It is not Roger Williams, although it could be. It is not a famous political leader, although Rhode Island had many. It is not the designer of the Statehouse, either.
So, then, who is The Man Atop the Statehouse?
The Great Debate
New Year's Day of 1901 was special for the members of the Rhode Island General Assembly. This was the first day that they were meeting in legislative session in a brand new, permanent, white Georgia marble Statehouse. They had been meeting in many different locations across this small state. During one stretch they met in five places: Bristol, East Greenwich, Kingston, Newport and Providence.
The firm of McKinn, Mead and White designed an 11-foot tall bronze fixture for the top of the Statehouse dome. They called her "Hope" - a sculpted, classic, modestly dressed woman. The firm believed she represented Rhode Island's 200-year-old motto with dignity.
It took awhile, and much debate, before it was made official that this was not a woman representing Hope. Neither was it Roger Williams. The debates ended with the rejection of the original sculpture.
The Man's Identification
George Brewster was a Massachusetts native who taught at the Rhode Island School of Design. He formed a partnership with a certain Gorham Foundry to present his model of a statue for the top of this great building. It was a sculpture that weighed in at 500 pounds ... a brawny, muscular man – and it was NOT Roger Williams! Williams would never display himself in public wearing only a loincloth - and The Man, this man, was surely scantily clad!
This represented something BIG ... not actually a person, although it looked like a man. Neither was it a symbol, although the man was carrying a spear, a classic pose and an anchor at his feet. The Man made a statement about the fortitude of the founder and the outstanding characteristic of the Rhode Islander.
Williams made a bold statement when he left Massachusetts and headed south toward the ocean. He could take care of himself and those who followed him. He was an independent man. Brewster's model in fact was called The Independent Man. The Board of Statehouse Commissioners agreed The Independent Man was the essence of all things Rhode Island.
From Humble Beginnings
New York City donated the Central Park statue of Simon Bolivar to Gorham Foundry after the mayor of New York City deemed this gift from the Venezuelan Government to be an eyesore. The Foundry melted the statue and cast The Independent Man from the Simon Bolivar bronze/gold metal.
Although New York allowed the statue to remain in Central Park for only 15 years, it has served the city of Providence well for over 100 years. The Independent Man was placed on the cupola of the Statehouse on 18 December 1899. Trials and tribulations beset The Independent Man over the years forcing emergency surgery to be performed on several occasions.
A serious lightning strike in 1927 did so much damage that it took many copper staples to repair the damage. Again, in 1951, repairs were performed atop the cupola and the statue stayed in place until 1975. At that point, the Bicentennial was one year away and preparations for it were in place. The Independent Man was going to get a makeover.
That man stood atop the dome of the Statehouse for more than a century now. A one- year reprieve was granted in 1975. The Independent Man was taken down for the first time in his history. They repaired and gold leafed brightly at the Paul King Foundry in Johnston, RI. They also did a casting of the handsome face on the statue.
The Independent Man visited the Warwick Shopping Mall before returning to his perch in 1976. Through thunder and lightning, driving rain or snow, blizzards and hurricanes, he once again is faithfully watching over the city of Providence.
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