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Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Guardian of Downtown Harrisonburg

I went to college in Harrisonburg, Virginia. One of my regular outings was walking from campus to downtown to visit friends and shop at the great consignment shops. On every trip downtown I'd pass this sculpture.

It is a lady, with her hair pulled back at the nape of her neck, seated, wearing Greco-Roman style robes, looking melancholy. There is a rifle and a helmet resting by one of her hands. It is a memorial to the fallen of World War I from Rockingham County, Virginia.

On my trips downtown, this memorial signaled that I was nearing my first destination, either the town library or my favorite consignment shop. After graduation, I didn't give it much thought until decades later.
Charles Keck working on a sculpture, 1945 / Dorothy Gale, photographer
Charles Keck papers, 1905-1954. Archives of American Art

A few years ago, I was working on updating the collection record for the Charles Keck papers at the Archives of American Art. Part of my routine as a cataloger is to do a search on the name to double-check biographical information on the subject. I also regularly look at the images associated with a name to get an idea of the art the person created. Suddenly, I'm looking at an image from my college days! There she is, the Guardian of Downtown, reminding me of happy treks with dear friends quoting “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” and discussing the mental health of various Romantic poets and how their mental health affected 20th century students of their work.

I enjoyed learning about Charles Keck, the creator of the Guardian of Downtown (formally known as Liberty). Turns out, he was a fairly prolific sculptor just before and after WWI. He designed sculptures for Duke and Columbia University as well as the state seal for Virginia.

It was delightful to stumble across something that brought back a little of the remembered joy and a touch of melancholy as those college friends are scattered now and visiting is no longer as easy as it was when we ate nearly all our meals together.

Michelle McDaniel, Cataloger
Archives of American Art

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