Obscure DC Landmarks: The Titanic Memorial
Second in an occasional series
In a secluded park on the Potomac waterfront just downriver from the Wharf development complex and a few blocks west of Nationals Park, there stands a hidden and little-remembered memorial to one of the worst peacetime maritime disasters in history: the sinking of the famed ocean liner RMS Titanic. It’s not an easy memorial to visit; there’s not really any convenient public parking nearby and it’s a few blocks off the beaten path from the nearest Metro station. This spot isn’t even the memorial’s original location – former First Lady Nellie Taft, whose husband was president at the time of the disaster, dedicated it in May 1931 on what’s now the site of the Kennedy Center.
Nor is the waterfront monument the only Titanic-related memorial in the nation’s capital. Amidst the absurd fortifications that continue to creep further and further out from the White House sits an even more obscure memorial fountain sculpted out of marble dedicated to the two U.S. government officials who perished aboard the ship: White House military aide Maj. Archibald Butt and Fine Arts Commission member Francis Millet. The loss of Butt devastated then-President William Howard Taft, who viewed the military man as a “younger brother” and was inconsolable at his memorial service.
Butt served Taft’s predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, in the same position, but the acrimonious political divorce under way between Taft and Roosevelt ahead of the 1912 presidential election put the aide in a stressful position. At the urging of Taft and his housemate Millet (the exact nature of their relationship remains unclear; Butt was a lifelong bachelor and Millet is known to have had a romantic tryst with a man before marrying and fathering three children), Butt set off for a European vacation. He and Millet booked passage back to the United States aboard Titanic, and when the ship made its fatal rendezvous with a North Atlantic iceberg the two men were playing cards in its smoking room. Accounts differ as to their subsequent actions, but both men went down with the ship. Millet died of hypothermia and exposure in the bitter cold of the North Atlantic night; Butt’s body was never found.
Shortly after the loss of Titanic, Congress authorized the building of a memorial to the two officials and the fountain went up in the Ellipse south of the White House a year and a half after the sinking. It took much longer for the larger monument to the disaster to go up, however. Planning and fundraising for a memorial almost immediately, with a design selected in 1914 and permission granted by Congress to build the initial site at the southern end of Rock Creek Park in 1917. A further fourteen years would pass before the final memorial would be formally unveiled in its original location, where it would stand for thirty-five years until it made way for the construction of the Kennedy Center.
The monument itself seems like a strange artifact from another time and place. A lithe young male figure carved out of granite stretches his arms wide while a flowing robe strategically clothes his anatomy. His eyes closed and head tilted skyward, this perfect specimen of manhood strikes a Jesus Christ pose in an obvious and blatant attempt to imitate the Latin cross. It certainly achieves the intended effect, however, and that’s in keeping with the overall impetus of the memorial itself: to commemorate the men of the Titanic who, as the inscription on the back of plinth reads, “gave their lives nobly to save women and children.”
A half-moon granite bench surrounds the statue, with decorative dolphins chiseled into each end. The memorial itself resides in a riverside promenade park that’s in need of repair and restoration. It’s not exactly in a decrepit or dilapidated state, but the park could certainly use a once-over to replace missing tiles and eroded sidewalk concrete as well replant its trees and gardens. That’s what a group of local volunteers known as the Friends of Titanic Memorial Park has aimed to do in recent years with the help of the National Park Service, though their efforts have been slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic. This group also helps to the maintain the park and keep it presentable, painting benches, planting annuals, and cleaning up after Fourth of July festivities.
As for the Butt-Millet Memorial Fountain, it now languishes against the cordon that surrounds the White House. It’s a modest structure, a marble bowl with a central pillar that contains two bas-relief sculptures with abstract figures representing the military and artistic professions of the two men. A lightly-worn inscription on the lip of the bowl informs those who pass by that the fountain was erected in their memory and with the approval of Congress; there’s nothing else nearby to tell anyone who accidentally stumbles upon the memorial what it’s all about.
In the years and decades to come, the fountain will likely be swallowed up by the White House’s constantly expanding security perimeter. But the main Titanic Memorial has the potential to become a pleasant though still mostly inaccessible corner on the Potomac waterfront in the relatively near future, assuming the campaign to clean the monument up continues to move forward. All the same, it will more likely serve as a relaxation and recreation spot for the local residents than a destination for tourists and sightseers. While it’s hard to recommend travelers take use their limited vacation days in the nation’s capital to see this monument, for long-time Washington residents and frequent visitors – especially those with more than a passing interest in Titanic itself – it’s worth the trek at some point to see the memorial for ourselves.