Babydog and Cass Gilbert

 

Babydog is now permanently enshrined in West Virginia’s history and architecture.

The image of Governor Jim Justice’s beloved English Bulldog appears, surprisingly, in one of the murals recently unveiled in the upper rotunda of the West Virginia State Capitol. Babydog is seated among individuals depicting dance, music and art with Seneca Rocks in the background.

It appears to have been a decision by State Department of Arts, Culture and History Secretary Randall Reid-Smith to include the dog’s image in one of the panels. Governor Justice told a reporter Monday he was not aware of it until he saw the mural for the first time last week.

I’m still trying to sort out what to make of this.

From a purist standpoint, Babydog does not belong there. Reid-Smith said during last week’s dedication of the murals that the intention of Capitol building architect Cass Gilbert was for the murals “to be historical and allegorical.”

Babydog is neither. She is a beloved pet, but also a political prop that Justice has used successfully to enhance his own popularity. The State Capitol does not belong to Justice or any other politician; it is the people’s house, and it will be as long as there is a government.

The temporary occupants of the building have an obligation to maintain its structural and aesthetic integrity for future generations. That includes keeping any changes in line with Gilbert’s original design.

When I first saw a picture of the mural with Babydog, I cringed. No, it was not as bad as Justice’s 2022 State of the State address when he flashed the dog’s rear to the camera, and more specifically to Bette Midler who had made a disparaging remark about the state. But it felt inappropriate.

However, now when I look at the mural my first reaction is to laugh. Babydog seems like she belongs there, perfectly comfortable with all that is going on around her, much like her behavior when she is sitting beside the Governor at public events.

That is typical of the breed. The American Kennel Club describes English Bulldogs as, “Kind but courageous, friendly, but dignified.” That loose skin on the head, pushed in nose and hanging jowls make the animal look like either they are smiling or sad. Either way, we are inclined to anthropomorphize them.

Babydog, like all good pets, makes us happy. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “Studies show that dogs can reduce stress, anxiety and depression, ease loneliness, encourage exercise and improve your all around health.”

Babydog and Justice may not check the box on exercise, but she clearly brings joy to those around her. And in West Virginia, we can always use a little more joy.

I imagine future tours of our popular Capitol Building where the guide tells visitors about how the Governor’s dog became a beloved pet of the state, and even a symbol of the massive vaccine effort during the pandemic—Do It for Babydog!

“Now,” the guide will ask the tourists, can you find Babydog in one of the murals?” That would be a memorable part of the tour.

However, we also must try to imagine what Cass Gilbert would think. He was one of our country’s great architects, and it is a deep source of pride that he built our Capitol. A profile of Gilbert in Architectural Digest described him as “formal, stuffy, ambitious, loyal, conservative in the extreme and more than a little prissy.”

Something tells me Mr. Gilbert would not approve, but then again, he was not exposed to the charms of Babydog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 





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