|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.
- The Magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation
· Volume 50 / Number 6 · November / December 1998
|BY JAMES CONAWAY
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 1880s.
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.