Reprinted with permission from the April, 1998, issue of
NEW ORLEANS Magazine (Vol. 32, No. 7, pp. 16-17)
" The bronze statue [of Benjamin Franklin] that stands on the Camp Street side of Lafayette Square was erected in 1926, when the city accepted it as a gift from Henry Gustine, a Civil War veteran then living in Chicago. Many years before, while passing through the Crescent City, Gustine became intensely homesick for the North. As he walked by Lafayette Square, he saw a statue of Benjamin Franklin and took comfort in finding a familiar face in a place far from home.
Gustine returned to New Orleans each year - for more than 40 years - to visit the statue. But one time he arrived to find Franklin was gone. Weather had damaged the statue's pedestal and had taken a toll on the marble image itself, so the city had chosen to store the statue at the public library while leaving the vacant pedestal in Lafayette Square. Gustine was heartbroken. Learning there was no money to replace the statue, he returned to Chicago and raised enough money to have a bronze statue of Franklin cast and donated to the city of New Orleans. Inspired by Gustine's generosity, and in recognition of Franklin's contributions to printing, the New Orleans Typothetae and other printers' organizations donated a new pedestal.
I was not able to find out who designed the statue that Gustine donated to the city, but I do know that it is not a replica of the original Lafayette Square statue. The original marble statue, by sculptor Hiram Powers, was erected in Lafayette Square in 1873. Over the years, Powers' statue had many moves and many adventures. It is now housed at Benjamin Franklin Senior High School on Leon C. Simon Boulevard.
Why was this much-traveled statue first placed in Lafayette Square? While still a struggling young sculptor, Powers had met Richard Henry Wilde, who would later serve as the first professor of law at the University of Louisiana. When Powers wrote and told Wilde about a statue of Franklin he was making in the hope of having it erected in Washington, D.C., Wilde talked a number of prominent New Orleanians into purchasing the statue for this city. Partial payment was made in 1844 with the understanding that the balance would follow upon delivery. So far, so good.
But Wilde died, the Civil War intervened, and Powers' contract was forgotten until 1869. Powers completed and shipped the statue in 1871, but freight charges were left unpaid. The statue was held in a local warehouse and advertised for sale. The bill, however, was paid just in time to prevent the statue from being sold at auction. But the statue hit another obstacle when two shipments of granite for its pedestal failed to arrive. Eventually, all the details were worked out, and the statue was unveiled June 19, 1873.
Over the years, it has occupied two different sites in Lafayette Square, as well as the old New Orleans Public Library and two different locations of Benjamin Franklin Senior High School. For an inanimate object, he's quite a traveler! The postcard [above] dates from circa 1900 and shows the Powers statue as it stood in Lafayette Square. This is one of the last images of the statue at that location. It was moved to the New Orleans Public Library in 1909."
The marble statue of Franklin, sans pedestal, now stands in the foyer of the high school at 2001 Leon Simon Dr. It was moved there as part of a Jazz Funeral style parade in March of 1990 when the school moved from its original site on Carrollton Avenue (current site of Lusher Extension School).
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