This sculpture, honoring the victims of the 1900 Storm, was last seen in 1919. It is now the
Representatives from Galveston’s philanthropic powerhouses have expressed potential interest in supporting the re-creation of a statue dedicated to the 1900 Storm, the original of which vanished now a century ago.
“I think it’s a fantastic opportunity to remember that we as a community survived the storm,” Gerald Smith, the Moody Foundation’s senior program officer, said after a private presentation earlier this month at the Rosenberg Library. “I feel the statue would be a tremendous asset for Galveston.”
Senior officials from the Harris and Eliza Kempner Fund and the Mary Moody Northern Endowment also attended the presentation, in which John Bernardoni related his efforts in the past year and a half searching for a statue called “The Victims of the Galveston Flood,” his conclusion that it is lost forever, and his hope that it can be recreated and displayed on the island.
The statue, of which only old, sepia-tinted photographs exists, was created in 1904, depicting a mother, a young girl clinging to her, and a deceased infant cradled in the mother’s arms as the hurricane’s trailing winds press against her. A man’s disembodied arm rises from below in a desperate bid to grasp the debris on which the woman precariously stands.
“We need Galveston to embrace this,” Bernardoni, whose great-grandfather, Giovanni Bernardoni, died in the 1900 Storm, urged his audience. “I’m hoping people will come together on this.”
The statue was sculpted by Pompeo Luigi Coppini, an Italian immigrant and naturalized American who created numerous bronze works throughout Texas, including a tomblike monument to the heroes of the Alamo, a commission awarded to him for the Texas Centennial.
Coppini, also for the 1936 centennial, created bronze statues of Stephen Austin, Sam Houston, William Travis and others, all of which now stand in the Hall of State in Austin as monuments to a pivotal era in Texas history.
Some see Coppini’s “Galveston Flood” piece in a similar context.
“The 1900 Storm statue has a sense of the strength of the disaster and of the resilience of Galveston,” Maureen Patton, the executive director of the Grand 1894 Opera House and a project supporter, said. “It’s a very powerful piece.”
Anne Brasier, the executive director of the Harris and Eliza Kempner Fund, and Allan Matthews, the Moody Foundation’s director of grants, said they intended to bring the project to their respective trustees.
“Today is about awareness of the project,” Matthews said. “My next logical move is to present this to our board and go from there. I’m enthusiastic.”
Bernardoni said a reproduction of Coppini’s masterwork could be in place as early as the end of next year.
“It will take one year from the time it’s budgeted and costs $400,000,” he told his audience. “That’s a turnkey figure, to have the 10-foot-tall statue cast in bronze, brought here and installed.”
Whether the project will come to fruition — and, if so, where it would be placed — remains to be determined.
“My wish, though it’s Galveston’s call, is that it be in a high-profile, high-traffic location, a place of honor,” Bernardoni said. “I think this is something that would reconnect Galveston in an historical context, not just as a tourism destination.”
The 1900 Storm, in which more than 6,000 people died, a fifth of Galveston’s population at the time, remains the worst natural tragedy in U.S. history. The disaster spurred the building of a 17-foot-high seawall and the raising of the city, infrastructure and all, so as to slope from the height of the storm barrier along the Gulf Coast down to Galveston Bay.
Both projects proved their merits in 1915, when an equally severe hurricane battered Galveston, destroying countless buildings but killing just eight people on the island.
Coppini’s sculpture was last seen in 1919 at the University of Texas at Austin, to whom he had donated the plaster-of-Paris statue — the precursor to casting it in bronze — and 23 other pieces he had created.
“By the early 1920s, all 24 had vanished,” Bernardoni said.
Before he died in San Antonio in September 1957, Coppini published an autobiography, “From Dawn to Sunset,” in which he recounted exhibiting the statue before hundreds of people, many of them survivors of the 1900 Storm, all weeping at the memories the statue elicited.
And, he wrote, he wept, too, seeing the wrenching reaction to his work.
John Sullivan, the principal owner of Galveston-based Sullivan Companies, can understand, he said.
“Both sides of my family were here in 1900, and by some miracle all survived,” Sullivan said after hearing Bernardoni’s presentation.
“I’d really like to see this project move forward for Galveston.”
John Bernardoni, Project Manager
The Lost Coppini Statue Project