WHEELING - It only took a century and a half, but the state Francis Harrison Pierpont helped create finally will honor him with a larger-than-life statue outside West Virginia Independence Hall in downtown Wheeling.
On Thursday, on the 150th anniversary of West Virginia's admission to the Union, supporters gathered inside the historic building's third-floor courtroom to unveil a clay maquette, or scale model, of the statue they hope by West Virginia Day 2014 will welcome visitors to the place where the debates culminating in statehood unfolded.
"Nowhere in the state of West Virginia is there a statue of the father of West Virginia, Francis Pierpont," said Jeremy Morris, executive director of the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp., who has helped lead a three-year effort to have the statue built.
SCALE MODEL OF STATUE — Gathering Thursday to unveil a scale model of the statue that eventually will stand outside West Virginia Independence Hall are, from left, Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp. Executive Director Jeremy Morris, sculptor Gareth Curtiss and Independence Hall Site Manager Travis Henline. -- Ian Hicks
Pierpont was appointed provisional governor of the pro-Union "Restored Government of Virginia," established in 1861 to fill the vacated posts of Virginia officials following its secession from the Union. After passing the mantle two years later to newly created West Virginia's first official governor, Arthur Boreman, Pierpont went on to head the loyal Virginia government through the early years of Reconstruction until 1868.
The statue, designed by Montana sculptor Gareth Curtiss - selected from a pool of 20 interested artists - depicts Pierpont with a resolute look on his face, right arm outstretched and clutching a rolled-up document in his left hand. Though it is not explicitly identified, there's no doubt in the mind of Independence Hall Site Manger Travis Henline what's on that paper.
"That document clenched in his hand is the U.S. Constitution," said Henline, describing his vision of Pierpont in his study, poring over the Constitution to discover the mechanism by which he and fellow statehood advocates could realize their dream of carving a new state from Confederate Virginia.
The finished product, which will stand on the corner of 16th and Market streets, will be cast in bronze and could weigh as much as 1,200 pounds, Curtiss said. Its final size has yet to be determined, however. The statue will either be "life and a quarter" - 7 feet, 6 inches - or "life and a half" - 9 feet.
In developing his design, Curtiss said he spent a good deal of time studying portraits of Pierpont, as well as the statue of him displayed in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol. But the time he spent researching Pierpont's life and career was even more important, he said, allowing him to capture his subject's personality and demeanor to give his work a final touch of authenticity.
Curtiss said he's always been a student of history, noting his great-great-grandfather joined the Union army at age 16 and fought for the duration of the Civil War.
"For me, this is an important piece," he said.
On hand for Thursday's unveiling was Pierpont's great-great-grandson, Ted Beyer, who traveled to Wheeling with his wife, Pat, from their Norwalk, Conn., home for the event. He noted the transformation of Independence Hall since his last visit during the 1970s, when restoration of the building was still in progress.
Beyer, whose family donated several pieces on display at Independence Hall today, including Pierpont's desk, said he was impressed with Curtiss' likeness of his famous ancestor.
"I like the statue," Beyer said. "I don't know how you get hair that well in clay."