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Mysteries of Seattle’s old ‘Doughboy’ statue remain decades later

The World War I "Doughboy" silently guards the veterans cemetery at Evergreen-Washelli. (Feliks Banel)

It’s fitting that the old grinning “Doughboy” statue, a memorial to Seattleites who served with the victorious Allies in World War I, should finally be at peace in a cemetery.

Pound for pound, the two-and-a-half ton sculpture was part of more squabbles, conflicts and out and out battles than perhaps any other monument in the city’s history. It, or “he,” also figures in at least two unsolved, if somewhat minor, mysteries.

Evergreen-Washelli on Aurora Avenue north of 105th, has been the Doughboy’s home since 1998. “Doughboy” was the nickname of American soldiers a century ago, and this 14-foot-tall bronze giant silently stands guard over the graves of 5,000 veterans of American conflicts from the Civil War to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Local sculptor Alonzo Victor Lewis first created the likeness in plaster for a reunion of soldiers that was held in Seattle in 1921. To make it as lifelike as possible, Lewis used three soldiers from Fort Lawton as models. Within a few years of the reunion, Lewis had plans to cast the statue in bronze and install it permanently on the University of Washington campus. It’s unclear why, but those plans fell through. So did Mayor Brown’s plan, announced to great fanfare in 1924, to install the Doughboy in City Hall Park (better known nowadays as “Muscatel Meadows,” the grassy area just south of the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle) and surround it with poppies.

As it turned out, these temporary setbacks were mere skirmishes. The real battles began in 1928, when plans were made to install the Doughboy in front of the brand-new Civic Auditorium (the current location of McCaw Hall along Mercer Street). A few days before a planned groundbreaking, set to take place on November 11, 1928, which was also the 10th anniversary of the Armistice, a war of words broke out over the artistic merit of the Doughboy.

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Carl Gould, local architect and president of Fine Arts Society told The Seattle Times, “The question is whether it represents what we of Seattle wish to have as representative of the men who went to war, [and] I do not believe that it does.” The smile on the statue’s face, Gould said, was “bestial and animal.”

Sculptor Lewis disagreed vehemently with Gould, and told the newspaper, “Personally, I think the statue depicts the supreme moment of victory.” Not long after, Lewis sued Gould for $50,000 in damages, claiming Gould’s harsh words damaged Lewis’ reputation and harmed his business (Lewis never collected any damages). Then, in addition to Gould’s more learned criticism of the piece, local veterans of the Navy and Marines complained that a memorial with only Army soldier wasn’t enough; they said that they, too, should be represented.

The groundbreaking went on as planned and Lewis got to work making the permanent version. The statue was cast in New York and arrived in Seattle sometime in early 1929. But genuine war clouds were gathering above the bronze Doughboy, and that groundbreaking may as well have been the first shovel turned in the digging of a trench in Belgium.

Rather than be readied for installation along Mercer Street, the Doughboy went straight to a place worse than No man’s land: the City of Seattle Water Department maintenance barn in Fremont. There, the giant soldier sat for three years in a crate, a bronze victim of a bureaucratic and cultural stalemate. World War I, scholars of that conflict will note, lasted only slightly longer.

In the autumn of 1931, perhaps because Armistice Day was once again on the horizon or maybe because the artist had bills to pay, the matter of what to do with Doughboy came up again. The statue was now almost three years old, sculptor Lewis was still owed money, and Seattle still had no permanent memorial to veterans of the Great War.

Lewis had initially asked for $50,000 for the statue, with half to come from the city and half to come from private donors. But then the fundraising campaign had fizzled at $4,000, and the country had sunk into the Great Depression. In 1931, the city council was prepared to pay just $5,000, but some of the council members, including at least one World War I veteran, weren’t likely to be happy at any price.

“I don’t know whether this Doughboy statue is real art or not,” council member Phillip Tindall was quoted by The Seattle Times as saying to the council. “All I know is that it is supposed to have an expression of triumph, and I know that neither I nor any of the other boys with me ever came out of the front line trenches with anything like joy on our faces.”

The city council decided to delay paying Lewis and instead created a committee to study the statue’s appropriateness. Six month later, approval finally came in March 1932. Lewis accepted the $5,000, and the city had its statue.

But the battles weren’t over yet. And it turns out that battles over Doughboy statues in other parts of the country were actually fairly common. Jennifer Wingate, a professor at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, New York who wrote a recent book about World War I memorials, says that people tended to get riled up about these statues back then, and get fixated on minute details.

“There’s one in a park Memphis,” Wingate said, where veterans complained about the Tennessee Doughboy statue’s wardrobe. The veterans said things like, “‘He’s going up over the top of the trench, he wouldn’t be wearing a coat like that,'” Wingate said.

As this is Seattle, our Doughboy’s next battle was about cultural sensitivity, which Wingate says is unlike any other statue controversies she’s heard of from the 1920s and 1930s.

Lewis’ original Seattle statue had two German helmets hanging over its back, as if the Doughboy had collected battlefield trophies from dead enemy soldiers. This rubbed some people the wrong way, who felt this display was insensitive to Germans. As part of its agreement to pay Lewis, the City Council thought they had a promise from the artist to remove the helmets, “out of consideration for the feelings of the vanquished German nation in the World War,” according to an article in The Seattle Times in March 1932. Somehow, there was a miscommunication.

When the statue had been installed in its new home in front of the Civic Auditorium in April 1932 but not yet officially dedicated, vandals twice pulled off the canvas cover meant to cloak the Doughboy until the official unveiling. When the canvas came off, the controversial trophy helmets were still there.

Council member James Scavotto was furious. He told the council, “Those German helmets are going to be taken off. Either the park department will have them taken off before the unveiling, or I’ll take them off myself. The whole council was promised the helmets would be removed, and we passed the acceptance ordinance with that understanding.”

In response, the park department supervisor said there was such no language in the ordinance about removing the helmets, and so the helmets stayed (for how long is unclear).

The Doughboy was officially dedicated in front of the Civic Auditorium on May 30, 1932, and there were more ceremonies there later that year to mark the 14th anniversary of the end of World War I. Whether Council member Scavotto kept his promise or somebody else did it for him, the helmets eventually did disappear (there is some confusion in the records as to exactly when this happened; some say it was within a year, others within a decade or so).

In 1961, as World’s Fair construction got underway to convert the Civic Auditorium to the Opera House, the Doughboy was moved to the south side of the building, where he stayed put and relatively unmolested for nearly 40 years.

In the late 1990s, Seattle Center was changing, and Evergreen-Washelli saw an opportunity. The Doughboy’s final move to Evergreen-Washelli was arranged in 1998. He was officially dedicated there on Veterans Day, which was also the 80th anniversary of the end of World War I. The Doughboy serves as a striking visual landmark in the veterans’ cemetery, and the statue’s base now serves as a columbarium, housing cremated remains of soldiers and family members.

The Doughboy wasn’t the only statue Alonzo Victor Lewis created that remains on display in the area. Others include the “Winged Victory” sculpture for the state capitol in Olympia; the “Sentinel” in Centralia in honor of the five veterans who died in the Centralia Massacre; a statue of pioneer Ezra Meeker in Puyallup; and Abraham Lincoln statues in Tacoma and Spokane. Lewis died in Seattle at the age of 60 on Nov. 7, 1946 and was buried in Lake View Cemetery.

The minor mysteries surrounding the Doughboy that persist to this day are the whereabouts of those giant German helmets and that long bayonet. Was the bronze melted down for extra cash or as part of a World War II scrap drive? Are they conversation pieces in somebody’s den or garden?

Scott Sheehan, the general manager of Evergreen-Washelli, says he has no idea where the stray pieces ended up.

If you ask the Doughboy, he just looks at you with that bestial smile and doesn’t say a word.

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