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Mystery of Capitol dome statue solved
The “Montana” statue, formerly known as “Lady Liberty” sits atop the Capitol dome.
Photo by GEORGE LANE/Independent Record

HELENA - It took a Pennsylvania woman cleaning out her grandfather's trunk to solve a pair of century-old mysteries about the copper-sheathed, bronze sculpture of the woman that sits atop Montana's Capitol dome.

Last month, Alice Nagle sent an e-mail to the Montana Historical Society to ask whether "my grandfather's sculpture" still graced the dome.

Until then, state officials had no idea who the artist was because of a scandal in 1895 over the construction of the statehouse. The sculpture had arrived unexpectedly at the Northern Pacific depot in Helena a few years later, but all records about it were destroyed.

Society officials learned that Nagle's grandfather, Edward J. Van Landeghem of Philadelphia, was the sculptor of the 17-foot tall statue of the woman wearing a long-flowing gown, holding up a torch in one hand and a shield with the other.

Nagle learned her grandfather christened his sculpture "Montana." Not knowing its name, people have referred to the statue as "Lady Liberty" ever since it was installed on Sept. 15, 1901.

Montana Historical Society art curator Kirby Lambert said Wednesday that Nagle, of Hatfield, Pa., cleared up these mysteries.

Nagle was assured that the statue was still standing tall. She then began providing documentation to the society. Lambert was delighted to learn the details.

"It's pretty important to me," he said. "We get a lot of questions about it. She's a pretty big figure on the Helena skyline."

Lambert, one of the authors of the 2002 book, "Montana's State Capitol: The People's House," called the turn of events "some sort of serendipity."

Nagle said in a telephone interview from Pennsylvania that her father died in 1997 and her mother moved to a retirement home. Their four children began going through the items left in their parents' attic, including their grandfather's trunk.

Near the bottom of the trunk, she found a newspaper clipping and photo from a 1902 Philadelphia Times showing her grandfather and the Montana statue. Van Landeghem considered it one of his favorite - and best - sculptures, she said.

Nagle has enjoyed helping the state solve the mysteries.

"It's been so exciting and breathtaking," said Nagle, a retired administrative assistant for the executive vice president of a large corporation. "It just sends chills through me."

Nagle said she regrets she and her husband weren't able to travel to Montana at this time, but they hope to eventually.

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Edward Van Landeghem was born in Belgium in 1865 and trained at the Academy of Fine Arts School in Brussels, Nagle said. He also studied art in the cities of Ghent and Saint-Niklass in Flanders and in Rome and carved and restored stone at the king's palace in Brussels. In 1899, he and his wife, Elodie, immigrated to the United States.

Besides the Montana sculpture, his other commissions included a statue of the Virgin Mary for the College of the Immaculate Conception at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., a statue of George Washington for the Masonic Hall in Lansdale, Pa., and "Washington's Greatest Moments of Despair," a bas relief plaque done for the Valley Forge Memorial Chapel Museum in Valley Forge, Pa.

Little is known about how Van Landeghem received the commission for the Montana sculpture.

Lambert said Montana established a Capitol Commission in 1895 to build the statehouse. An architect was picked, and plans were drafted for a $1 million building. But Rep. Fred Whiteside of Flathead County exposed the crooked commission's scheme to embezzle hundreds of the thousands of dollars and build cut-rate Capitol. The commission was disbanded, its records destroyed and the state architect committed suicide, Lambert said.

A second Capitol Commission started from scratch, he said, and tossed out the original design. Members were surprised when the sculpture commissioned by the first group arrived at the depot, but they installed it anyway.

Nagle remembers her grandfather as "being tall with broad shoulders." He made sculptures of Santa Claus for his children, and she has a number of birdbaths, vases and garden ornaments that he made.

"Apparently, he was a lot more famous than what we thought he was," she said.

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