In a city as tradition-bound and yesterday-fond as New Orleans, locals are endlessly fascinated by things — whether buildings, people, objects or events — that no longer exist. So it shouldn’t have come as a shock to anyone that a photo published earlier this week on NOLA.com of the 1955 demolition of the Southern Railway Terminal at Canal and Basin streets, once the front porch of Storyville, captured many a reader’s attention.
For at least one, however, it wasn’t the razing of the strikingly designed train station that was of paramount interest. Rather, it was what now occupies the space: a 12-foot, granite statue of Venezuelan military and political icon Simón Bolívar.
“Great article,” NOLA.com commenter Roscoe wrote, “but now for the big question: Why do we have or need a statue of Simón Bolívar? Just what does he have to do with New Orleans?”
It’s a fair question. Bolívar, while revered throughout South America as “The Liberator” — the man who led modern-day Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Panama and Bolivia (which was named after him) to independence from Spain — wasn’t from New Orleans, nor did he ever live here. There’s no firm evidence I could find that he even ever visited.
His prominent presence on Canal Street, however, in the form of that towering likeness in Italian marble, speaks volumes about his importance to people of Latin America, who see him as “the South American George Washington.” It speaks just as much to the historic economic importance to New Orleans of Latin America, as well as standing as a celebration of the city’s diversity.
That importance wasn’t lost on city leaders of yesterday. Even as far back as 1883, locals were celebrating Bolívar, when the Washington Artillery launched an honorary fusillade of cannon fire at the foot of Canal Street to mark the centennial year of The Liberator’s birth.
“I do not pretend to dwell upon the merits of this famous patriot,” Venezuelan Consul E. Martinez said of Bolívar at a gathering that day at the upper rooms of Kuntz’s confectionary on Canal Street, according to a write-up in The Daily Picayune, “for I firmly believe that every true American is quite familiar with all his achievements in the path of freedom and independence, which made him the foremost of all men born in South America. Were I to speak about him, I feel that it would not be a difficult matter to call attention to the great deeds which distinguished him as a solider and hero, a legislator, an orator and a poet, a man born to defend the cause of justice and liberty. …”
(On that same day, in a nicely conceived international display of mutual affection and respect, a monument to the American George Washington, who was such an inspiration to Bolívar, was unveiled in Caracas, Venezuela.)
Nearly 70 years later, it was New Orleans Mayor Chep Morrison’s turn to pay his respects to Bolívar when — as a reformist mayor eager to push the city’s stature as “The Gateway to the Americas” — he became the driving force behind an effort to rename a section of Loyola Avenue, as well as a yet-to-be-build extension leading to what would soon become the Union Passenger Terminal, in honor of Bolívar. That roadway still carries the name of Simón Bolívar Avenue today.
Fitting then, that Morrison was still in office in November 1957 when the government of Venezuela gifted that Bolívar statue — all 7 tons of it, crafted by Venezuelan sculptor Abel Vallmitjana — to the city of New Orleans.
It wasn’t just a big statue. It was a big affair, the kind of weekend-long to-do that included a special Mass at St. Louis Cathedral, a luncheon for visiting Venezuelan dignitaries aboard the Dock Board yacht the Good Neighbor, publication of a special section in the New Orleans Item, and a pre-unveiling military parade down Canal Street.
The stars of the day, of course, were the statue and its sweeping pedestal — which featured iron highlights in representation of Venezuela’s natural resources — but they were just one part of the show. At the same ceremony, the city unveiled what it called “the Garden of the Americas,” a landscaped swath of Basin Street neutral ground that, in addition to the Bolívar statue, includes seven flagpoles — one for the flag of each of the six Bolivian countries and one for the U.S. flag.
As those flags were raised on Nov. 25, 1957, the New Orleans Police Department band played the nation anthems of all the countries represented. That was followed by no small amount of speechifying, including from Morrison, who essentially answered Roscoe’s question.
“The sea lanes of foreign trade have bound our city in ties of friendship with nations and cities and peoples everywhere,” Morrison was quoted as having said in the next day’s Times-Picayune. “None of these has been more strong and enduring than that which exists with our friends and neighbors through the Americas. Politically, we are joint products of the great age of revolution and of a common thirst for independence. … Simón Bolívar was a leader who could consolidate a thousand people yearning for pollical separation into a crusade for independence.”
In an editorial, the New Orleans States built on that theme: “The monument, a gift from the Venezuelan people to New Orleans, denotes the esteem this city enjoys in the eyes of its Latin neighbors and stresses, once more, our enviable position at the crossroads of hemispheric trade and culture. But more important is the monument’s significance as a hopeful symbol in the troubled world of today.
“That Simón Bolívar, the ‘father and liberator’ of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Panama, should be revered in New Orleans attests to the veracity of the proposition that nations can, through mutual respect, live in peace with one another.”
As part of the “Garden of the Americas” concept, Morrison invited other Latin American countries to erect statues of their own national heroes alongside that of Bolívar. In the mid-1960s, Mexico and Honduras did just that, with statues of Benito Juarez and Francisco Morazan — respectively — being added, adorning the Basin Street neutral ground between the Bolívar monument and the Municipal Auditorium.
Mike Scott writes about New Orleans history for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. Got a question about the past or a great story to share? Reach him via email at [email protected] or on Twitter at @moviegoermike.