So Hoos Asking: There Is a Mystery Afoot at UVA. Where Is James Monroe?

July 2, 2024 By Jane Kelly, Jane Kelly,

The University of Virginia has its very own version of “Where’s Waldo” and it doesn’t even involve founder Thomas Jefferson.

James Monroe is at the center of this mystery. It turns out a statue of the country’s fifth president stood at the base of the Lawn for about two years before vanishing. But to where?

It all started with the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, where inside the American Pavilion stood several statues, including one of Monroe.

Edwin Alderman wanted it.

“In 1905, the first president of the University was going to be inaugurated, Edwin Alderman. And he had seen a bunch of statues which had appeared at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair were going to be shipped to Washington to be put along Pennsylvania Avenue for the second inauguration of Theodore Roosevelt,” Brian Owensby, director of UVA’s Center for Global Inquiry and Innovation, said.

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Somehow, no one knows exactly, the Monroe statue arrived in time.

Alderman would be inaugurated at UVA April 13, 1905, one month after Roosevelt’s return to the White House, and there at the foot of the Lawn stood the Monroe statue, unveiled for the special occasion.

“The University sits on land that belonged to James Monroe. It was a plantation. James Monroe was one of the founding board members of the University. So, he was prominently involved in the establishment of the University,” Owensby said. It made sense that Alderman, he reasoned, would want such a statue.

An illustration of a very old picture featuring the UVA Rotunda in the background, with a crowd on the lawn and a stone statue of James Monroe.

The Monroe statue was carved by Julia Bracken Wendt. “She was one of a very small number of women artists, women sculptors in particular, at the end of the 19th century, who gained some notoriety for the quality of their work,” said history professor Brian Owensby.

“So, James Monroe was put into place in 1905. And he sits there for about a year and a half, and then he goes away, he gets removed, and Homer is put in his place,” he said, referring to the statue by Moses Jacob Ezekiel. “Exactly why he was removed is not clear. We’ve never been able to find documents saying we need to get rid of that statue.”

At one point, Owensby and a group of faculty investigating the history of statues and memorials on Grounds, followed what they thought was a promising lead about where Monroe ended up. “A couple of things popped up saying ‘Oh, he’s at the Illinois state capital,” he said. It is not.

So, the mystery persists. But a word of caution from Owensby to anyone who decides to get in on this game of “Where’s Monroe?”: Don’t call “the poor guy” at the Illinois state capital.

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Jane Kelly

University News Senior Associate Office of University Communications