The Monument Man

by Charles C. Foster

Members of the Houston Consular Corps representing approximately 93 nations,  almost equally divided between career and honorary consul generals would instinctively know that great cities in the US and abroad have many defining characteristics, which would include great monumental art representative of its history. For generations, parents have taken their children to Washington, D.C. and along with others, would visit noteworthy presidential monuments from the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial and Jefferson Memorial to the lesser-known Theodore Roosevelt Monument and the relatively new Franklin Roosevelt Memorial and the newest,  the Eisenhower Memorial.

Like many Houstonians, I was surprised and disappointed that President George Bush, who after the election of his son came to be known as President George H.W. Bush, returned to Houston 4 years earlier than he had originally contemplated. As someone who had a great childhood interest in the presidency and history, I took some considerable consolation that at least Houston would be the beneficiary of a Presidential Library and all that went with it. So as a graduate of both the University of Texas in Austin as well as the University of Texas School of Law, I was surprised and disappointed when Houston failed to put together a proposal that would locate the George Bush Presidential Library in Houston, but instead that honor went to Texas A&M.

At that time to get anything done in Houston the unquestionable go-to civic leader was Ken Lay, who was generous with his time and resources and forward thinking. As Harris County Sports Authority by that time had decided to build a downtown baseball stadium, I urged that we name this stadium for President Bush as it would be particularly appropriate giving his baseball achievements at Yale University and include a major statute of President Bush. As I later learned the stadium would be named Enron Field, I understood why Ken had dragged his feet. When we next met, he said that we could instead focus on renaming our International Airport for President Bush, which I thought was a wonderful tribute to not only a special human, but one who would go down in history as one of our greatest foreign policy and one-term presidents. But I also wrote in a piece for the Houston Chronicle that when a public facility is named for someone, at some point that name takes on a secondary meaning of just “Bush” or “Hobby” or “JFK” without invoking any meaningful remembrance of the man or his place in history. I also wrote that there was a huge difference between how two U.S. cities honored and remembered the legacy of a slain president and how we react to same.  New York named one of the most remarkable engineering feats of the age, the Lincoln Tunnel for the slain president and Washington built a monument. I suggested that Houston too could build a presidential monument to George Bush in light of the lost library. A few days later, I received a mailed Xerox copy of the Chronicle article with a big “Thanks! – GB”. I then took on the lonely quest of arguing why we in Houston should build a presidential monument in downtown Houston. I was greatly aided by David Jones who had worked in the George Bush White house and had professional experience in philanthropic fundraising in his executive position with Dini partners. Together we would co-chair the Bush Monument Advisory Board and the other projects described below.

With the support of Mayor Lee Brown, I gained permission to develop Sesquicentennial Park into the George Bush Monument and I conceived a design concept that would highlight with four large bronze bas reliefs key historic moments in the career of George Bush with 32 timelines of his life at their base. In front of the bas reliefs, looking out over the downtown skyline, is an 8’ remarkable sculpture of President Bush by Chas Fagan, an internationally acclaimed artist and sculptor, whose major sculpture of Ronald Reagan is at the entrance to Reagan National Airport and whose paintings and sculptures are in both the White House and the Capitol Rotunda. The four large bronze bas relief by accomplished artist Willy Wang illustrate President Bush’s World War II service, his history in the oil industry and politics, his ending the Cold War peacefully with Mikhail Gorbachev, the President of the Soviet Union and finally his witnessing the swearing in of his son as the 43rd President of the United States.  The George Bush Monument is located at the intersection of Bagby Street and Franklin Street, where you can walk up 3 flights of stairs through 2 large bronze Chas Fagan’s eagles, past a large granite wall with quotes and a waterfall and then you see the extraordinary 8’ sculpture of Bush, with one of the best views of downtown Houston. Unlike the sculpture of Sam Houston on horseback on top of a 20-foot pedestal in Hermann Park that allows you only to see a silhouette of Sam Houston, Chas Fagan’s statute of George Bush is on the ground so that that one can relate to President Bush and even have their picture taken with him. The Monument is open 24 hours a day and is well lighted with the American flag.

At the December 2, 2004 dedication of the George Bush Monument where both I and my co-chair David Jones spoke along with President Bush and Mayor Bill White, Secretary of State Jim Baker complimented me on my speech so I was not that surprised several years later when I was asked to co-chair a project to build a monument across Buffalo Bayou from the Bush Monument downtown on Preston Avenue to 4 generations of James Bakers, all of whom played a critical role in the history of Houston. The City of Houston with the support of Mayor White allowed us to develop the Sesquicentennial Park space renamed the Baker Common off Preston Street behind the Wortham Theater into the Baker Monument . The Monument highlights the record of James Baker III and his service as chairman of five presidential campaigns, chief of staff to two presidents of the U.S., Secretary of Treasury under President Reagan, and Secretary of State under President Bush. Secretary Baker will go down as one of our greatest secretaries of state who worked hand in hand with one of the greatest presidents in terms of his foreign policy achievements, including the peaceful end of the Cold War. The Baker Monument was dedicated on October 25, 2010 with the Secretary and Susan Baker, President and Barbara Bush, Senator Kay Baily Hutchison, Mayor Anise Parker, former DOE Secretary Charles and Ann Duncan, Mrs BA Bentsen among those in attendance with CBS sports voice serving as M.C.

For both projects, we had an advisory board that included a number of distinguished Americans, including the third amigo of what I and others called the “three amigos”,  that being Robert Mosbacher and the other two being President Bush and Secretary Baker. Their good friend Robert Mosbacher, an independent oilman and Secretary of Commerce under President Bush, I often joked, was the most important member of that trio given the fact that he served as finance chairman in every political campaign by President Bush. To get from the Bush Monument across Buffalo Bayou to the Baker Monument, one only has to walk across the historic Preston St. Bridge. I and a few others thought it would be fitting honor to rename the Preston St. bridge the “Robert Mosbacher Memorial Bridge”. I knew in Mayor Annise Parker I would find quick agreement given the fact that Mayor Parker had worked a number of years for Bob Mosbacher before she entered politics. The entrance to the Robert Mosbacher Memorial Bridge includes 2 large pylons with with bas relief bronze portraits of Mosbacher by Willy Wang as well as bronze plaques with both his civic and business achievements. The Robert Mosbacher Memorial Bridge was dedicated with President Bush and Secretary Baker in attendance on January 20, 2016.

When asked, I would often say that I would not have led these efforts to build a monument to important historic figures if they did not have some significant tie to the City of Houston . Thus by 2013, after sharing my dream with Andrea White to build a monument to a former Houston school teacher (Sam Houston High School 1934 -1935) , who changed the world for more Americans than just about any President,  I felt committed to accomplish same after she wrote both a Houston Chronicle article and editorial on my proposed Lyndon B. Johnson Monument for downtown Houston. Commencing the process of building the Lyndon B. Johnson Monument was greatly aided by Mayor Sylvester Turner, who gave me permission to develop Little Tranquility Park at Rusk Street and Franklin Street adjacent to the Federal courthouse. Why LBJ? Simply put, Lyndon Johnson was a bigger than life force of nature Texan, who following the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963, became one of our greatest presidents. As George Bush was one of our greatest foreign policy presidents,  Lyndon Johnson was one of our greatest, if not the greatest president in terms of his domestic legislation, which transformed America and became the basic framework of our society today from his 3 seminal civil rights bills in public accommodation, voting rights and fair housing, to key car and food safety, environmental,  and the first federal education legislation. For many of our donors, the 1965 Immigration Act of President Johnson was as important to U.S. immigrants as the civil rights legislation were to black Americans and other minorities. The 1965 Immigration Act signed by President Johnson at the base of the Statue of Liberty allowed for immigration based upon family reunification and job skills rather than one’s country of origin. On August 6, 2021, we dedicated the Lyndon B Johnson Monument along with his two daughters, Luci Baines Johnson and Lynda Bird Johnson, Mayor Turner and me speaking with Vice President Kamala Harris speaking virtually. The Monument includes an 8’ extraordinary statute of President Johnson also by Chas Fagan in front of a granite semi-circle wall listing all of his major legislative achievements. At the base of the wall are timelines of the history of President Johnson. The Monument also  includes five 6’ granite pylons that describe President Johnson’s achievements in civil rights, education, environment and immigration as well as the history of the Vietnam War during the Johnson Administration.

Little Tranquility Park already had two small granite blocks honoring the 7 Shuttle astronauts of the Challenger in 1986 and of the Columbia in 2003 that perished in service of their country in front of 2 semi circles of 7 Magnolia trees representing the perished astronauts. The Gensler architects design brought those two blocks together at the apex of the Magnolia trees and added a third granite block to honor the three Apollo 1 astronauts,  Gus Grissom,  Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, who all perished on January 27, 1967, while testing the Apollo 1 capsule and whose death led to significant improvements in safety in the Apollo program, which ultimately led to man landing on the moon by the end of the decade. Including these enhanced and new monuments to American astronauts who died in our space program at the Lyndon B. Johnson Monument is entirely appropriate as no American did more to lead our space program than Lyndon Johnson as Senate Majority Leader, Vice President and as President.

These 3 monument and the Robert Mosbacher Memorial Bridge all  line up along Bagby Street,  which Mayor Turner and the City of Houston recently greatly enhanced with a $22 million renovation  project with wide decorated sidewalks and bike lanes and increased foliage from the LBJ Monument down to the George Bush Monument..

The George Bush Monument on Bagby Street at Franklin is across the street from the old Barbara Jordan U.S. Post Office, which has been redeveloped by Frank Liu into an extraordinary new multi-purpose venue, including rooftop gardens, a large food pavilion and extraordinary architectural staircases. It will also include a monument to former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, who captivated all America during the 1974 Watergate hearings.

Further South on Bagby Street from the LBJ Monument at the Central Library in the Barbara Bush Literacy Plaza there will also be a sculpture of a seated Barbara Bush with a book in her lap so  future readers will be able to sit with Barbara Bush,  who did so much through her Celebration of Reading programs to support literacy in Houston and throughout the United States.

All of these monuments with American flags  are well lighted and can be visited 24 hours a day by our children and visitors, just like the generation that visited monuments in Washington, D.C.

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