Saturday, August 16, 2014

Jesse A. Currey Bench

This post takes us to Portland's Rose Garden yet again, and once again we're not there to look at flowers. Near the main entrance is an ornate stone park bench honoring Jesse A. Currey, the garden's founder. Its Smithsonian database entry offers a few details:

(Below the relief incised:) JESSE A. CURREY/1873-1927/ORIGINATOR OF PORTLAND INTERNATIONAL/ROSE TEST GARDEN 1917 unsigned
Long bench with solid side pieces that slope down as arm rests. A proper left profile of Jesse A. Currey's head is in a circular relief on the back center of the bench, with inscriptions below it.
For related article see: The Oregonian (Portland, OR), June 5, 1955.

The entry further notes that the sculptor of the bench is unknown. Its reference to an old Oregonian article practically begged me to dive into the library's Oregonian database, but I think that reference might be in error. In the June 5th 1955 paper there are number of articles about roses, which there always are during Rose Festival. None mention Currey or the bench. There is one, however, from a former president of the Portland Rose Society, scolding Portlanders for not having enough roses in their front yards. Apparently backyard roses didn't count toward keeping up with the Joneses, which was a life or death matter in 1955.

The bench was unveiled on June 11th, 1936 (and was announced April 15th of that year). The articles explain the bench was donated by Herman J. Blaesing, and unveiled by his granddaughter Gretchen, but no sculptor is named in either article.

I also came across a June 5th, 1966 article about a collection of early and rare books about roses Currey willed to the Multnomah County Library. As the story goes, both the British Museum and the Library of Congress had tried unsuccessfully to obtain these books, but our little old hometown library ended up with them instead. Or at least they had them as of 1966. In any case, the article doesn't mention anything about a bench.

Anyway, a recent AP article that's been making the rounds explains that the garden has its roots in World War I. Apparently Currey's notion was that Europe was slaughtering itself, and the fighting showed no sign of abating any time soon, but perhaps some of the continent's roses could be saved, at least, whisked away to a new life in the distant, peace-loving New World. That's a rather profoundly pessimistic vision if you ask me, but at least we got an enormous rose garden out of it.

So the Rose Garden has a monument to its founder, another to the city's dorky rose-themed greeters, and a third to Shakespeare, who had a few choice words to say about roses. The whole thing is a bit silly, sure, but so long as we're already going down that path, let me put in a plug for yet another statue. Portland's annual Rose Festival is considered to be the invention of Harry Lane, the city's mayor from 1904-1908. He's appeared on this humble blog once before due to his unsuccessful fight to stop the railroads from tearing their way through North Portland. He seems to have been the closest thing the city's ever had to a genuine left-wing mayor, and he later went on to serve in the US Senate, casting one of the very few votes against US entry into World War I. Lane was already in failing health at that point and died shortly after the vote, and was buried with a simple, modest marker in Lone Fir Cemetery. Personally I think we owe him a statue for all of this other stuff, but inventing the Rose Festival is what he's usually remembered for (if he's remembered at all), and that's certainly a key event in Portland rose history, so a monument of some sort would absolutely be appropriate here.

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