Carving The American Colossus

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While it was doubtful that Borglum had improved these pronouncements, there was no doubt that Calvin Coolidge was extremely irked at his wielding of the blue pencil. “I do not wish to approve the changes …,” he informed the sculptor. “In each instance it breaks up the thought I was trying to convey.” A mutual acquaintance, Paul Bellamy of Rapid City, reported later that when he was paying his respects to the retired President in Northampton, Massachusetts, Coolidge asked how far it was to the Black Hills and was told it was about two thousand miles. “You know,” said Coolidge, “that is just about as close to Mr. Borglum as I want to be.” The brouhaha over Borglum’s editing of Coolidge put the whole question of the inscribed entablature up in the air, and in the end it was abandoned. Most lovers of Mount Rushmore felt that this was just as well.

The carving of Mount Rushmore took fourteen years, although it has been figured that without the numerous interruptions for lack of funds, it could have been done in six and a half. The process was complex, and involved engineering skills as much as those of art. Borglum had been overly optimistic in his estimate of the mountain’s solidity: some of the fissures on its side turned out to be deep, and the quality of the rock uneven. Thousands of tons of granite had to be dynamited away before a workable surface was reached. Washington’s finished chin, for example, is thirty feet back of the original surface; Jefferson’s is about sixty feet; Teddy Roosevelt, waiting (in Borglum’s metaphor) to be released from the granite, was found lurking so far back—120 feet—that a great nervousness developed as to whether he was really there at all; for a canyon runs close behind the heads, and the available rock was distinctly finite.

Jefferson’s head was begun on the opposite side of Washington’s from where it is now, but one of Borglum’s assistants made a bad mistake in cutting, and there was insufficient depth for correction. The unfinished face was blasted away in 1934 and a new start made at Washington’s left shoulder—which, however, had to be drastically reçut to make room for Jefferson’s chin. Then a long crack was found where the new Jeffersonian nose had been planned, and Borglum had to “reset” the head at a different angle and several feet farther back. “I have no intention,” he said, “of leaving a head on that mountain that in the course of five hundred or five thousand years will be without a nose.”

It is remarkable that, confronting such problems, Borglum was able to impart to the monument the look of carefully conceived artistic work. He did it by always being ready to rethink the overall composition, again and again departing from his studio model in order to meet the tough exigencies of the granite. Moreover, although the features of the four Presidents, magnified on a scale of a foot to an inch, could be transferred from model to mountain with amazing accuracy by means of an elaborate system of measurement and triangulation, the artist made many subtle changes, as each face neared completion, because of the actual look of the thing. Just as an ordinary sculptor steps back a few yards from a statue to consider its effect, Borglum would often drive several miles to another mountain, climb it, and study his work across the distance with binoculars. Then he would go back, have himself lowered from Rushmore’s top in his sling seat, and mark the spots where he wanted a little more rock removed to improve a presidential facial expression.

One of the sculptor’s most notable refinements was in the treatment of the eyes. For the two faces first completed, Washington’s and Jefferson’s, the pupils were represented by granite shafts, about twenty inches long, left attached to the inside of the eyes at the top, so that they stick down like stalactites. These reflect daylight in a way that, in contrast to the dark shadows within the eyes, gives a life-like look; but Borglum discovered later that having the granite pupils project straight out from the middle of the eyes was even better. Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt were therefore done that way, to truly startling effect. T.R’s famous pince-nez offered another chance for ingenuity, and the artist managed to suggest them so well merely by carving a curved ridge under a part of each eye that many viewers swear they can see the lenses.

Very little of the Mount Rushmore monument was carved with mallet and chisel, new techniques having been devised to suit the gigantic scope of the undertaking. Once a key point had been “located” in the granite by measurement and triangulation—say the end of a nose—Borglum’s crew of trained workmen would dynamite away the rock to within a few inches of the final surface. Rough shaping of noses, cheeks, mouths, and other features was done both by dynamiting, and by wedging off layers of granite after honeycombing the appropriate area with holes made by heavy pneumatic drills. Finer shaping was then achieved by “bumping” the granite down to a smooth surface, using a special pneumatic tool equipped with a four-point steel bit.