Where We Go
Photography changes the way we encounter and experience architecture
Phil Patton, design and cultural historian, is surprised by what he sees when he travels to an often photographed but seldom visited architectural masterpiece.
Before I visited, I had seen the pyramid of H.H. Richardson’s rugged Ames Monument for years—in photographs. Rough hewn and steeply angled when shot from a low perspective, images of it appear in many architecture books. It has been called the greatest monument design in the country, but few have seen it in person. It sits alone on a windswept high plain in Wyoming, between Laramie and Cheyenne.
The monument commemorates the brothers Oliver and Oakes Ames, leaders who financed the transcontinental railroad. Oliver was president of the Union Pacific Railroad, Oakes a Congressman who pushed through legislation authorizing construction and grants of Federal lands to railroad companies. “By building the Union Pacific,” Abraham Lincoln is said to have told Congressman Ames, “you will be the remembered man of your generation."
Instead, both Ames brothers were caught up the Credit Mobilier scandal of 1872—like Teapot Dome, Enron, or AIG, the controversy of its day. The next year a Federal investigation censured Oakes Ames for feeding railroad stock under the table to fellow Congressmen. The Union Pacific, asserting its innocence, began planning a monument in 1875, but nothing was done until a court decision in 1879 essentially cleared Oakes Ames, marking the end of the scandal. Outrage was deep but memories were short in those days, as they are now.
The railroad hired H.H. Richardson—house architect to the Ames family and known as the best architect in the country—to design the monument. The site chosen was the highest point on the railroad, a mountain pass that also carried the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail, and the Pony Express. Between 1880 and 1882, some eighty men quartered there used oxen to drag large granite blocks, weighing several tons each, the half-mile to the site.
The pyramid is a simple form associated with persistence and memory at least since the Egyptians. But Richardson’s design is more complex. The first angle of its rise is interrupted by an offset, well above the heads of viewers, and also by a smaller pyramid that tops the whole. The effect is to create a visual thrust upward, suggesting to the modern eye a sense of space rocket staging. On two sides are bas-relief sculptures of the Ames brothers by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. On a third side, an inscription in foot-high letters reads, "In Memory of Oakes Ames and Oliver Ames."
The monument was completed in 1882 and Union Pacific passengers could look out and see the pyramid a hundred yards away. A few years later, however, surveyors discovered better routes through the mountains and the railroad was moved twice. The monument was left stranded, landlocked, and invisible.
Since most photographs of it are closely framed around the monument, I half-assumed that it was in the midst of some sort of development. But the monument sits well off Interstate I-80, alone on a slight rise. In the summer, when I stopped by, it was a dusty and windy place. I drove off the highway, then along a quiet two-lane road for a couple of miles and onto a gravel road. Dust flew up in a cloud behind me and prairie dogs kept disappearing into their holes as I drew near. No one else was there. When I finally stood at the base of the monument, it loomed up above me, feeling much larger than it had appeared from the distance of the road. Its rough surface and sheer, radiant sense of power recalled other Richardson works I had seen back east.
As I drove away, I was amazed at how soon the monument looked small and lost again on the high plain, seen in the rear view mirrors. When I got home, I looked at the area through Google maps and satellite images. At the five-hundred-yard resolution scale, you can see the pyramid from above, a tiny reddish gray crystal on the reddish gray scruff, the way you can see NASA's Mars lander in photos taken from the orbiter circling overhead. At two hundred feet it is clear, so is an automobile captured beside it.
Architectural historian James O’Gorman, in an essay about the Ames Monument, says that in all likelihood Richardson never visited the site. He apparently learned about it—as most of us learn about the monument itself—from photographs. O’Gorman argues that Richardson was inspired, in part, by rock formations of the west which were often photographed with pioneers standing on top. The images he used probably included those of A.J. Russell, the great photographer of the transcontinental railroad project and of expeditions into the West. But could Russell’s photographs have conveyed to Richardson the sense of space and sky one feels at the site? Having visited, I doubt it. Did Richardson think consciously or not of designing a structure that would look impressive in photographs, since most people would see it that way?
The Ames brothers are now largely forgotten by the public, but those few who come across the pyramid are forced to consider their identity. The monument is testimony to the frailty of historical memory—and its power. For the millions who will see its image and the mere thousands who see it in person, the monument is also testimony to both the limits and the powers of photography.
- Ames Monument
- Phil Patton
- Ames Monument, 20 miles east of Laramie, Wyoming. Architect H. H. Richardson and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, 1974
- Jack Boucher
- Read image description
Ames Monument, 20 miles east of Laramie, Wyoming. Architect H. H. Richardson and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens by Jack Boucher
Historic American Buildings Survey (Library of Congress); Call Number HABS WYO,1-LARAM,1; Survey number HABS WY-72; digital id: http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.wy0049. This photograph is in the public domain because it is original work of the US Federal Government.