A proposed public art installation in San Luis Obispo would commemorate Theodore Roosevelt’s visit to the city more than a century ago with a sculpture that would beckon visitors to sit and reflect with the former president.
ARTS Obispo, the San Luis Obispo County Arts Council, is proposing the project. It would be designed by sculptor Paula Zima, from Santa Fe, New Mexico, whose well-known public artworks include the sculptures in the fountain in Mission Plaza.
The monument would be at a yet-to-be-determined patch of Mitchell Park, where Roosevelt spoke to a crowd of 10,000 people on May 9, 1903, as part of his Great Loop journey through the West.
“It was quite a dramatic scene,” San Luis Obispo City Councilman John Ashbaugh said. “There were only 17,000 people in the entire county at the time, and most of them showed up for this (speech).”
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Ashbaugh, who teaches history at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, first proposed installing a public art piece to honor Roosevelt in the October 2015 issue of La Vista magazine, which is published by the History Center of San Luis Obispo County.
People can sit down on an adjoining boulder and almost have a conversation with the guy.
City Councilman John Ashbaugh
Ashbaugh described Roosevelt’s 1903 visit to San Luis Obispo — just one stop in a 14,000-mile tour that covered 25 states in 10 weeks — as “hugely significant in the history of the American West.”
It was likely one of the last times a sitting president spoke publicly in San Luis Obispo County. (According to Tribune archives, William Howard Taft visited the Central Coast on a whistlestop tour in 1911, and Franklin D. Roosevelt traveled through the county on a top-secret trip to boost manufacturers’ morale during World War II.)
According to Ashbaugh, the tour is inextricably linked to Roosevelt’s legacy of land conservation.
During his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt created the U.S. Forest Service and helped establish 230 million acres of public lands, including 150 national forests, five national parks and 18 national monuments, according to the National Park Service.
“The idea for the sculpture is to honor that movement and really point out its origins,” Ashbaugh said.
“From my vantage point, the project would underscore the nexus between Theodore Roosevelt’s vision for a National Park Service and our contemporary concern to preserve open space and honor incredible natural environs locally and along the Central Coast,” Arts Obispo executive director Angela Tahti wrote in an email. “History can inspire present-day activism and mindfulness. The National Park Service was once an idea, made real by the hearts, minds, and hands of people engaged by the notion.”
$100,000 Estimated cost of the proposed sculpture
To design the monument, ARTS Obispo reached out to an artist whose sculptures are familiar to Central Coast residents.
In addition to the bronze sculptures of bears, steelhead trout and a child in Mission Plaza, Zima also designed “Stoic Horse” at the San Luis Obispo City-County Library, “Meditation Bird” at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in San Luis Obispo and the “Greeting Bear” sculptures that guard the entrances to Los Osos.
Zima’s initial proposal for the Roosevelt monument features a slightly larger than life-size bronze statue of Roosevelt seated on a block of locally sourced granite amid a cluster of small boulders — dressed in the same casual garb he wore while touring the Yosemite Valley with John Muir.
“People can sit down on an adjoining boulder and almost have a conversation with the guy,” Ashbaugh said. The entire monument would take up less than 100 square feet.
ARTS Obispo plans to raise the money for the project — which could cost up to $100,000, including fabrication and installation — through private donations, Tahti said.
“As soon as we can get $20,000 raised, we can get Paula working on (the project),” Ashbaugh said, adding that he hopes to enlist the help of the Theodore Roosevelt Association in Oyster Bay, New York.
According to Tahti, the project would then be reviewed by a public art jury selected by staff in the city of San Luis Obispo’s parks and recreation department. Additional approvals would be required from the city Parks and Recreation Commission, Cultural Heritage Committee and Architectural Review Commission, she said, as well as the City Council.
But she and Ashbaugh said they are confident the project will prevail.
“There’s a tremendous amount of possible support for this,” Ashbaugh said.