Two soaring figures flank a 142-foot flagpole at the Hoover Dam Visitors Center, aged to the gunmetal patina that clings to bronze after years in the elements. The figures are ripped with muscles, raising their arms to extended wings that double their height, hitting over 30 feet, while their toes have been rubbed smooth and golden by millions of hands looking for good luck.
The figures are sentries at the entrance to Hoover Dam, part angel, part symbol of the strength of man, they are the work of a sculptor named Oskar J.W. Hansen, a Norwegian immigrant who came to the United States after some time in the merchant marines. He became a citizen and joined the Army, and after he left the service, embarked on a long career as an artist and sculptor.
As the dam was nearing completion, Hansen entered a sculpture competition for the public areas, and his design won. Soon the largest single-cast bronzes in the world (at the time) were installed on the Nevada side of what would later be called Hoover Dam.
Sitting on a base of highly polished jet-black stone, the figures are so large, and the stones so heavy, an ingenious method of installation was used to get their placement just right. The square stones were lowered by crane onto big blocks of ice, which then slowly melted in the Nevada sun. The slow melt allowed for engineers to make minute adjustments in order to keep every aspect perfectly level and perfectly plumb.
Hansen’s design included a 14-story flagpole, installed between the figures and anchored deep into the bedrock below. On the ground in front of the sculptures Hansen added a dramatic terrazzo floor of his own Art Deco design, a “star map” that was aligned exactly to the placement of the Nevada skies on the very day President Franklin Roosevelt was to dedicate the dam: September 30, 1935.
But before that presidential dedication, before construction had even begun, Hansen spoke at the unveiling of another of his designs. It would be seven years before his Winged Figures would become a reality, but he seemed to presciently speak of his symbolic angels in 1928: “Man has always sought to express and preserve the magnitude of his exploits in symbols… They form the connecting link between the spiritual and the material world. They are the shadows cast by the realities of the soul.”
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