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The Newsboy, the General, and the Lost Soldier of MacArthur Park

There’s a rough stone block at the western edge of the causeway that divides what was once Westlake Park. The stone is grouped in a plot next to two others: a taller block surmounted by a bronze general and a smaller one with a bronze newsboy. The general points across Wilshire Boulevard to the northwest. The newsboy, his back to the road, clutching a bundle of papers, shouts the latest headline to boaters on the lake in what is now MacArthur Park.

But the one block is empty. It once supported the figure of a muscular youth striding past the general, a flag staff and partially furled flag on his right shoulder, calm resolve on his expressive face. He was dressed as an Army volunteer – even then, called a doughboy – in the boots, leggings, cartridge belt, and campaign hat of the Spanish American War. He could have been seen as marching toward battle or away from downtown. Except for the flag, he was unarmed.

The looming general, in the officer’s uniform of the same period, his face unexpressive, is identified by the plaque at his feet. It declares, with the loud self-importance that defined the man in life:

General Harrison Grey Otis
1837-1917
Soldier, Journalist, Friend of Freedom
“Stand Fast, Stand Firm, Stand Sure, Stand True”

Otis has stood on his rock since 1920, when the group of figures was installed at what had been the eastern terminus of Wilshire Boulevard, which ended at the park until 1934 when the causeway was built across the lake to take traffic to downtown. Before the causeway, the general’s finger pointed westward down Wilshire Boulevard (circled in red below) as if directing seekers to real estate deals among the unbuilt lots of West LA.

Even now, gesturing in a more ambiguous direction, Otis looks more than a little stiff and pompous.

Original location of the Otis group
Original location of the Otis group. (The location of the group is circled in red in an enlargement [blurred] of this photograph.) Courtesy fo the Security Pacific National Bank Collection – Los Angeles Public Library. [source]

 

Statue of General Harrison Gray Otis in Westlake Park, courtesy of the USC Libraries, California Historical Society Collection.
Statue of General Harrison Gray Otis in Westlake Park, courtesy of the USC Libraries, California Historical Society Collection. [source]

 

Otis sculptural group (side view)
Otis sculptural group (side view). Courtesy of the Photo Collection – Los Angeles Public Library. [source]

 

Causeway and new location of the Otis Group
Causeway and new location of the Otis Group. Courtesy of the USC Libraries, California Historical Society Collection. [source]

 

Otis sculptural group (color, missing soldier)
Otis sculptural group (color, missing soldier). Photo by Wally Gobetz, 2014, used under a Creative Commons License. [source]

His original position was intentional. Otis’ home – he called it the Bivouac – was located a few steps away across Park View Street on one of the first lots to be sold in Gaylord Wilshire’s suburban development in 1896.

The Los Angeles Times called Wilshire “a flamboyant self-promoter,” as good a description of Wilshire as of Otis, who owned the paper. Wilshire also was a crusading socialist. Otis wasn’t.

Otis home (The Bivouac)
Otis home (The Bivouac). Courtesy of the USC Libraries, California Historical Society Collection. [source]

Hiram Johnson, while successfully running for governor in 1910 as a progressive Republican, characterized the general as “anything that is disgraceful, depraved, corrupt, crooked, and putrescent – that is Harrison Gray Otis.” Otis died in 1917.

His memorial – bronze general, newsboy, and doughboy – was funded by Otis’ wealthy friends, who included developer Henry Huntington and banker Henry W. O’Melveny. They chose the artist, society sculptor Paul Troubetzkoy, an actual Russian prince. They paid the $50,000 cost of casting and installation.

Although they were memorializing one of the city’s most powerful businessmen, a participant in the deal that brought Owens Valley water to their San Fernando Valley acreage, and a tireless booster of selling that acreage in the pages of the Los Angeles Times, the committee members chose to remember Otis as a military man.

Otis had enlisted in the 12th Regiment, Ohio Volunteer Infantry at the start of the Civil War, eventually earning the rank of lieutenant-colonel. Granted another Army appointment in 1898, when he was 61, Otis eventually commanded California volunteers in the suppression of the Philippine insurrection. In later years, Otis took to handing out calling cards that showed him in a bemedaled uniform and annotated with his rank: Brig. Gen. U.S. Vols. 1st Brigade, 2d Division, 8th Army Corps.

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However his contemporaries wanted to remember Otis, his memorial seems to have had an alternative purpose. Soon after the sculptural group was installed in 1920, Popular Mechanics magazine noted that a number of cars had gone over the embankment at the end of Wilshire Boulevard and into the lake in the park, although no lives had yet been lost. The sculptures and their rocky bases were supposed to barricade the intersection to prevent a future auto tragedy, the magazine claimed.

The statues had their own tragedies. They were struck by a swerving car, perhaps more than once, after their relocation at the entrance to the Wilshire Boulevard causeway. News reports say the group needed extensive restoration in the 1940s. In 2009, Dranov Khaliunaa was killed and three companions injured when Khaliunaa’s Scion TC plowed into what remained of the group.

Art student at Otis Art Institute
Art student at Otis Art Institute. Courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection – Los Angeles Public Library. [source]

Sandra Garcia told the Times that she heard the brakes screech as the vehicle jumped the curb, crossed over the block that had formerly held the doughboy, and rammed the general’s base. “It's kind of weird that it hit the statue,” Garcia mused.

The general had commanded the newsboy and the doughboy until theft or another crash swept the latter figure away. That was sometime before 1994, when the Smithsonian surveyed the monument. Julie Silliman, an art projects manager for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, told the Los Angeles Times in 1996 that a runaway car knocked the doughboy down.

“Supposedly the third figure was carried across the street to the Otis Art Institute,” she said, “and put in the basement for storage. But they say it eventually was melted down by a student working on a project.” Neil Hoffman, then president of the institute, disagreed. He told the Times that the missing doughboy was never taken to his school. He did not know his whereabouts.

The Otis Art Institute owes its existence to Otis the newspaper publisher. He had deeded his Westlake home to the county in 1916 to be used “continuously and perpetually for the Arts and advancement of the Arts.” Otis wasn’t known as an art enthusiast during his life. In one photograph of the interior, Otis’ Bivouac is shown hung with knives, spears, muskets, and rifles.

Westlake Park was renamed in 1942 to honor General Douglas MacArthur, who had fled the Philippines that year with his family and military staff in advance of Japanese invaders. The Bivouac was demolished by the county in 1956 to be replaced by the institute’s new building, later repurposed as the LAUSD’s Charles W. White Elementary School, named for the African American artist.

It would have cost an estimated $40,000 in 1996 to replace the lost soldier with a replica bronze. There were apparently no plans to re-memorialize Otis.

His two-thirds of a monument, its more-than-life-size general and diminutive newsboy incongruously grouped as if they were ignoring each other, will carry on with its missing memories, as does our forgetful city.

Otis "carte de visite" portrait
Otis' "carte de visite" portrait. Wikimedia Commons [source]

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