A Teddy Roosevelt statue in SLO? Mayor Harmon concerned over ‘more monuments of white men’

A model of Paula Zima’s Theodore Roosevelt statue proposed for Mitchell Park in San Luis Obispo.
A model of Paula Zima’s Theodore Roosevelt statue proposed for Mitchell Park in San Luis Obispo. Courtesy of Pierre Rademaker

There’s no question that we are all indebted to President Teddy Roosevelt.

He was instrumental in setting aside 230 million acres of public land — including portions of what is now Los Padres National Forest — for permanent preservation.

He also has a connection to San Luis Obispo. More than 100 years ago — May 9, 1903, to be precise — Teddy stopped here, becoming just the second sitting president to visit. (The first was William McKinley).

He arrived by train; toured Mission San Luis Obispo; spoke to a crowd of thousands; and even gave a shout-out to Cal Poly, “for giving all the scientific training in the arts of farm life.”

But do those two factors — his environmental legacy and a local connection — merit putting Roosevelt on a pedestal at a city park?

A group of T.R. admirers, led by historian and former City Councilman John Ashbaugh, say they do.

They’ve been quietly raising funds for a bronze statue, which is being designed by Paula Zima, who created the iconic Bear and Child statue in front of Mission San Luis Obispo.

They’re asking the city for permission to install the statue at Mitchell Park, and because it’s city-owned, it will needs the blessing of several governmental bodies, including the City Council.

No on has come forward to actively oppose to the project, but there are questions being raised about why T.R. is being so honored.

San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon broached the subject in a recent Facebook discussion: “Wondering why we need more monuments of white men at this point,” she wrote. “I just don’t understand why we continue to put all of our resources into only lifting up white men and there’s close to zero resources put into women or people of color whatsoever in terms of monuments, etc.”

She also questions T.R.’s connection to San Luis Obispo. “It feels a little like grasping for relevance,” she told us.

But the mayor isn’t pushing back in an effort to derail the project.

“The intention is not to rain on the idea,” she said.

We aren’t opposed to the idea, either.

Zima’s design is well suited to the site: She’s created an image of a thoughtful Roosevelt-the-environmentalist, not the Rough Rider or big game hunter many of us may be more familiar with from history books.

But the process of selecting a subject and a site could have been more inclusive.

The campaign started when Ashbaugh wrote an article on Roosevelt’s visit to SLO for a historical publication. Here’s how he ended it:

“Let’s consider, as a community, erecting a statue of our most recent presidential visitor in Mitchell Park. It would be a fitting tribute to this clarion-clear messenger of environmental wisdom – and to his message.”

Zima contacted Ashbaugh and said she was interested, and the project grew from there.

So far, $50,000 has been raised. Another $100,000 is needed to cover all facets of the installation, including the statue itself, the boulders that will surround it and the site improvements.

We salute the grassroots effort. Ideally, though, there would have been more public input at the front end, especially since the Roosevelt statue will be the first monument on city property that honors an actual person.

The public will have a chance to comment at upcoming meetings — the city Parks Commission is scheduled to review conceptual plans on Feb. 6 — but considering all the work that’s been done, the project will likely be approved.

Ashbaugh and others have pointed out that this could be the first of many statues honoring significant individuals, including women and people of color.

A couple of suggestions have been made: Architect Julia Morgan, who designed both Hearst Castle and the Monday Club in San Luis Obispo, and photographer Dorothea Lange, whose haunting portraits of a migrant mother, taken in Nipomo, came to epitomize the Great Depression.

But before we get carried away, the entire community should be able to weigh in on 1) Whether they want any statues of individuals installed on public property and 2) If they do, what the criteria should be.

Public art is never going to please everyone. But honoring a specific individual with a statue speaks to the culture and values of a community, as we’ve seen from recent protests over Civil War monuments to Confederate leaders.

A Teddy Roosevelt statue, or one of Julia Morgan or Dorothea Lange, will be around long after we’re gone. That’s a big deal — one that should involve as many community members as possible.