The Triumph of Light

San Francisco is a city that rewards looking closely, under the surface, behind the closed curtains and doors. It’s so closely associated with its shroud of fog for a reason. This is a mysterious city that defies easy characterization, much less caricature. San Francisco provides the only possible setting for America’s preeminent mystery book, The Maltese Falcon. And the city is mysterious in other ways as well: there are things here that are inexplicably quirky or bizarre, are not obvious, not easy to spot, hidden from view if you don’t know exactly where to look, or here one minute and gone the next.

Witness, if you will, The Triumph of Light, a story almost too good to be believed.

In the late 1880s, during the days when such monuments were erected, Adolph Sutro, a silver baron, philanthropist and former mayor who owned the hill at the precise geographic center of the city, decided to commission Belgian artist Atoine Wiertz to build an allegorical piece depicting the victory of liberty, depicted as a torch-carrying lady, over despotism, a cowering muscled hulk. And so it was completed, installed and dedicated on Thanksgiving Day, 1887. At the dedication ceremony, Sutro said: “May the light shine from the torch of the Goddess of Liberty to inspire our citizens to good and noble deeds for the benefit of mankind.”

So, the statue stood, looking over the people of San Francisco, possibly guiding them toward good and noble deeds. And in many other places, that might have been the end of the story but, hey, this is San Francisco and we don’t roll that way.

Years passed, and people stopped thinking in the ways Sutro and others thought they ought. Monuments to liberty and other civic virtues were no longer objects of public affection and care. Ugly apartment blocks and condominiums were built around this statue’s site, blocking its commanding view and removing the piece from public view and consciousness. Fewer and fewer San Franciscans, as time passed, even knew of the monument’s existence.

There were natural forces at play too. As it turns out, statues need love and care. Their materials decay and degrade over time. The Triumph of Light was no exception. The San Francisco Arts Commission reported that the statue was in danger and there was serious talk about replacing it with a Bufano sculpture the city had in storage.

That was the near-final public record of the statue. And then, sometime in the 1950s, poof, The Triumph of Light simply disappeared. No one, not neighbors, not the city government, knows where. What’s left now is the base and the pedestal. Its inscription is worn down to virtually nothing.

Another San Francisco mystery.