If you’re ever in Washington DC, stroll over to the Wilson Building (home to the offices of the DC Mayor and Council at 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue NW), look up at the facade, and say “Hi” to the artist who decorated our church!
Before crafting statues and friezes inside and outside our 1911 church, sculptor Adolfo de Nesti was commissioned to design classical figures to adorn what was then called the Municipal Services Building in Washington. The Washington Post, July 3 1908, reported that his 26 white marble statues, each over nine feet tall, represented “the arts, sciences, commerce, statesmanship, and other conceptions.” One of the statues, depicting “a graceful-appearing young man with bared arms and a loose-fitting robe draped about his shoulders is Art…and De Nesti, it is said, has used his own head and figure as the model…”
De Nesti’s works were a small part of a much larger idea. In 1901, the MacMillan commission approved a development plan to re-make the nation’s capital as an idealized “City Beautiful” that would inspire “civic virtue…through important monumental architecture.” James Wasserman, author of a guide to Masonic Washington, suggests that the many symbols incorporated in decorations throughout the city “silently communicate a curriculum designed to inspire, elevate, and teach eternal truth.”
De Nesti, who came from Florence, Italy, dreamed American in his Washington years. His business partner, Ernest Bairstow, would later be known for his work on the Lincoln Memorial. De Nesti was on the Street Decoration Committee for the 1905 Inauguration of President Theodore Roosevelt. And in 1906, he married Agnes Campbell Gordon Armistead – the Great Granddaughter of Colonel George Armistead, whose 1812 defense of Fort McHenry inspired our National Anthem.
In 1907, having finished his work on emblems of “patriotic religion” in Washington, de Nesti and his young wife began a new chapter of their lives in Philadelphia. Their son was born here in March 1908 and de Nesti began crafting inspirational symbols of Catholic faith in our church. In 1914, he sculpted a statue of the Blessed Virgin to top the dome at Immaculata University.
As far as we know, de Nesti never became an American citizen, and likely returned to Italy in World War I. His wife remarried after a “tragedy” and divorce in 1921, at which point their son, Adolfo Napoleone Francesco de Nesti Junior changed his name to the all-American Armistead Greene. Adolfo de Nesti’s American dream ended early but his sculptured likeness in Washington still wistfully overlooks every presidential inaugural parade. And Saint Francis de Sales Church in Philadelphia, the city of our nation’s Founding Fathers, is his memorial.
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