The news item about public hours at Irwin Gardens that got Lew Essex’s attention was only one paragraph in length and at the bottom of an inside page. Actually, it was an item the Columbus retiree had seen a number of times in The Republic over the past several months but had only glanced at in passing.
This time he read it through, including a portion of the last sentence, which noted that among the garden’s features was “a bronze elephant from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.” That’s what prompted Lew to call me. He wanted to set the record straight.
He knew that the origin of the iconic statue of the pachyderm, which has been the subject of innumerable home photos over several decades, is actually much closer to its present residence. In fact it was created right here in Columbus, not in 1904 but in 1932. It was cast by the foundry named for and owned by his grandfather, Walter Golden.
The disparity about the origins of the imposing statue is understandable. Actually, there have been two elephants in the Irwin Gardens since the 1904 World’s Fair.
The original was, indeed, acquired at the World’s Fair 112 years ago. It was part of the Japanese exhibit and drew the attention of architect Henry Phillips, who had created a design for the gardens in the Columbus home occupied by banker W.G. Irwin and other members of his family. In the original process, the statue had to be cast in two pieces.
It was brought to Columbus after the fair ended and became an instant hit, not only with the Irwin family but with the public, which was given access to it and the formal gardens on selected occasions.
It also acquired a measure of fame. It was so popular that during the 1920 presidential campaign Republican nominee Warren Harding, an Ohio senator and eventual president, following a speech in Columbus directed that his caravan be diverted to Irwin Gardens so he could be photographed alongside the elephant and Irwin. While there was obviously an artistic appreciation of the statue, it also helped that the elephant had come to be the symbol of the Republican Party and that Irwin was a member of the Republican National Committee.
Incidentally, Irwin was not the only figure in the photo. He was joined by his grandnephew, J. Irwin Miller, and his grandniece, Clementine Miller, who were in their teens. In later years Clementine Miller Tangeman would live in the mansion bordered by the gardens, and J. Irwin Miller would assume leadership of the two major businesses affiliated with the family, Cummins Engine Co. and Irwin Union Bank.
The elephant’s popularity was not limited to the rich and powerful. The public became enamored with the statue and like Harding chose it as a setting for family photos. That might have been its undoing.
In 1918, W.G. Irwin was moved to an unusual act. He wrote a letter to the editor. The two paragraph missive that appeared Aug. 30 noted that “some thoughtless people have been walking through the flower beds, destroying some of the plants so that they might have their photographs taken by the side of the bronze elephant.”
He warned that although the family was always pleased to have visitors in the garden “provided they do no harm in any way,” it might be necessary to “close the garden to the public by reason of the few who do not see fit to be governed by the rules of decency.”
The plants and flowers weren’t the only garden residents to be endangered by unruly visitors. The elephant proved to be irresistible for children who delighted in climbing on it. By 1932, whether through weathering, the number of people who insisted on climbing it or both, W.G. Irwin determined that the elephant’s days in the garden were marked.
“I was told by my grandfather (Walter Golden) that W.G. Irwin had come to him and asked if the foundry could cast a replica of the elephant but do it in a way that the original would not have to be cut in two,” Lew told me last month. “Mr. Irwin had taken the proposal to companies in New York but was told that a new elephant could not be cast in one piece. My grandfather said that it could be done at the foundry, but I’m pretty certain he had no idea on how to accomplish it.”
Lew’s story was based on memories of a conversation with his grandfather. It turned out that his memory was pretty accurate. In 1968 The Republic’s society editor, Jean Prather, wrote a column about the elephant and it local origins. The column was based on a letter sent to the newspaper by the late John Essex, Lew’s brother. He wrote:
“You may be interested to know that the weathered elephant which stands in the (Irwin) Gardens … was cast in 1932 by Golden Foundry. The pattern used was brought from St. Louis by W.G. Irwin to Walter I. Golden to be cast in bronze. Lon McClure, who had come to Golden Foundry from the Caldwell and Drake Company, was in charge of the project. Fourteen barrels of plaster of Paris were required to make it possible to make the elephant in one piece, including the tusks which were originally separate pieces. It required three months of periodic work to complete. The elephant weighed one ton.”
The process marked the first and last time in the company’s history when bronze was melted in the cupola, and an eyewitness remarked that the product “looked like gold” after it was first shot-blasted.
Another irony in the story was the involvement of a former employee of Caldwell and Drake, a construction firm based in Columbus. The local company was contracted to build the Palace of Horticulture at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. That palace housed the Japanese exhibit in which the elephant was originally located.
For the past 84 years, the Golden Foundry elephant has been a fixture in Irwin Gardens, but the artwork it replaced was not discarded. In his 1968 letter, John Essex noted that the original was still at the foundry, a recollection backed up by Lew Essex, who remembered seeing it over the years. Eventually, it was returned to the gardens but in a less conspicuous setting.
J. Irwin Miller’s son, Will, who is now president of the Wallace Foundation in New York City, recently wrote that “in the late 1980s or early 1990s, I was visiting Aunt Clemmie (Tangeman) at the Irwin Home. I asked Aunt Clemmie what became of the original elephant. She replied, “Oh, it is out in the potting garden under a tarp.” I offered to buy it from her. She said I could have it, if I had it repaired, which I did. It stood for many years in our yard (in Columbus). We sold the house in June this year. The elephant was moved to our house in New Hampshire.”
The current settings for the two elephants are kind of fitting. One calls home the beautiful gardens that are only a short distance from where it was created. The other remains in the family that has owned it for more than a century.
Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.