Digest>Archives> Mar/Apr 2013

A Forgotten Lighthouse Pediment

By Timothy Harrison


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As well as being the capitol city of the United States, Washington, D.C. is also known as a tourist city. However, it is highly unlikely that most tourists, even lighthouse aficionados, visit the Department of Commerce building and see the pediment relief sculptures on the building such as this one that honors the United States Lighthouse Service.

When it was opened in 1932, the 1.8 million square-foot Department of Commerce Building was the largest federal building in the country. Sculptor James Earle Fraser (1876-1953), noted for his design of the Indian Head “Buffalo” nickel, was chosen to sculpt many of the pediments on the building, including those of the various departments that operated under the ever-growing Department of Commerce, such as the Bureau of Navigation, Aeronautics, Steamboat Inspection Service, Patent Office, Census Bureau, Coast and Geodetic Survey, and the Lighthouse Service. All of these reliefs are of the same size and each features the emblem of that department.

The lighthouse on the Lighthouse Service pediment relief appears to be an image of the Los Angeles Harbor Lighthouse in San Pedro, California. But why was this lighthouse chosen by the sculptor for the relief sculpture? It is important to remember that at this time in history, lighthouses were an integral part of the commerce of the United States. The amazing system of aids to navigation played a major role in the safe transport of goods and people that helped the nation grow. It could be argued that the 1913 Los Angeles Harbor Lighthouse was chosen because it was the only style of this lighthouse ever built. But that case could be argued about a number of lighthouse designs. One likely scenario might be that it was chosen because it was one of the newer lighthouses to have been built. Or, perhaps George Putnam, Commissioner of Lighthouses at the time, told the sculptor which lighthouse to use. On the other hand, it may well have been the decision of President Herbert Hoover, who had previously served as the Secretary of Commerce from 1921 to 1928, and was known to be actively involved with many of the decisions in the design of the building.

We may never know all the answers. But the fact remains, this Lighthouse Service pediment relief is there to this day to remind us of the immense role that the men and women of the United States Lighthouse Service had in the development and growth of our nation. Sadly, it is only a tiny fraction of our population and citizens who are aware of this, or even care.

The building is now known as the Herbert C. Hoover Building of the Department of Commerce. If any of our readers have something more to add to this story or would like to make comments about it, we’d be honored to hear from you. Please e-mail us at Editor@LighthouseDigest.com or write to us at Lighthouse Digest, P.O. Box 250, East Machias, ME 04630.

This story appeared in the Mar/Apr 2013 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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