Culture  /  Book Excerpt

The 20th-Century Obelisk, From Imperialist Icon to Phallic Symbol

Amid all the imperial aspiration, wooly-minded New Age mythologizing, and pure unadulterated commerce, the obelisk stands tall.

This manifold expansion of meaning and association is characteristic of the whole 20th century. The very explosion of monument building in the late 19th and early 20th centuries probably helped accelerate this process. Obelisks and obelisk-like monuments sprouted up everywhere in the decades on either side of 1900. Many, to be sure, were dedicated to victory and commemoration, but the sheer number — nearly every city in Europe and the Americas has a brace of them — meant that obelisks were applied to ever-stranger purposes. In 1896, at Pennsylvania State University, Magnus C. Ihlseng, a geology professor, found himself so pestered with questions about the qualities of the stones found in Pennsylvania that he organized the construction of a 33-foot obelisk, made up of all “the representative building stones of the Commonwealth, and thus to furnish in a substantial form an attractive compendium of information for quarrymen, architects, students, and visitors.” The stones are organized to reflect the geology of the region, with the oldest ones near the base.

Obelisks took on similarly untraditional forms throughout the century. The 1922 competition to design a new headquarters for the Chicago Tribune drew two different proposals for obelisk-shaped towers, including one from Chicago architect Paul Gerhardt, who also submitted a proposal for a building shaped like a gigantic papyrus column. Neither won. Although the idea of an obelisk as haven for office workers seems a long way indeed from Egyptian solar cults, such a building would have been very appropriate to the well-nigh pharaonic ego of the Tribune’s publisher, Robert McCormick. Obelisks appeared on every scale and in every imaginable context. Smaller sorts of executives could obtain smaller sorts of obelisks. In the 1960s, for example, the Injection Molders Supply Company offered 20-inch plastic desk obelisks for the “plastics executive who has nearly everything.”

The sign for the Luxor Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, one of a series of thematic fantasylands along the Strip — New York! Venice! Egypt! — is a giant obelisk, complete with accurate hieroglyphs that celebrate the immortal kingship of Ramesses II. The obelisk lures people to the pyramid-shaped hotel, whose check-in desk can be reached via a drive-through sphinx. Inside, guests can find (in addition to floor shows and slot machines) a remarkably accurate reconstruction of King Tut’s tomb as well as a New Age-inflected movie experience about the mysteries of the pyramids.

Even as new obelisk-shaped monuments sprouted up, the meaning of existing ones shifted. The Bunker Hill Monument is a case in point. It was constructed in the 1820s and 30s as a memorial to a Revolutionary War battle and to the very idea of liberty. So it remained, but by the end of the 19th century it had become an even more powerful symbol of place — of Charlestown, Massachusetts. It became the emblem of the city (and after annexation by Boston, the neighborhood), appearing on shop signs, the bottles of the local pickle packager, and the jackets of high-school students. By the 1990s the identification of neighborhood and structure was so complete that when a dramatic new cable-stayed bridge was built across the Charles River from Boston’s North End to Charlestown, the designer, Swiss engineer Christian Menn, fashioned the bridge’s towers in the shape of obelisks. His reference point was the monument itself, a symbol of place, rather than the ideas the monument was originally intended to embody. The bridge’s towers and the monument now form a trio of obelisks across the Charlestown skyline, reinforcing the association yet further.