The Adams Enigma


Pardon me, dear reader, for punning the atrocious naming device that both Robert Ludlum and Dan Brown employ for their book titles (The Cassandra Compact, The Ambler Warning, The Bourne Supremacy, The Da Vinci Code, ad nauseam). However, in this instance, the vehicle works. Nestled in the ambling necropolis of Washington DC’s Rock Creek Cemetery, a masterwork of Augustus Saint Gaudens remains undisturbed as a nameless tribute–from a mourning and brooding husband to his unhappy wife. And that memorial—commonly known as “the Adams Memorial”–is among the most intriguing, contemplative and inspiring places in Washington, DC.

I had long known of Henry Adams’ grave and its statue in DC as well as the man who conceived it. Henry Adams was the descendent of the Presidents Adams—John and John Quincy. He found his own path as a society man—a write, commentator and brooding bon vivant in Gilded Age Washington. He invented the anonymous tell all political novel—Democracy— well before Joe Klein’s Primary Colors. Adams most famous and enduring work—The Education of Henry Adams—remains among the best autobiographies ever conceived.

Adams married Marian “Clover” Hooper, a socialite and gifted photographer. While every indication showed their DC life to be happy and vivacious, Clover had a dark side. Three years into her own acclaim as a shutterfly, she poisoned herself with chemicals that she used to touch up her portraits. Adams commissioned the memorial to honor his wife after her suicide. And while Henry Adams put much thought into her memorial, he refused to mention her name in public after her death. Her grave does not bear her name–or any. And  she is never mentioned in his autobiography.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens

Henry Adams

 Above  Saint Gaudens, Below: Henry Adams

By the 1890’s, Adams was a global citizen. He had traveled the world, and the experience left him a mystic. Adams was deeply influenced by eastern philosophy and art at a time when most Americans had never heard of the Buddha. Adams was also alive at the apex of Victorian aesthetic, where mourning was a high art itself. The confluence of those circumstances inspired Adams to commission a wholly unique memorial to his wife, and for the place where he too would repose.

The Boston Brahmin commissioned New England sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens to design a statue that would fully challenge the viewer’s sensibilities about life and death. Saint Gaudens had enjoyed fame as an American Michelangelo, his most famous work being the Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial on Boston Common.

Boston - Boston Common: Shaw Memorial

Adams had the work installed on a marble plinth designed by Stanford White. The large grave marker was surrounded by bushes, with a modest pathway leading up to the hexagonal patio. A stone bench faces the statue, providing a contemplative oasis amidst the tombstones in Rock Creek Cemetery.

The cemetery’s off-the-beaten path locale makes its visit by out-of-townees a bit impractical. (However, it is a two-mile residential walk from the Fort Totten Green Line METRO station.) To improve the tourist’s access to this work, the Smithsonian commissioned a cast reproduction of the work for its American Art Museum. I first saw the work there, in an alcove at the end of a bland marble corridor. The wall was dressed in outdoor-print wallpaper to attempt to create the mood of the cemetery. The statue sat on a reproduced platform on a marble floor with a museum bench before it.  While the art itself was well-rendered, the piece lost all meaning, antiseptically preserved within the museum. Ripped from its deathly context, I felt nothing of the intention of the work coming through. If I wanted to experience what Adams and Saint Gaudens were trying to express in this work, I would need to go to Rock Creek Cemetery, and experience the memorial in situ.

Wandering through a boneyard is not for everyone in every city. Yet most tourists to DC will find their way to Arlington National Cemetery to gaze over its historic pantheon of Americans—JFK, L’Enfant, and thousands of others. DC’s other cemeteries—for the civilians–offer a similar experience. Old Congressional Cemetery houses vice-presidents, J. Edgar Hoover and John Philip Sousa. And Rock Creek Cemetery, in northeastern DC, became in some ways the reward of the literati and high society of DC—with Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Gore Vidal and Henry Adams. Rock Creek captures the aesthetic of the Victorian age, where cemeteries were designed to feel like a park, with arboretums and funerary art becoming haute couture. Artists as varied as Louis Comfort Tiffany, Gutzom Borglum (of Mt. Rushmore fame), and others designed works that at the time, would have been appreciated by many a visitor to these remembering places.

One hundred years later, the American public’s relationship with death has changed. Death is not a constant companion. Death is sanitized, commercialized even. Tombstones are uniform. Modern “memory gardens” are corporate enterprises, with cheap art among the bronze plates. Places like Rock Creek are themselves a memorial not to individuals, but to an entire ethos. Cemeteries like Rock Creek house powerful art within their stone walls and wrought-iron fences. Those places provide an opportunity to step back in time to a different era, preserved, quiet and serene.

I am more Epicurean on those matters–as I imagine most Americans are. Death is not an American’s constant companion. It is an annoying neighbor on the other side of the fence. We will tolerate Death in mixed company, but have nothing to do with on a daily basis. Modern Americans focus on things livingly–in the now. Boneyards are on the other side of the fence.

I decided to visit Adams in the spring, that resurrecting time of year so apt for an avatar of Buddha among the reposing fields. I had no idea where the statue was among the thousands of memorials in the cemetery. I allowed myself first to wander through, allowing the names on the granite to surprise me as I searched. Nearly giving up, I went to the cemetery’s office, where I asked the clerk where I might find the Adams Memorial. Offering up a map of the famous—akin to the maps that celebrity hunters might use in Hollywood—the clerk pointed to the spot. I found my coordinates quickly. As an aside, I asked about a missing name:

“Where’s Gore Vidal?” (who died in 2012)

“He’s not here yet,” the clerk replied.

“Not here yet? He died a year ago!”

Wondering in what purgatory the remains of Gore Vidal might reside, I left that thought to go back to my main goal, to find the statue.

March Feef Gone Old Cam 2008 052

The Adams Memorial was a trendsetter at Rock Creek. Other DC upper crust wanted something similar to Saint Gaudens achievement. Artists also took advantage to add their interpretation of high funerary art to the collection. I found other works that expanded upon the idea of allegorical grief.


After a modest search, there before me was the copse of bushes where the statue hid from plain view. No names are on the memorial. I imagine what the casual ambler might think of this memorial, hundreds of years from now. In acres filled with names carved on rock, here was a blank slate. No information. Only your senses will be your guide from this point onward. The experience is one of confusion. I took the footpath into the memorial and came face to face with the Saint Gaudens.

The allegorical statue is based on motifs that appealed to both Adams and Saint Gaudens. Adams was particularly fond of Kannon, or Guan Yin—the Bodhisattva of Compassion. The statue has no official name, however to the consternation of Adams, the public called the statue “Grief.” The statue has no gender either. It is designed to answer nothing, to give no solution to the question of death. The statue only begs more questions.

Many in DC have sought counsel from this work. Eleanor Roosevelt used to sit here and gaze into the face of the avatar. I took a seat on the bench, knowing that many have done so, and sat with the statue. I know that I came to find this work with a lot of information in hand. What of the lay visitor with no knowledge of Henry Adams, of Buddha, of the master Saint Gaudens? What was the message that Adams and Saint Gaudens trying to convey beyond this grave? Is there hope? Is there justice? Is this just a monument to materialism—the excess of a wealthy man? Or, like Epicurus, does the statue admonish “that death should not concern us, for as long we exist, death is not here. And when death does come, we no longer exist to know it?”

Perhaps all of those things. In fields adorned with Christian motifs, this monument is revolutionary. It is also ironic—Clover Adams didn’t much care for monumental art. Why would her husband go to great lengths to create a monument? Did he use her demise as pretext for his own monument building? Then again, the monument isn’t of her or even about her. It isn’t about Henry Adams either really, save for his aesthetic.

March Feef Gone Old Cam 2008 044

Parting company with the statue, I feel not confusion, but calm. I am reminded of the first verse of the Chinese Tao Te Ching:

The Tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.

March Feef Gone Old Cam 2008 049

Adams Memorial Shrouded Photo Credit: Photo credit: A.M. Kuchling / / CC BY-SA

Adams Memorial In Situ Photo Credit: The Author, 2008

Shaw Memorial Photo Credit: wallyg / / CC BY-NC-ND

Saint Gaudens Photo Credit  Smithsonian Institution /

Henry Adams Photo Credit: / Public Domain Mark 1.0

Funerary Art of Rock Creek Photo credit: Night Heron / / CC BY-NC-ND, Photo credit: IntangibleArts / / CC BY

Adams Memorial Out of Place Photo Credit:Isara / / CC BY-NC-SA


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