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Wilson Monument and T.G. Masaryk Memorial

The Making of Two Monuments:

By Thomas A. Dine

A strong sense of history drove the leaders of the American Friends of the Czech Republic (AFoCR) to establish a monument to Tomáš G. Masaryk in Washington, D.C., in 2002 and to rebuild a monument to Woodrow Wilson in Prague in 2011. Each monument had its own momentum; together they commemorate two historic figures who changed the map of Central Europe and the course of post-World War I European history. Wilson and Masaryk left a legacy of government by democracy, self-determination by small countries, and the pursuit of multilateral diplomacy as the most efficacious way to prevent war and avoid state-led massacres of minorities. Along with commemorating this legacy, the creation of these monuments was intended to remember a shared past and enhance the present-day kinship among the American and Czech and Slovak peoples.

Part one of this dual commemoration followed from the admission of the Czech Republic to NATO in 1999. Alexandr Vondra, then the Czech Ambassador to the U.S., wanted to celebrate the long-standing ties between the Czech Republic and the United States, beginning when Americans stood with the Czech and Slovak people at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 to establish a sovereign and democratic Czechoslovakia. When he proposed placing a permanent memorial to a prominent Czech leader in the U.S. capital, Milton Cerny, a Washington attorney and president of AFoCR at the time, accepted the challenge. It was agreed that the memorial should honor T.G. Masaryk, who had led the struggle for a free and independent Czechoslovakia and became the first president. 

AFoCR directors and Czech officials scoured ministries and warehouses in Prague hoping to locate a suitable statue. By chance, a handsome, historic statue of Masaryk was found in an obscure storage site of the Czech National Museum. The statue had been sculpted from life shortly before the first president's death, in 1937, by avant-garde Czech sculptor Vincenc Makovský. Because of opposition from Nazi occupiers and then Communist officials, Makovsky's model had not been cast in bronze until the Prague Spring in 1968. After the Warsaw Pact invasion, the finished statue and an identical copy were spirited out of Prague to a safe hiding place and sequestered for more than 30 years. In 2001, the Czech government provided the recovered statue as a partial gift; AFoCR funded the costs for restoring and transporting it to Washington. AFoCR funded all other costs of the monument, including carving the pedestal from Brazilian granite, building the plaza and holding the dedication ceremony.

Cerny knew that to create a statement of the bilateral link on public land would require both an act of Congress and extensive cooperation with planning and fine arts agencies in the capital. Finally, it needed support from individuals, companies and organizations with Czech and Slovak roots.

Members of Congress rose to the task, capitalizing on the atmosphere following the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks. In the House of Representatives, Benjamin Gilman introduced an authorizing measure, and on the Senate side, Charles Hagel led the way, with the bill signed into law on November 5, 2001.

After considerable discussion, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission designated a site on Massachusetts Avenue at the entrance to Embassy Row. The total project cost of $757,000 was contributed by private individuals, companies, and organizations.

The Masaryk Memorial was dedicated on in September 2002, just a year after the 9/11 tragedy. Masaryk's great-granddaughter, Charlotta Kotik, unveiled the statue. It was dedicated by Czech President Václav Havel, former Slovak President Michal Kováč, U.S. Ambassador Craig Stapleton and former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. A large crowd attended the ceremony and the U.S. Navy Band played the three national anthems and two of Masaryk's favorite folk songs. The stone plaza, landscaping and placement of a descriptive plaque were completed in 2004.


Wilson’s return to Prague

The Woodrow Wilson Monument project began in April 2006, when a delegation of Czech parliamentarians laid a wreath at the Masaryk Memorial. Robert W. Doubek, AFoCR’s founder, was struck by how grateful and proud the delegation was of the memorial. Doubek recalled hearing that there had once been a monument in Prague to President Woodrow Wilson. In later discussions, several other AFoCR directors expressed interest in the idea of rebuilding the Wilson Monument in the Czech capital city as a counterpart to the Masaryk Memorial in Washington.

After research into the previous monument and its fate, Doubek proposed the idea to Czech Ambassador Petr Kolář, who enthusiastically endorsed the project and contacted Prague Lord Mayor Pavel Bém. Doubek learned that the original statue of Woodrow Wilson had been created by the Czech-born sculptor Albin Polasek. He also discovered that Polasek's legacy was being carried on by the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens in Winter Park, Florida.

From the museum's executive director, Debbie Komanski, Doubek learned that Polasek had been born in Frenštát, Moravia, in 1879 and emigrated to America at age 22. He served as chairman of the Art Institute of Chicago's Department of Sculpture from 1920-1950. The original Wilson Monument had been initiated and funded by Americans of Czech and Slovak descent, led by Thomas Capek of New York. On July 4, 1928, the monument had been dedicated at a Prague ceremony attended by President Masaryk. Placed facing the newly renamed “Wilson Station,” Prague's main train station, the larger-than-life bronze stood on a granite base inscribed with Wilson’s memorable words, "The World Must Be Made Safe for Democracy," in Czech and English. The Polasek Museum retained the copyright for the statue (and later donated a license to AFoCR); the museum also possessed documents and original photographs of the statue and pedestal, as well as shots of Masaryk and others at the dedication.

Immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States declared war on Japan and Germany. The Nazis responded by tearing down the Wilson Monument during the night of December 12, 1941, with the destructive deed ordered by the infamous "Reich Protector" of occupied Bohemia and Moravia, Reinhard Heydrich. The statue was melted and used for ammunition.

Following the war, on July 4, 1946, Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk, the son of the late President, installed a plaque at the site of the former monument. In both Czech and English, it read, "From 1928 there stood on this place a monument in honor of Woodrow Wilson, President of the U.S.A. This monument was destroyed by the Germans in 1941 and will be re-erected by Americans of Czech descent in the U.S.A." The plaque was removed after the communist coup in 1948.

The AFoCR Board of Directors unanimously decided in early 2007 to make the rebuilding of the Wilson Monument its highest priority. Doubek, who had been project director for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., volunteered to direct the new project.

In June 2006 Lord Mayor Bém confirmed his support for the project. As he later told the media, “We want to rebuild the monument for many reasons:  firstly, because of our respect for Woodrow Wilson and, secondly, because of respect for our friends in the United States and for our emigrants.” The Prague City Council approved the restoration plan and designated AFoCR to work with the City Administration to accomplish the goal. As planning proceeded, another breakthrough occurred. Early in 2007 the bust of the original plaster model of the Wilson statue was found in the Lapidarium of the Czech National Museum in Prague, providing a key reference for the overall proportions of the statue.

To execute the project AFoCR assembled a team of first-rate Czech architects, lawyers and public affairs professionals. Prague architects Mikuláš Hulec and Daniel Špička were selected to execute the siting and the architectural solution of the Monument, as well as to manage the overall project. The process of selecting the sculptors, conducted by a committee of project stakeholders, yielded 13 proposals that were pared to three finalists. Meanwhile, the Czech Technical University developed a virtual model of the statue based on photos of the original, deriving basic dimensions for the three finalists to use. On February 24, 2009, the sculptor team of Václav Frýdecký, Michal Blažek and Daniel Talavera was chosen to recreate the statue of Wilson.

The monument’s base and pedestal were built using a warm-colored granite quarried in southern Bohemia. The Walk of Freedom, recognizing those who made major contributions to the monument, was laid out on each side of the base with 129 inscribed plaques cut from the same granite as at Mount Rushmore.

AFoCR’s Board of Directors, led by Chairman Fred Malek, focused on fundraising. Gala dinners in Houston in November 2008 and Chicago in November 2009 raised 75 percent of the funds needed to re-erect the monument. Former President George H.W. and First Lady Barbara Bush graced the Houston event with their presence. In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley received AFoCR’s Civil Society Vision Award. Direct mailings to American individuals and organizations throughout the U.S. brought in funds, as did solicitations of private corporations in the Czech Republic and North America. Ultimately more than $700,000 was raised to pay for the rebuilding and dedication of the monument. 

In early 2011, as the monument began to take shape, AFoCR focused on the unveiling and dedication, which needed to be a major celebration of the Czech-US relationship. It also needed to include educational and historical elements to highlight Wilson’s important role in bringing about Czech independence, and to attract a significant number of guests from the U.S. AFoCR’s former president Phil Kasik took on the mission of planning and organizing what would become a four-day celebration surrounding the dedication ceremony.

At last, the American Friends of the Czech Republic accomplished its goal of honoring the two statesmen who played a critical role in furthering the cause of democracy in the 20th century while building close ties between their respective nations.