Rumors have been swirling about the origins of Boston College’s famous golden eagle statue almost since the day it was brought to campus. Some say that it came from Japan. Others insist that it’s not an eagle at all. In the early ’90s, campus legend even held that the statue would fly away if a virgin ever graduated from the University. While that’s certainly untrue, other bits and pieces of so-called rumor do in fact have a grain of truth in them.
One part of the eagle’s history is certain: it lived in Massachusetts long before it made its way to Chestnut Hill. The eagle came from the Brookline estate of Larz and Isabel Anderson, which they purchased from Isabel’s cousin shorty after their marriage in 1899, according to the now-museum’s website.
Larz, who was raised in Cincinnati and moved to Brookline after he married local socialite Isabel Weld Perkins, began his diplomatic career in 1891 as a secretary in U.S. embassies in London and Rome. Eventually, he worked his way up the ladder, and from 1912 to 1913, Larz served as the U.S. ambassador to Japan.
Inspired by the architecture there, the Andersons used part of Isabel’s fantastic fortune-according to the Society of the Cincinnati, the $17 million she inherited on her 21st birthday in 1897 made her the richest woman in America-to recreate a Japanese garden on their Brookline estate.
“They spent the most amount of their time here,” said Andrew Newton, director of education at the Larz Anderson Auto Museum, which is housed in the Andersons’ carriage house on the former estate.
Naturally, then, this would be the place on which to spend lavish amounts of money-and to keep the eagle, likely a memento from their time in Japan.
“I certainly think he would have gotten it in Japan,” Newton said, echoing the commonly accepted idea that the eagle resided in front of the American embassy in that country before Anderson brought it with him. “But it’s entirely possible that he got it after.”
The latter is also a compelling explanation, especially because of a tradition of military service in Larz’s family. He was the son of a Civil War general and could trace his lineage back to a Revolutionary War Lieutenant, a connection that allowed him to become a member of Washington’s Society of the Cincinnati. Larz himself volunteered for service in the Spanish-American War in 1898, according to the Society’s website. It is likely, then, that the eagle was purchased before the Andersons’ year in Japan as a symbol of American pride.
For decades, the eagle-which is, according to the museum’s website, made of bronze and gilded with gold-stood watch over the Japanese garden.
“It was kind of an American symbol in this very authentic Eastern setting,” Newton said.
After Isabel died in 1948, the estate went to the town of Brookline, he said.
“The house was torn down, and the gardens have become other things,” he said. “The town couldn’t afford to keep it up.” As a result, Newton speculates that the eagle could have been donated to BC simply because it had nowhere else to go, much the same way that the Andersons’ prized bonsai trees were relocated to Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum.
BC’s Burns Library exhibition, however, tells a different story about the eagle’s flight to campus. Betty Riley, whose father, Gus, had lived and worked on the Andersons’ estate since he was born, said in 2005 that her father somehow came into possession of the large statue.
It was displayed in front of his house until 1954, when Gus, a fan of BC sports, donated it to the University, according to the exhibit, after which it stood in front of Alumni House for several years.
It didn’t take long for the eagle to fly off to its current roost in front of Gasson Hall.
A 1956 Heights article reported that the 30-foot column on which it now rests stood in front of South Station in Dewey Square for years before the Central Artery project required that it be removed.
While this prompted many people to call it the Dewey Memorial, the column was not actually installed to commemorate anyone. South Station’s builders, the article reported, simply saw a similar piece of architecture while on a trip to Europe and admired it so much that they had a copy made and shipped over to decorate the square.
Its four lamps, which rested on marble-carved ships facing in four directions and jutting out from near the base of the column, burnt out in 1955. Rather than replace the lamps and reloacte it on South Station’s property, its owners donated the column to BC.
“This object d’art in front of Lyons Hall has been accused of being a Danish god of the sea, a flagpole stand, and two Norse ships immediately after a collection,” the article reads.
Once it was decided to move the statue in front of Gasson, the column and its strange ships were separated. The latter half rested in BC’s Quad near Gasson until last year, when the Quad was renovated and the ships mysteriously sailed off to an unknown location.
Until then, however, many 21st century students also questioned the origins and meaning of the strange, carved ships on the lawn.
In the years since its placement there, the iconic eagle has come to represent BC. As a result, it became the target of many a rival school’s prank, when, before big sports games, students would attempt to climb the column and re-paint the symbol of BC in their own school’s colors.
“One of the more recent occasions the eagle defended itself by cutting the hand of a paint-brush-armed attacker so severely that he required medical attention,” a 1962 Heights article reported. “Since this battle, there have not been any further attempts to deface the monument.”
It’s no surprise, then, that when the eagle vanished in 1993, most students suspected that a successful kidnapping had taken place.
Thankfully, however, the eagle was in good hands: those of a restoration specialist in Woburn, Mass.
University caretakers had noted that the eagle was not looking like its usual majestic self. After a thorough inspection, it was determined that the statue had been poorly cast and was therefore more easily worn down by the harsh weather than previously expected.
“This problem allowed water to leak into the statue, creating cracks in the wings, neck, and body,” a 1993 Heights article reported.
The damage was pronounced irreparable. Rather than permanently remove the eagle that had come to define campus, however, BC sent the statue to a restoration studio used by the Museum of Fine Arts, where the cracks were repaired before an exact replica was made. There is no documentation on where the original eagle has been kept since then.
The gilded eagle has had no major milestones in its long life on campus since then, and so it, like the rumors surrounding its origins, remains a permanent facet of life at BC.