Prominently placed at the North West corner of Congress Park is one of Saratoga’s greatest treasures; The “Spirit of Life”. This memorial was dedicated in 1915 to Spencer Trask (1844-1909) by his wife Katrina and his business partner George Foster Peabody. After the death of his first child Alanson, Spencer bought an estate in Saratoga Springs hoping the distance would help his wife Katrina overcome the loss of their child. Prior to the purchase of this estate the Trasks spent most of their time in New York City but were familiar with the summer racing season in Saratoga. The estate that they bought is now known as “Yaddo” and is recognized throughout the world as a premier artists’ retreat. Spencer was a founding member of a committee which was charged with renewing the city’s reputation as a health resort. Although Spencer participated in many investment and philanthropic opportunities in his life, his best known accomplishments are the ones shared with his wife Katrina.
In 1913, after Spencer’s passing, Katrina Trask and George Foster Peabody, commissioned the “Spirit of Life” to honor her late husband, who loved Saratoga and all it had to offer. The memorial was completed and dedicated in 1915 the same year that Saratoga Springs was incorporated. The beautiful bronze sculpture was created by Daniel Chester French. French’s first design was a model of an angel with outstretched arms and a downturned head. This was rejected by Katrina who preferred a more active pose. French kept his first model titled the “Spirit of the Waters” and cast 2 bronzes from it: One located in Chesterwood, French’s summer home and studio, the other at Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum. Back to work he went.
Audrey Munson, was the model used for the “Spirit of Life”. The sculptor Daniel Chester French is well known, but his model, and the tragic story of her rise and fall has nearly disappeared into history. Audrey Munson was born 1891 in Rochester, New York. She and her mother later moved to New York City. She was the model for the Mercury dime and the half dollar. Sculptures of her likeness were displayed so often in New York City that she was nicknamed “Miss Manhattan”. Tragically she was committed to an asylum suffering from depression, schizophrenia, and paranoia. She would live in the institution for 65 years. Audrey died in 1996 at the age of 104.
The “Spirit of Life” was French’s second sculpture. The figure holds a basin (from which water falls into a pool) and a pine branch which references the towering pines on the Trasks’ estate; Yaddo. In many ways the winged female figure embodies the health and history of Saratoga. The flow of the angel’s robe and the position of her right foot gives a great deal of motion and Katrina approved!
Henry Bacon known for his public buildings and monuments designed the niche, wing walls, reflecting pool, and overlook, largely constructed of Indiana limestone, which established the architectural setting for the sculptures. The Spencer Trask Memorial was a true partnership between French and Beacon, who also designed and executed the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.
There were six smaller castings of the statue between 1923 and 1931. A casting dated May 1914 is found at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The Statue is on display outdoors in an open vestibule at the entrance to the Church.
In 1983 the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation and the City of Saratoga Springs developed a conservation/restoration plan to preserve the memorial. In 2010, three decades after the first restoration, citizens once again voiced concern about the deteriorating condition of the sculpture, its architectural surround, and landscape setting. A plan was put together at a cost of $650,000 to save the Memorial. Restoration was completed just in time to celebrate the Spirit of Life’s centennial in June, 2015, the same anniversary of the incorporation of the City of Saratoga Springs.
Today the Memorial serves to remind us of our civic responsibility to preserve our past. The Saratoga Sun, published in June 1915 states “The sun shining up on it gave added beauty and effectiveness and the statue will always be, besides being a memorial to Mr. Trask, one of the beauties of the parks, which will attract the eye of all who come to this city.”