Sutro’s Triumph of Light Statue
by Susan Saperstein
San Francisco maps from the early 1900s show a depiction of the Statue of Liberty on a hill above 17th Street, near Clayton Street. This rise is called Mount Olympus, and at the time, was considered the geographic center of San Francisco. Adolph Sutro—silver baron, philanthropist, and one-time mayor—owned the land. And, as he did on his other property, Sutro installed a statue.
The monument was 12 feet high, on a base of 30 feet.
Like Sutro’s other statuary, this was a Belgian copy of something he saw on his travels. The Triumph of Light depicted Lady Liberty victorious over Despotism.
The monument in 1927 after the Department of Public Works renovated the area.
On Thanksgiving Day, 1887, a crowd congregated at the no-longer-existing intersection of Ashbury and 16th Streets for the statue’s dedication. There was a band, invited dignitaries, school children, and a poet. Sutro presented his statue as a gift to the City, telling the crowd, “May the light shine from the torch of the Goddess of Liberty to inspire our citizens to good and noble deeds for the benefit of mankind.”
The sculptor, Antoine Wiertz (1806 - 1865), intended the original to be part of a series entitled, The History of Humanity in Four Epochs. (He completed only three of the pieces in this series.) Many sources claim that
the original Triumph of Light was inspiration for Statue of Liberty creator Frédéric Bartholdi. There is no evidence to prove this. More likely, people associated the two because the Statue of Liberty was brought to New York the year before Sutro installed his statue.
In this 1904 map of San Francisco, the statue is represented in the center. Courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Collection.
The monument became one of City Engineer Michael O’Shaughnessy’s special building projects. In the Report of the Bureau of Engineering of the Department of Public Works, City and County of San Francisco (1926 -1927), a project is listed “to make the monument more accessible and pleasing in appearance.” This included constructing concrete retaining walls, stairs, and placing loam around the statue for plantings.
The statue has crumbled away in this 1947 photo. No buildings or trees surrounded the monument to block the view.
As the years passed, the history of the statue and Sutro faded from people’s memories and its condition deteriorated. In 1938 the San Francisco Chronicle referred to it as the Mystery Monument. In 1954, the paper reported that the San Francisco Arts Commission declared the statue was “beyond repair and should be demolished in the near future.” There was talk of replacing it with a Benjamin Bufano statue that was in storage.
The monument base today.
Carol Glanville, president of the Mount Olympus Neighborhood Association, gave GuideLines the following information about the monument:
- When Carol and her husband moved to Upper Terrace in 1968, the neighborhood was trying to buy the land surrounding the monument base to create an open space. Political forces blocked the plan, and now buildings obscure the view.
- Some neighbors have reported seeing Wiccan ceremonies around the base and offerings of flowers and gifts.
- At some point in the 1950s the statue was taken down and only the 30-foot base remained. What happened to the statue? Carol says no one knows. The San Francisco Arts Commission owned it, but she thinks it was probably dumped. Two copies reside in Belgium; one is in Brussels in the Wiertz Museum, the sculptor’s former studio.
- During the 1894 Midwinter Fair in Golden Gate Park, the monument was illuminated by the spotlight mounted on the Electric Tower at the fair. James Smith, author of San Francisco’s Lost Landmarks, told GuideLines, “The light swiveled 360 degrees as well as up and down. It could be focused anywhere, as evidenced by the fact that it lit ships at sea as well as Strawberry Hill.”
See our article on Sutro Heights statues and offerings, titled Diana Statue in Sutro Heights Park
Question for our readers: Does anyone know what happened to the section of 16th Street that intersected with Ashbury? Send any knowledge you might have to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Triumph of Light subject files in the San Francisco History Center
- San Francisco Chronicle, December 2, 1954
- San Francisco Chronicle, June 5, 1938
- The 1904 commercial tourist map of San Francisco, courtesy of David Rumsey Collection; Author: August Chevalier;
List No: 3732.001
- Sutro Monument base today, courtesy of Susan Saperstein
- All other photos, courtesy of SF History Center, San Francisco Public Library.
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