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President George Washington called Charlotte, a "trifling place" during his visit to the city in 1791. But it's certainly changed since then. WFAE's Tasnim Shamma explores the ins-and-outs of Charlotte in this podcast.Subscribe: Use iTunes Use Another Player RSS

A Trifling Place, Episode 8: The Story Behind Those Big Statues On Independence Square

Tasnim Shamma

OK, lots of cities have a Square. There’s Red Square, Times Square, St. Peter’s Square to name a few.

And then … there’s Independence Square. Where’s that, you ask? Charlotte – at the intersection of Trade and Tryon.

In case you didn’t know, this intersection is where a Native American trading path - Trade Street – crossed what used to be called the Great Wagon Road, which we now know as Tryon.  

Today, the intersection is named Independence Square to recognize the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. County leaders signed the document on May 20, 1775, declaring freedom from tyranny … I mean England … more than a year before the Continental Congress did it in Philly.

Credit Tasnim Shamma

Four statues at each corner of the intersection further distinguish the square. These statues are the subject of this edition of A Trifling Place

So there's a lot of history at this particular intersection and a lot to celebrate. Including what I've heard referred to as the Communist-looking statues on the square. You can't miss them. They're 24-feet tall bronze sculptures on the four corners of Trade and Tryon Street in uptown Charlotte. They each weigh about 5,000 pounds.

I need a history lesson. So I recruited Nicole Bartlett, program director of public art at the Arts & Science Council. She was my teacher for the day.

"The Sculptures on the Square,"  as they're known, were made by Raymond Kaskey and represent Commerce, Industry, Transportation and the Future. The sculptures were dedicated in 1995 and were a gift from The Queen's Table, a local philanthropic group. They fund some of the big public art projects in Charlotte.            

Commerce & Industry

There were dozens of gold mines in the region in the late 18th  and early 19th centuries. That’s why Congress approved a U.S. Mint in Charlotte. In 1836, Charlotte was home to the first U.S. Mint outside Philadelphia.

Nicole Bartlett: Commerce commemorates the emergence of the North Carolina region as the first major gold-producing area in the U.S. Actually at the bottom of that bust is Alan Greenspan's head.
Tasnim Shamma: Whoa. I did not notice that. Just seeing it now.
NB: And industry. This is a woman mill worker. She has a spindle, roller, cotton warping, hydroelectric bolts and as you can see a child laborer. They're classical emblems of the textile industry, that was so important in Charlotte's growth. And what looks like braids hanging down the sides are warp ends, a textile reference.

What's fun about these statues is that there are details that you kind of have to discover for yourself.

Transportation & "The Future"

And then it's this piece that represents transportation. It represents Charlotte's history as a rail hub for textiles and tobacco. And the number 1401 refers to Southern Railway steam engine 1401, which ran a route through Charlotte from Greenville, S.C. to Spencer, N.C. and back. And the head of the eagle refers to the importance of flight to Carolina's transportation history.

TS: So I guess those are the wings of the eagle going up there? And what is he holding in his hand?
NB: That is a hammer like you would use on a railroad.

Kaskey wanted the statues to be balanced, so there are two men, two women and the transportation statue is represented by an African-American man.

And last but not least …

"This is the future, across from us," Bartlett explains. "That's represented by a child held aloft in his mother's arms. The foliage is the dogwood, state flower of North Carolina. And between the branches is the hornet's nest, emblem of the city of Charlotte." 

The hornet's nest, of course, is what British general Lord Cornwallis, called Charlotte during the Revolutionary War because our defense was so fierce.


So on the back of the last statue, it says "The Future." But it's actually a little more complicated than that. Mollie Faison was the Queen's Table project chair for these boundary statues and worked with local historians on the concept and execution since the late 1980s. That fourth statue was supposed to represent religion, because…

"If you go back and study the history of Charlotte, it is very much a Scotch-Presbyterian base that landed here," Faison says. "If you go back to First Presbyterian Church downtown, there is a plaque outside of that church, that says "Town Church" and it was a building where the church and the government both met in the same building. And that was the religious aspect that was birthed in Charlotte at that time that had a strong influence in the city."

But the group decided that delving into religion would be risky, so it went a different direction.

"When we came to the religious aspect – we just didn't really know how to depict that – you know that could be a really touchy situation – so that's when we decided to do the mother and child, as the form of hope for the future," Faison says. 

But after talking to Nicole Bartlett and Mollie Faison, I still had a few more questions. So I called Kaskey to ask a pressing question …

TS: I wanted to ask why Alan Greenspan is on the bottom of the commerce statue?
RK: Oh that was a private joke. Well, he was the chairman of the Federal Reserve board at the time that I was doing this. And I thought those little figures down below the knees: the eagle and the young child laborer and the hornet's nest were little iconic references but I thought having the chairman of the federal reserve board to represent banking was a good idea, or let's say, seemed like a good idea at the time. I'm surprised that people recognize him as Alan Greenspan actually.

Kaskey, by the way, also created the large Queen Charlotte sculpture at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. The Queen is leaning forward, propped up by the wind, holding a crown in her right hand. And the four faces at the bottom of the statue represent a compass.

"I really enjoy our celebrating broad, civic ideals," Kaskey says. "It's pretty old-fashioned actually but I think it still provides the age-old uplift and city pride. I'm trying to think of the Italian term for pride in your city …  campanilismo you know refers to the campanile that every town had. But it's the spirit of the place.  And I hope it's successful."

I certainly thought so. But Kaskey's thinking long-term.

"I hope people can enjoy them on their own right as sculpture, even if they don’t know a thing about them, or Charlotte, you know. When sculptures are dug up by archeologists and they're a couple thousand years old and nobody knows what the hell they're supposed to mean or did to that culture, but they say, "Oh they're beautiful. That's the best reaction that I hope I can get."

Those future archeologists will also get a glimpse of Kaskey. The boy who represents a child laborer at the bottom of the Industry statue is the sculptor himself.