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A YEAR BEFORE THE PANAMA CANAL PASSES INTO PANAMANIAN HANDS, THE STRUCTURES THAT ESTABLISHES A VAST OUTPOST OF U.S. CULTURE FACE AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE.

Preservation - The Magazine of the National Trust for  Historic Preservation
Volume 50 / Number 6 November / December 1998


BY   JAMES CONAWAY  

PHOTOGRAPHY BY SCOTT WARREN

     In the compact rotunda of the Panama Canal Administration Building in Balboa, just west of Panama City, two marble busts stare out from alcove a passing bureaucrats and the occasional tourist. One depicts the Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps, who conceived and built the Suez Canal and led the French canal digging effort in Panama in the 1880’s. The other is of Theodore Roosevelt, who later championed the Panama project as a Untied States enterprise and as an addendum to Manifest Destiny. The legacies of both men are evident today in a functioning Panama Canal, but its future and that of the structures around it are, a year before the final transfer of the canal to Panama, more conjectural than either man would have wished.
     Overhead is a mural in the round painted in 1914 by the Philadelphia artist William Bratley Van Ingen. In a style both impressionistic and monumental, Van Ingen depicted terraced hillsides, steam shovels, and trains diminished by the yawning cut of the canal itself, smoke-blown trestles and cranes, and the wall of a canal lock rising like a nascent pyramid. Human beings are reduced to industrial cogs, shrouded figures carrying an enormous chain or clinging to a Brobdingnagian earth-moving device, while in the background lurks the cool, green Panamanian jungle.

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