I have written before about Major Archibald Butt, a notable alumnus of Sewanee who died heroically aboard the Titanic. That’s him to the right, together with President Taft, from a stained glass window in All Saints’ Chapel which commemorates the presidential visit to Sewanee a year before Butt’s death. His traveling companion on that fateful voyage was the artist, Francis Davis Millet, who shared a house with Butt in Washington where they hosted large social gatherings. As it happens, the Butt-Millet Memorial Fountain erected by their powerful and well-connected friends was only few blocks from the hotel I was stayed at last weekend in our nation’s capitol, so I took a morning to go over and visit.
The fountain could not be have been more prestigiously located, as befits two men so well-loved in their day. “Taft In Tears As He Lauds Major Butt,” reads the headline of the New York Times (May 6, 1912, p. 4). It only makes sense that the memorial to a man whom the President loved as a son would be placed close to the White House, close to the very top of the Ellipse. And I suppose it only makes sense that, as the years pass–indeed over a hundred of them–the depth of such feelings for a brave and noble man would subside into oblivion. Today, the monument is hard to find, hidden behind the iron fencing and Jersey barriers that ring the White House. One has to pass by the monument to Butt and Millet, but given all the visual noise along the Ellipse Road and E Street, as well as the yelling Capitol police, it’s easy to overlook the eight foot stone fountain.
The fountain base is made of Tennessee marble, appropriate for Butt, whose connection to the South was a fundamental part of his identity. Above the base on the granite slab is, n one side, a symbolic representation of Valor, fitting for Butt as a military man. Just behind the trees is the White House.
On the other side one sees a representation in Millet’s honor of the Arts. In the distance you can see the Washington Monument.
It has been reasonably suggested Butt and Millet were lovers and if so, there is something poignant about the fact that this memorial stands in so prominent location, a place where tourist go by in droves and droves, and yet somehow seems to go unseen, to be somehow hidden in plain sight.