By Frank Leone
When Major Pierre L’Enfant laid out the new City of Washington, he called this street Virginia Avenue NW. But it now features the U.S. State Department, Pan-American organizations and statues of Latin American liberators and is thus an “Avenue of the Americas.” Between 1808 and 1826, Latin Americans fought against the Spanish Empire to establish independent nations and republican ideals throughout the Americas. These countries later donated statues of the leaders to the U.S., which were erected along the Avenue from 1950 to 1976.
Here are some highlights:
The Organization of American States (OAS) Headquarters, a National Historic Landmark, and one of the most beautiful Beaux Arts buildings in Washington, anchors the Avenue. The OAS (originally the Pan-American Union) fosters cultural and commercial ties among the Western Hemisphere republics. Designed by Paul P. Cret and Albert Kelsey to combine North and South American styles, the building was constructed in 1908-1910. It was largely funded by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. The OAS complex includes a beautiful Aztec Garden (containing memorials that celebrate Latin America’s indigenous, artistic, literary, and political achievements), the Art Museum of the Americas (b. 1910), the Casita (b. 1816) – formerly the stable of the Van Ness estate – and the OAS Annex (b. 1948) (facing Constitution Avenue). The area near the OAS building became a central location for the placement of the statues.
The bronze Statue of General José Gervasio Artigas (1764-1850) (Va. and Constitution Avenues), Liberator of Uruguay, was gift from Uruguay, built by Juan Manuel Blanes and erected in 1950. A former gaucho (cowboy), Artigas fought for independence from Spain and also to keep small Uruguay independent of other Latin American countries.
Venezuela presented the equestrian statue of Simón Bolivar (Va. Ave & 18th St.) in 1959. It was cast by American artist Felix de Weldon. Bolivar (1783-1830), known as the George Washington of Latin America, was the liberator of Venezuela, Columbia (then including Panama), Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia.
The bronze equestrian Memorial to General José de San Martín (1778-1850) (Va. Ave & 20th St.) was a gift from Argentina honoring the Liberator of Argentina and Chile. It is a copy of the statue French artist Louis-Joseph Daumas created in 1862 that stands the Plaza San Martin, Buenos Aires. It was the first sculpture to Washington, D.C. gifted from a foreign nation and was placed in Judiciary Square in 1925, but relocated to the Avenue in 1976.
The equestrian statue (Va. Ave. & 22nd St.) honors Bernardo Vicente de Gálvez y Madrid, 1st Viscount of Galveston, 1st Count of Gálvez (1746-86), a Spanish military leader who served as colonial governor of Spanish Louisiana and Cuba and later as Viceroy of New Spain. King Juan Carlos I of Spain presented the statue in celebration of the 1976 Bicentennial of American Independence. A s governor of Louisiana, Gálvez supported the American revolution, providing supplies to the American colonists, preventing the British from accessing the Mississippi River by sealing off New Orleans, and forcing the British out of western Florida.
The Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) Headquarters (Va. Ave. & 23rd St.) (b. 1965), designed by Uruguayan architect Román Fresnedo Siri, represents one of Washington’s outstanding examples of Mid-Century Modern architecture. The gracefully curved ten-story administrative building hosts the organization’s main offices, and an adjoining four-story cylindrical annex serves as the Congress Hall for meetings. PAHO, founded in 1902, is the world’s oldest international public health organization and works to improve the health and the quality of life of the people of the Americas.
The statue of Mexican President Benito Pablo Juárez García (1806–1872) stands at the southern end of the somewhat awkwardly constructed “Juarez Circle” (Va. Ave & 25th St. at NH Ave.). Juarez, “The Father of Modern Mexico,” served from 1858 to 1872 and was a Zapotec, the first Mexican President of indigenous origin. The sculpture was a gift to the United States from the people of Mexico in exchange for the gift a statue of Abraham Lincoln from President Lyndon B. Johnson. Erected in 1969, it is a cast of a statue in Oaxaca, Mexico, which was originally cast by the Nelli Foundry in Rome in 1891. The back of the base contains an urn with soil from San Pablo Guelatao, where Juárez was born.
SOURCES: NPS, American Latino Heritage, https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/american_latino_heritage/national_mall_and_memorial_parks.html; NPS, Hispanic Reflections, http://npshistory.com/publications/hispanic-reflections.pdf; M. Perez, https://www.hiddenhispanicheritage.com/79-searching-for-washington-dcs-not-so-hidden-hispanic-heritage.html; OAS, House of the Americas, https://www.oas.org/en/about/mnbdefault.asp; DCPL PAHO HQ Landmark application, https://planning.dc.gov/node/1452371.