The William H. Seward monument in Madison Square at the corner of 5th Avenue and East 23rd Street has been a meeting place for a number of Forgotten NY tours in the area. But on my last visit, I noticed something different.
Senator William Henry Seward’s main claim to fame is that he engineered the sale of Alaska from Russia to the U.S. in 1867. But he was also a powerful government figure: governor of New York, 1838-1843, U.S. Senator from New York, 1849-1861, and Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson’s Secretary of State, 1861-1869. At the 1860 Republican Convention he nearly beat out Lincoln for the nomination. Though antislavery, he opposed war with the Confederacy.
Seward was attacked by conspirator Lewis Powell on orders by John Wilkes Booth the same evening that Booth assassinated Lincoln. (Booth’s brother, Edwin, a famous actor of his time, is memorialized with a statue in Gramercy Park, a few blocks away.) Seward was played by David Strathairn in the 2012 Lincoln movie with Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role.
The statue, by Randolph Rogers, was unveiled in 1876. When Rogers completed a statue of Lincoln for Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, there were striking similarities between the two figures, and some claimed that to save money he used the same figure twice. What happened is that the committee for the Seward statue was unable to afford the sculptor’s full fee. So with a few changes in body details, some repositioning of limbs, and the alteration of the Emancipation Proclamation to fit the size of the Alaska Purchase agreement, including the signature pen, Rogers was able to recycle the statue. Seward was the first New Yorker honored with a public monument.
What did I notice that was different about the monument? Well, in December 2019, it had no identifying signage or lettering. Formerly the base had copper lettering that read:
WILLIAM H. SEWARD
SECRETARY OF STATE
In 2019 the Madison Square Park Conservancy decided to replace the base of the monument. The original Italian Red Levante marble base had deteriorated so much that tests showed simple repairs were no longer possible (indeed, tests done in 1936 showed the same thing!) Thus, Seward was removed from the park for a short time while a brand new Brazilian Arno granite base could be installed and the statue replaced atop it.
However, in December 2019 the bronze lettering had not yet been put back, and so, passersby may be wondering, “who is that guy?” before it’s replaced.