It’s a 1,727 mile drive from Italian Harlem, New York – between Pleasant Avenue to the east, First Avenue to the west, East 114th Street to the south and East 120th Street to the north — to the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, in Keystone, South Dakota. If you’re taking I-80 and I-90 westbound you can do the trip in just under 25 hours.
There’s no way to do the trip faster, just as to date, there hasn’t been a way to bridge the gap that exists between the United States Department of the Interior’s National Park Service (NPS) and the family of the late Luigi Del Bianco.
Del Bianco was the obscure immigrant from the Province of Pordenone, in Italy, who served as the chief carver of Mount Rushmore from 1933 through 1940. You read that right. An immigrant to these shores was the chief carver on what is widely considered to be one of the world’s most renowned sculptures.
But if you didn’t know that, you’re not alone.
That’s because the NPS doesn’t recognize Del Bianco as the chief carver.
Tasked with giving the four presidential faces their “refinement of expression” by no less than Rushmore sculptor and designer Gutzon Borglum himself, Del Bianco is specifically referred to as the chief carver by Borglum in a July 30, 1935 letter written by him that you can find in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress.
“I have seen the letter in which Borglum refers to Del Bianco as chief carver,” Maureen McGee Ballinger, of tjhe NPS, told Denis Hamill of the New York Daily News last October. “But I consider Gutzon Borglum to be the chief carver.”
And Del Bianco? He was just one of the workers under Borglum, says the NPS.
The policy of the Parks Service is that all 400 individuals who worked at the monument from 1927 through 1941 receive the same credit, irrespective of their jobs. While that’s very egalitarian, it also presupposes that the man who operated the elevator lift was as important as Del Bianco.
The Parks Service is clearly dropping the ball here. They could be telling this great narrative about an Italian American immigrant who in 1929 became a citizen of this country who is the chief carver on what is arguably the most iconic landmark in this nation. Since the agency has long been a proponent of multiculturalism and pluralism, such a position would be in keeping with their own mission.
Instead, the NPS continues to recognize only Borglum for his work at the monument.
Listen, nobody is attempting to take anything away from Gutzon Borglum. There wouldn’t be a Mount Rushmore without him. But imagine the individuals in Italian Harlem, not to mention the rest of the 2.7 million people in New York who identify as Italian Americans, who would puff up their chests with pride if they found out that one of their fellow landsmen was at long last recognized by the federal government as Mount Rushmore’s chief carver?
Imagine what pride that would engender among the 18 million Italian Americans in this country?
In West Hollywood, California, Luigi’s sole surviving child, his 69-year-old daughter, Gloria, just laments the situation. As happens with all of us, she is getting older with each passing day. And she wonders whether or not the recognition she has long sought will occur in her lifetime.
“I’m not ready to call it a slap in the face yet,” she says. “But I’m pretty close.”
Is it a slap in the face? Only Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Midwestern Parks Administrator Patty Trapp know for sure.
Meanwhile, with every dashed hope, false promise and unanswered communication, that divide between the Del Bianco family and the government just keeps growing and growing.
Luigi lived for nearly a half-century in Port Chester, NY which still has an exceptionally large Italian American population. There is a plaque dedicated to him in a park in Port Chester, N.Y.
This is the plaque dedicated to Luigi in a park in Port Chester, N.Y.
Author’s Note: To purchase books directly through Bordighera Press, folks can call Rebecca Rizzo directly at 212-642-2001
Chris Bell’s newest book on East Harlem. Click on the link below to see my family photos included in his book.Posted: March 6, 2011