A wax sculpture of Abe Lincoln was no match for D.C.’s punishing heat (2024)

By Monday morning his head was gone, his left leg was separated from his torso and his right foot was a blob.

Wax Abe Lincoln, it turns out, was no match for Washington’s punishing heat wave.

The six-foot-tall statue of America’s 16th president, by Richmond artist Sandy Williams IV, was installed in February on the campus of Garrison Elementary School in Northwest Washington. The noble rendering, meant to draw attention to the Civil War era and its aftermath, was placed under towering trees sure to provide ample shade in summer.

That was the thinking, anyway. Instead, three consecutive days of temperatures exceeding the mid-90s laid waste to wax Lincoln. Photos of the melting president with his head tilting far backward soon began going viral.

Slumping Abe in heat-induced agony was one interpretation of the meme-makers. Slumping Abe in carnal ecstasy was the suggestion of those hawking more scandalous versions.

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No matter how people saw it, there was no ignoring what the heat had wrought.

“I never even thought about it melting, but in hindsight it makes so much sense,” sighed Melissa Krull, 41, who lives nearby and stopped on Monday to take a look at the wax president’s remains. “Even his poor legs are starting to come unglued.”

At one point Lincoln’s head perched so precariously that staffers at CulturalDC, the nonprofit organization that commissioned the work, attempted to straighten it so that it would stay in place. But it was a lost cause, and so early Monday, they took Lincoln’s head away for safekeeping with plans to reattach it on Tuesday. A wire spoke that kept the former president’s head in place was all that remained.

Surprisingly — or perhaps not surprisingly at all — this is the second time the Lincoln statue has melted. The 3,000-pound Lincoln candle — it had 100 wicks meant to be lighted — was installed at the same location in September . Days before it was set to be officially unveiled, someone lighted more than half of the wicks and then left the piece unattended.

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Flame 1, wax Lincoln 0. Abe was reduced to a ghastly corpse, and what was left of the gloppy statue was carted away.

For its reincarnation in February, precautions were taken. The number of wicks was reduced to just 10, and visitors were directed to light them for just a minute or two and then blow them out.

That approach worked well until the sun intervened over the weekend and Lincoln began to ooze. But melting like soft-serve ice cream on a scorching summer day was not something its creator imagined would happen. Williams, a professor of art at the University of Richmond, understood the wax to have a melting point well above highs recorded in the District’s sultriest summers.

“The idea was that the ambient temperature, unless it got to 140 degrees, wouldn’t melt the sculpture,” Williams said. “But yeah, I’m not sure that the company ever tried just putting a block of it outside for days in a hundred plus degree weather.”

While the Lincoln statue’s heat allergies have attracted widespread attention and provided humorous fodder for the social media gods, they have also brought attention to the work itself and the role public art can play in understanding history.

Titled “40 ACRES: Camp Barker,” the statue was placed on Garrison’s grounds because during the Civil War, that was the location of Camp Barker, a refuge for people escaping enslavement in the South and seeking freedom. Lincoln is said to have visited the camp on several occasions. The project is part of Williams’s wax archives series that explores the era during and following the Civil War.

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“I’m interested in kind of highlighting Reconstruction-era histories that maybe have been forgotten or, you know, misplaced within the larger narrative arc,” Williams said. “Like, we learned Lincoln freed the slaves, but not necessarily what happened to these new free Black communities.”

Placing Lincoln in a neighborhood far from the National Mall helped to make that connection with people who might not otherwise see it, Williams said.

Kristi Maiselman, executive director and curator of CulturalDC, said the community has embraced the Lincoln statue, and it has prompted discussion about what statements it is making and how it connects people to history.

She added that the statue’s melting during a heat wave provided an opportunity to examine where the world is headed.

“I think personally, it’s a great platform for this work to spark conversations, not only about the historical significance of the site and of Lincoln, but about what’s going on in the world as it relates to climate change,” she said.

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Maiselman said the artwork, paid for with a mix of private and public funding, cost a total of $150,000, which includes the cost of the replacement statue after the first Lincoln burned.

The immediate fate of the heat damaged statue remains uncertain. It was scheduled to remain in its current location until September, and CulturalDC and Williams would like to repair it and keep it there. But they said a final decision will be made in consultation with the school and others in the community.

For now, its remains remain in place, and there is nothing in the city quite like it.

Cait Lowry, who owns the Coffee Bar, a half-block away from wax Lincoln, provided coffee at a ceremony when it was installed and remembers appreciating its uniqueness.

“It was just so cool,” she said.

Just not quite cool enough.

correction

An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported when a previous Lincoln sculpture was installed. It was in September. The article has been updated.

A wax sculpture of Abe Lincoln was no match for D.C.’s punishing heat (2024)
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