It’s been almost a year since the city agreed to remove the statue of Theodore Roosevelt on horseback from the monumental staircase of the American Museum of Natural History. That’s four times the length of the Spanish-American War, the imperialist fray that Teddy rode to his initial burst of fame. So, how come, if the city agreed to the museum’s request to take down the statue last June, Roosevelt is still in the saddle and gazing out over the Ubers and droshkies rolling down Central Park West?
The answer is bureaucracy.
The statue is on city land so public hearings are required before removal—and those only began this month. When asked about the delay, a City Hall official replied, “People should remember, COVID happened.” And yet, the two hearings that have occurred were held online, a logistical capability that’s been with us for awhile.
The Theodore Roosevelt statue, which the museum has taken to calling, The Equestrian Statue, was placed on its plinth in 1940. It was meant to celebrate the former New York State governor and U.S. President for his love of the natural world. But beginning in the 1970s, groups protested it while calling out TR’s aggressive foreign policy in Central America and the Caribbean, which included the occasional military intervention.
Critics also say the statue’s African and Native American figures appear to hold subservient positions. The museum itself says the composition “communicates a racial hierarchy.”
But the statue’s defenders say this reading stems from current sensibilities and was not the intention of James Earle Fraser, the artist who created it. Fraser suggested the figures could be seen to represent “Roosevelt’s friendliness to all races.”
These and other issues were raised at a pair of recent meetings held by Community Board 7 on the Upper West Side. Board chairman Steven Brown told Gothamist that members expressed “nuanced reservations” about the statue’s removal as part of “a diverse and spirited conversation.”
The board also pressed city Parks Department chief of staff Sam Biederman, who presented the removal plan, for an answer on where the statue would end up. Biederman would only say, “The statue and the base are destined for the grounds of a museum dedicated to the life of Theodore Roosevelt. We haven’t finalized the location with the institution.” Steve Brown said he was “concerned” by the answer, “especially since they’ve had a year to work that out.”
An institution that fits Biderman’s description is the federally owned Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace on 28 East 20th Street — except it doesn’t have much in the way of grounds. When Gothamist asked them about it, the response was, “At this moment, the National Park Service has no comment.” Another potential location, with grounds aplenty, is the erstwhile Rough Rider’s presidential library in the Badlands of North Dakota, where Teddy stomped around in 1883, hunting buffalo and trimming his mustache in a portable mirror, which he said, “took the snob out of him.” The library didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment.
In the end, CB 7 voted in favor of carting the statue away to what, for now, must be called an undisclosed location. “We supported the museum’s desire to remove the statue even though there were some mixed feelings,” Brown said.
Mixed feelings also arose at a June 15 public hearing held by the city Landmarks Preservation Commission. “This statue has always been an embarrassment to me,” said Commissioner Michael Devonshire. “Although I understand the period it was constructed, it’s phenomenal to me that it’s lasted this long in that place.” Speaking for the defense was Commissioner John Gustafsson. “When we talk about this situation we are far outside our purview. We’re in a dangerous place when we deal with issues of content as a definition of appropriateness,” he said. Other commissioners pointed out that the Roosevelt family had approved of the statue’s relocation.
As had CB 7, the commission voted to send Teddy into the sunset. “The Commission reached a consensus to support the removal of the bronze statue, but did not reach a consensus about the overall proposal,” their advisory reads. “A plurality of Commissioners also expressed support for the remainder of the proposal as presented, including the removal of the pedestal and plinth, the creation of the marker, and associated changes to the plaza and stairs.”
The big and binding vote comes Monday at a meeting of the New York City Public Design Commission. If the commission votes in favor of removal, the American Museum of Natural History will then be free to get started on making that happen—after they obtain the proper permits from the city Department of Buildings, of course.
This story has been updated to clarify that Roosevelt was in the Spanish-American War, not Spanish Civil War.