PBS show tells backstory of icons like Rushmore and Lady Liberty
Did you know that the original symbolism of the Statue of Liberty had nothing to do with welcoming immigrants? And that Mount Rushmore was basically built as a scheme to get road-trippers to make the trip out to South Dakota?
You’ll hear the inside story on these icons and others from Geoffrey Baer, host of the PBS television series “10 That Changed America,” in three new episodes airing this summer. In addition to famous monuments, other episodes focus on streets that changed America — like New York’s Broadway — and on modern marvels like the Hoover Dam.
Baer is based in Chicago, where he works for the local public television station WTTW and also gives tours for the Chicago Architecture Foundation. He spoke about the show and the backstory of some of the monuments featured in the episode airing July 17 in an interview with AP Travel’s weekly podcast “Get Outta Here!” Here are some excerpts from the podcast, edited for brevity and clarity.
When cars were a new form of transportation, “a state official in South Dakota really didn’t think in the early days of the road trip that scenery was going to be enough” to lure people to drive all the way there, Baer said. So he decided to “create the world’s biggest roadside attraction.” Originally the carvings were going to depict heroes of the American West, but that wasn’t deemed a big enough draw, so the concept was changed to presidents.
STATUE OF LIBERTY
The Statue of Liberty was a gift from France to America, but what was the meaning of the gift?
Baer said America was seen in the late 19th century as a “beacon of democracy and freedom” in an era when French democracy was eroding. So the French used the statue as a way of sending “a message” to their own country by giving “America a gift of this great French figure of liberty.”
The statue is often romanticized as a symbol of welcome for immigrants, partly due to its location within sight of Ellis Island, where millions of immigrants arriving in the U.S. were processed. They could see Lady Liberty as their ships pulled into the harbor. But Ellis Island didn’t open until 1892, six years after the statue was dedicated in 1886.
“So it wasn’t until later that the statue took on this additional new meaning as a kind of beacon to immigrants,” Baer said.
Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation declaring “all persons held as slaves” to be free. But almost nothing at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., mentions slavery.
That’s because the intended message of the Lincoln Memorial was “that the Civil War was really brother against brother and now we’ve reconciled,” Baer said. Two of Lincoln’s speeches — his second inaugural address and the Gettysburg Address — are engraved on the walls, but not the Emancipation Proclamation.
“It only was later that the monument became a platform for the civil rights movement,” Baer added. That tradition began in 1939 when the great opera singer Marian Anderson was denied permission to sing at Constitution Hall in Washington because she was African-American. Instead she sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Later in the 1960s, the monument became a site for civil rights protests, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech.
Baer said one of the show’s most important themes is that whatever the original context may be for a memorial or monument, its meaning often changes with time. “Society is always changing,” he said, “even as the built environment stays where it is.”