same year Gertrude founded the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.)
The memorial held its original ground until 1966, when it was removed as part of the plans to build the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Once knocked off it pedestal, the piece languished in storage for a couple of years, re-emerging in 1968 where it now stands. And sadly, where hardly anyone ever sees it.
There are lots of Titanic memorials, collections and museums around the world, and you can check some of them out here. This one may be a little bit neglected, but it welcomes anyone who stumble onto it with open arms.
Know Before You Go
The Memorial is at the south end of Southwest Waterfront Park on the Washington Channel. It's at the northern corner of Fort McNair, off P Street and 4th Street in Southwest DC, and six blocks west of the Nationals Ballpark.