Kurt's Historic Sites

Adams Memorial

Henry Adams

Interment LocationVisited 
Washington, D.C.August 6, 2015 

Photographed August 6, 2015.

Known unofficially as Grief, the inscriptionless Adams Memorial at Washington’s Rock Creek Cemetery was created by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. At a price of $20,000, the acclaimed artist was hired by historian Henry Adams to commemorate his late wife, photographer Marian “Clover” Adams. In December 1885, Mrs. Adams had committed suicide by ingesting the very chemicals she used to develop pictures. An exhibition label from the Smithsonian American Art Museum explains that Henry Adams wished for Saint-Gaudens’s commission to “express the Buddhist idea of nirvana, a state of being beyond joy and sorrow. In Adams’s circle of artists and writers, the old Christian certainties seemed inadequate after the violence of the Civil War, the industrialization of America, and Darwin’s theories of evolution. Saint-Gaudens’s ambiguous figure reflects the search for new insights into the mysteries of life and death. The shrouded being is neither male nor female, neither triumphant nor downcast. Its message is inscrutable. Clover’s gravesite in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C. quickly became a tourist attraction, but Adams resisted all attempts to sentimentalize the memorial as a symbol of grief.” The widower died in 1918 and was laid to rest with Clover, not long before he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his book, The Education of Henry Adams.

The nature of his wife’s death and the stigma of suicide made both Clover Adams and the enigmatic figure at her burial site sensitive subjects for Henry Adams. When President Theodore Roosevelt invited the historian to the Executive Mansion in 1904, he made the mistake of complementing the shrouded bronze statue and calling it “her.” Objecting to the pronoun, Adams wrote a terse reply the day following his visit. “If you were talking last night as President, I have nothing to say. Whatever the President says, goes,” Adams asserted. “But! After March 4 [the end of Roosevelt’s term], should you allude to my bronze figure, will you try to do Saint-Gaudens the justice to remark that his expression was a little higher than sex can give. As he meant it, he wanted to exclude sex, and sink it in humanity. The figure is sexless.”

Photographed July 3, 2023.
Photographed July 3, 2023.

The shrubbery that surrounds the Adams gravesite creates a private sanctuary for reflective visitors. One repeat guest was Eleanor Roosevelt, who took comfort there after she learned of her husband Franklin’s extramarital affair. In March 1933, as she was about to take up the mantle of first lady, Mrs. Roosevelt returned with a friend to Rock Creek Cemetery. At the marble bench across from Saint-Gaudens’s statue, she explained to her companion, “In the old days, when we lived here, I was much younger, and not so very wise. Sometimes I’d feel very unhappy and sorry for myself. When I was feeling that way, if I could manage it, I’d come out here, alone, and sit and look at that woman. And I’d always come away somehow feeling better and stronger.” In commentary for C-SPAN, historian Richard Norton Smith notes that Roosevelt was incorrect about the sex of the statue — which was intended to be genderless and was based off of a male model — “but she captured perfectly the spiritual balm provided by the memorial its sculptor christened ‘the peace of God that paseth understanding.'”

Fast Facts

Born: February 16, 1838 in Boston, Massachusetts

Spouse: Marian Hooper “Clover” Adams (m. 1872-1885)

Pulitzer Prize for Biography: The Education of Henry Adams (1919)

Died: March 27, 1918 in Washington, D.C.

Age: 80

Interment: Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

"Your letter of Novr. 22 reached me here two days ago. As I returned from my father's funeral. By the way, please overlook any slight signs of flagging gaiety you may notice in my style. During the last eighteen months I have not had the good luck to attend my own funeral, but with that exception I have buried pretty nearly everything I lived for; and at times I have had to make some effort in order to be as gay as one would wish."
- Henry Adams
December 5, 1886, in a letter to his friend, Anne Palmer Fell. Adams documents his sorrow in the wake of the death of his father, Charles Francis Adams, which came not long after the suicide of his wife, Clover Adams.
Photographed November 29, 2022.

Freedom Plaza, situated in the northwest quadrant of Washington, D.C., is decorated with stones engraved with statements made about the city by historical figures. One quotation originates from an 1877 letter written by Henry Adams to his friend, lawyer Charles Milnes Gaskell. Adams wrote of the capital, “One of these days this will be a very great city if nothing happens to it.”

One of Henry Adams’s major literary works was his nine-volume series The History of the United States of America 1801–1817. Adams conducted the research for this extensive project in the Stone Library at Peace field in Quincy, Massachusetts. The structure houses thousands of books that once belonged to the historian’s politically-active ancestors: his father, Minister Charles Francis Adams; his grandfather, President John Quincy Adams; and his great-grandfather, President John Adams

Photographed September 5, 2018.

Sources Consulted and Further Reading

“Adams Memorial.” C-SPAN video, 2:24. January 1, 2010. https://www.c-span.org/video/?307185-1/adams-memorial.

Adams National Historical Park. “Henry Adams (1838-1918).” nps.gov. Updated April 30, 2015. https://www.nps.gov/adam/learn/historyculture/henry-adams-1838-1918.htm.

Conroy, Sarah Booth. “THE MYSTERIOUS MASTERPIECE.” Washington Post. April 12, 1992. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1992/04/12/the-mysterious-masterpiece/dfc50efd-027f-47af-916f-05fd18e7c6cd/.

Smithsonian American Art Museum. “Adams Memorial.” Accessed September 10, 2022. https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/adams-memorial-21528.

Winner, Viola Hopkins. “Henry Adams and Lafayette Square, 1877-1885.” Virginia Quarterly Review 62, no. 3 (1986). https://www.vqronline.org/essay/henry-adams-and-lafayette-square-1877-1885.

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