The Titanic Memorial: A History


Titanic On April 14, 1912, the R.M.S. Titanic struck an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland during its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. It was considered the greatest technological achievement of its time, but in less than 3 hours, Titanic sank to the bottom of the Atlantic, and 1,517 lives were lost.
Titanic leaving Southampton
10 April 1912


On April 14, 2012, it will have been one hundred years since the sinking of the Titanic, and yet we remain captivated by its tragic story and the tales of heroism that have been handed down through generations. Forever etched into our collective consciousness are the stories of men who stood aside so that women and children could be saved; of a father who selflessly put his two young sons in a lifeboat, knowing he would never see them again; of a woman who refused to leave her husbands side, even though it meant certain death; of the brave musicians who kept playing till the very end to comfort those who stayed behind on the doomed ship.

Left to right: Titanic survivors approaching the Carpathia; Michel (age 4) and Edmond Navratil (age 2); Isidor (age 67) and Ida Straus (age 63); the Titanic musicians: Wallace Hartley (bandmaster, violin), Roger Marie Bricoux (cello), Theodore Ronald Brailey (piano), John Wesley Woodward (cello), John Frederick Preston Clarke (string bass, viola), John Law Hume (violin), Percy Cornelius Taylor (piano) and Georges Alexandré Krins (violin).

Southwest DC may be thousands of miles away from the site of the Titanic tragedy, but we have a special connection to the Titanic. The Titanic Memorial is a unique feature of our Waterfront that is well-known and loved by many Southwesters. Tucked away in a quiet corner of Waterfront Park next to Fort McNair, this memorial is dedicated to the men who gave their lives during the sinking of the Titanic so that women and children might be saved.


The insciption on the front reads:

APRIL 15 1912


The inscription on the back reads:



I first encountered the Woman’s Titanic Memorial (its original name) from the Washington Channel as a sailing instructor. From this vantage point, the memorial appears nothing less than the crucifixion of Christ. This misapprehension in this led to sailing instructions that went something like “Take us down south of Jesus and come about.” As it turns out, the memorial is about self-sacrifice, albeit patriarchal stereotypes regarding the role of men and women in the early twentieth century. Considering its designer Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was anything but conventional, it is difficult to reconcile her life as an artist with the art she produced.

One biographer described her as existing in two worlds:


Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney

"In one, she was the perfect, icy formal uptown matron ..."


Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, circa 1890

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney

" [the] other she was a passionate bohemian who took lover after lover; a lady bountiful to impoverished American artists with who she shared a riotous life in Greenwich Village.”



Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, 1917



Alfred Vanderbilt In addition to being an heiress to the New York Railroad and Standard Oil fortunes, Whitney, had a fair bit of maritime history in her family. Her great grandfather was Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, and her father-in-law, Secretary of the Navy William C. Whitney.

More to the point, she had experienced the direct effects of maritime disaster as her own brother, Alfred Vanderbilt, would perish in the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, the same year she began bronze studies for the Woman’s Titanic Memorial. Several critics have noted a striking resemblance between the memorial’s features and her brother’s.
Alfred Vanderbilt


Whitney studied sculpture in New York City and Paris under Hendrik Christian Anderson, James Earle Fraser and Andrew O’Connor. Fraser and O’Connor were particularly influential in Whitney’s development in becoming a sculptor of public monuments. Believing her prominent family precluded unbiased criticism, she exhibited her works under a pseudonym until 1910 when her early works began to receive favorable reviews.


Founders Memorial at DAR Constiturion Hall From this time forward, Whitney became a leading patron of American artists providing both space in her New York studio and financial support. In 1912, she secured the contract to execute the Aztec Fountain for the Pan American Union Building on Constitution Ave. Her additional works in Washington include the Founder’s Memorial at DAR Constitution Hall (1929).
Founder’s Memorial
DAR Constitution Hall

Photo courtesy of
Richard E. Miller/

After the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, an organization which went by the same name as the memorial was formed in Washington and, by July, occupied multiple offices collecting donations from across the country for construction of a memorial, as the New York Times described, to commemorate “woman’s tribute to the chivalry and bravery of man as exemplified in the Titanic disaster.” Within two years, the organization had raised $43,000 towards the $50,000 commission for the winning design.


Founders Memorial at DAR Constiturion Hall

On January 14, 1914, the Washington Fine Arts Commission selected Whitney’s design which, according to the Commission, “showed the figure of Heroism, a man of noble proportions, fifteen feet high, the face, arms, and whole posture of the body exemplifying a willing sacrifice, a smiling welcome to death,” over seven other “sculptors of prominence.”







Whitney began bronze studies for the final work in 1915. One of these has survived in Collington, Maryland at the Holy Trinity Cemetery affixed to the gravesite of a Whitney relative. This early study, signed and dated by Whitney, differs from the Woman’s Titanic Memorial in that the male figure is completely nude with drapery flowing over his shoulder.

The final work, which is considered Whitney’s greatest achievement in sculpture, was unveiled by President Taft’s widow on May 26, 1931, along Rock Creek Parkway near New Hampshire Avenue.
The Titanic Memorial
Original location on Rock Creek Parkway
Photo Courtesy Library of Congress


The 18-foot figure was actually sculpted by John Horrigan from a single block of red granite in Quincy, Massachusetts. The entire work, including its 6-foot pedestal and 30-foot long exedra designed by the architect of the Lincoln Memorial, Henry Bacon, was completed in 1930.
Photo courtesy of
Thomas Crane Public Library


There is scant information regarding the 17-year delay from the work’s commission to dedication. Prior to the U.S. entry into World War I, Whitney, in the spring of 1914, established and financed a field hospital for wounded allied soldiers in France, who she personally cared for until 1915, when she suffered what appears as a nervous breakdown and returned to New York.
During the 1920’s, Whitney spent far more time working in her Paris studio exhibiting works including a black marble bust of the Titanic Memorial in 1921, which was purchased by the French Government and remains on display in Paris at the Musee National d’Art Moderne – Centre Georges Pompidou. Commentators have suggested this work and the memorial itself may actually have more to do with the loss of her brother on the Lusitania than her well-heeled aristocratic acquaintances on the Titanic.
Photo courtesy of

Whitney’s greatest achievement in art did not come as a sculptor, but as a patron of American arts. Having commissioned numerous works and assembled one of the largest collections of American art in 1924, she requested the Metropolitan Museum of Art to accept her collection as a gift for which she would build the Met a new wing to display it. The Met declined the offer, which led Whitney to found the Whitney Museum of American Art installing her longtime personal secretary, Juliana Force, as the museum’s first curator. Force was of like mind when it came to celebrating life. She was renowned for greeting guests at one of Whitney’s studio parties while sitting in the bathtub drinking champagne.


The Whitney Museum of American Art
Original location on on 54th Street
Photo courtesy of
The Whitney Museum of American Art

The Whitney Museum of American Art
Present location on Madison Avenue
Photo courtesy of
Whitney Museum of American Art

Today, being included in a Whitney Biennial Exhibition is one of the highest honors that can be bestowed in American arts. Paradoxically, in 2000 when the Whitney published the most important American artists from 1900 to 2000, American Century, Art and Culture, the museum’s founder was included, not as an artist but, merely as the subject of the 1916 painting by Robert Henri.
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, 1916
by Robert Henri

In 1966, the Memorial was removed and stored at Ft. Washington, Maryland during the construction of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. It was re-erected in 1968 without ceremony on the Washington Channel.


The Titanic Memorial at its present location in Waterfront Park, Southwest DC
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Leaving aside whether Whitney or the memorial merit inclusion in the pantheon of American art, the memorial remains relevant, not as an homage to chivalry as the Committee intended but, far more darkly, industrializations gift to modernity—spectacular carnage on an unprecedented scale. This is, after all, the very essence of the fascination with the Titanic and is equally apropos for what would establish itself as the most violent century in history.

About the Author

J. Nickerson is president of the Washington Waterfront Association and manager of Gangplank Marina, the largest live-aboard community on the east coast.

The Titanic Memorial is located at the southern end of Washington Channel Park at the point where the western end of P Street SW, one block to the west of the intersection of 4th and P Streets, SW, Washington, DC. 

Click Here for Google Map showing the location of Titanic Memorial, Washington Channel Park, Washington, DC.

Closest Metro Station is Waterfront-SEU Metro Station on the Green Line.