D.C.’s Connection With the Titanic

This is a guest post by Angela Harrison Eng.

New York has significant ties to Titanic. Many of Gotham’s elite members of society died in the disaster, including John Jacob Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim, and Isidor and Ida Straus.

However, DC has its own ties to one of history’s most famous maritime disasters. Former Army Quartermaster Major Archibald Butt was an aide to Presidents Roosevelt and Taft in the early twentieth century. He quickly became part of each President’s inner circle. Butt boarded Titanic on April 10, 1912, joined later by his friend and companion, artist Francis Millet. Both were returning to the United States after a lengthy vacation throughout Europe.

Both men went down with the ship five days later. Butt’s body was never recovered. In honor of their tragic deaths, the Butt-Millet Memorial Fountain was dedicated in 1913 at President’s Park on the White House grounds.

Current photo of the statue, 2008
Current photo of the statue, 2008

The second monument erected in the district is known as The Women’s Titanic Memorial. The Titanic Memorial Campaign was run by a number of prominent women and socialites. Several Washington Post articles published in May 1931 mention that the funds raised for the monument came from women involved in the campaign and all across the United States. Over 20,000 women donated to the campaign. The point of the monument, it was stated, was to remember the men who gave their lives for the women and children on board, a well documented facet of Titanic lore.

The Washington Post chronicles the statue’s 1931 unveiling. President Hoover and his wife were in attendance. Sculpture designer Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and Natalie Harris Hammond, head of the Women’s Titanic Memorial Association, were not present due to illness, although an earlier Post article mentioned their desire to attend. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney also designed the Founders of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) memorial and the Aztec Fountain, both of which are located in NW DC. Helen Taft, noted as the fund’s first contributor, unveiled the monument.

The eulogy, delivered by Representative Robert Luce of Massachusetts, recalled that twenty percent of men on the ship survived in contrast to the seventy percent of the women and children survived. He stated, “the cause of this difference in the proportion saved is the reason for this memorial and our presence here.” He continued, “Insofar as the sacrifice of the men we here commemorate shall have lessened the perils of the sea, they will not have died in vain. Nobler will be their reward if they have helped to teach us how to live and how to die.”

Titanic Memorial in 1931
Titanic Memorial in 1931

The statue was originally located on New Hampshire Avenue near the intersection of 27th and E Streets, along the banks of the Potomac. In the book Monument Wars, author Kirk Savage includes a photo of the statue surrounded by water from the 1936 Potomac River Basin flood. The monument was dismantled in the 1960s to make room for the Kennedy Center.

A few years later it was subsequently moved to its current location on 4th and P streets, near Fort McNair in SW. The memorial features male figure in a robe with outstretched arms. One blog mentions the likeness to Kate Winslet’s posturing in the famous Titanic scene with Leonardo DiCaprio. However, The Washington City Paper asserts there is no official record that Cameron was inspired by the statue.

Below is a Google Map of the area today.

To the right is the inscription on the memorial.

[pull_quote_right]TO THE BRAVE MEN
APRIL 15, 1912
Erected by the Women of America[/pull_quote_right]

This move is interesting, as it departs from remembrance of the victims and focuses specifically on the men who gave their lives for others. A 2012 article in the Washington Post mentions The Men’s Titanic Society, which consists of about twenty men who don tuxedos and do a toast at midnight on April 15. A Washington Post article from 2012 mentions the practice dates back to 1979, when a small group of TV producers and directors decided to pay homage to the disaster victims.

One individual was quoted as toasting “those brave men even if the women had forgotten them.” Funny, considering the money was raised by women to remember men—an irony nearly fifty years in the making.

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construction of Titanic Memorial in 1930
construction of Titanic Memorial in 1930
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Mrs. Lister Hill [Titanic Memorial, Washington, D.C.]
Mrs. Lister Hill [Titanic Memorial, Washington, D.C.] – 1940

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  • Craig Howell

    I think the line “twenty percent of men on the ship perished” should have read “twenty percent of men on the ship survived.”

  • Audrey Burtrum-Stanley

    The design of this memorial statue is truly beautiful. The uplifting movement of the male figure / on his toes and with the arms outstretched so elegantly, is inspirational, as it was surely intended. I am intrigued at the design of the drape on the arms – that it has no long, flowing ‘tails’ to the cloth. This absence of a more pronounced ‘flowing garmet’ makes the viewer more attentive to the pose of the arms. I believe much thought went into the overall composition of this sculpture’s concept. What a great piece of sculpture! It is especially good that the art is outstanding as Millet was a very successful / talented artist himself (and his name is jointly presented as the title of the monument.)
    I am untutored where this ‘new’ location is for this statue, but it surely deserves another grand location, like the marvelous river side it origionally had decades ago. Today, America is becoming flippant with it’s history (even in Washington, D.C.) – like the Woodrow Wilson Park in Chattanoga, Tenn, whose title was erased and it now bears the name of some ‘big bucks donor’ who paid for refurbishing the park, or even War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, which has had a commercial sponsor’s name tacked onto it. Create a memorial honoring an au currant disaster or personality, and as as time passes, there is a probability of the piece being hauled off to some side street and forgotten, then replaced with a fresh concept.

  • Publius Washingtoniensis

    As a young man, I saw the Titanic Memorial in its original location — on the riverfront near the current location of the Kennedy Center. It was much, much more dramatic in that place than in South West, where it was stuck as an afterthought and looks sadly neglected. It would be fitting to restore the memorial to the riverfront above or below the Kennedy Centery where it would be visited by the many thousands of strollers, cyclists, and runners who pass along the riverfront path every day.
    Washington has another important connection with the Titanic disaster. Clarence Bloomfield Moore, a prominent coal magnate and Washington resident, sailed first class in Titanic, and perished in the sinking, along with his valet, Charles Harrington. Moore’s town residence, designed by Jules Henri de Sibour, and located at 1746 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W. had been completed just three years earlier, in 19909. (The house was later purchased for use as the Embassy of Canada and today houses the Embassy of Uzbekistan.)
    Moore was returning from a visit to Britain where he had bought 50 foxhounds for the Loudon Hunt. The hounds, however, were not aboard Titanic. According to Encyclopedia Titanica, Moore, Major Butt, Harry Widener, and Henry Carter were seen playing cards in the First Class Smoking Room until nearly the end.

  • Kris Rehberg

    I visited the memorial after some random routine medical visit at GWU Hospital, because after these visits I intentionally wander around DC for ten miles or so to reflect and recompose myself. This time, I found myself at the Waterfront and paused to eat delicious crab cake sandwiches before my wondering continued.
    The Titanic Memorial is beautifully understated and intentionally modest by the sculptor. It’s rather far upstream on the Washington Channel which is a parallel body of water to the Potomac in this area that leads to the Tidal Basin. I think putting it along the Channel was another modest intention by the folks who commissioned it.
    It’s located a little bit of a walk north of the Waterfront at 38.871943° by -77.019332°.
    At the monument, I turned left to continue walking where I pass Fort McNair and then arrived at Nationals Park.
    I noted the police security cameras monitoring the neighborhoods along the way. At no time did I feel even the least bit unsafe.
    I went home via the newly-named Navy Yard–Ballpark Metro station after enjoying a beverage from the CVS across the street.