Art & Museums

Kill Yr Idols—A Chicago History of Statue Desecration, Part 2

Part 1 of this article can be found here.

The original inspiration for this article came from a reference in the WPA Guide to Illinois, created by the Federal Writers’ Project. One itinerary advised that tourists visit the Emanuel Swedenborg bust on Simmons Island. In 2012, I discovered that while the island remained, the bust did not.

Emanuel Swedenborg is an intriguing guy; certainly one you wouldn’t expect to show up in bronze form in Chicago. A scientist turned theologian/mystic, his religious notions (achieved through visions) seeded a branch of Christianity appropriately named Swedenborgianism. As a scientist, he was a true person of the Enlightenment, studying mathematics, metallurgy, chemistry, anatomy and physiology, and other disciplines. Swedenborg’s big, juicy 18th century brain developed intriguing new theories about the operation of the nervous system and pituitary gland.

As a mystic, well… the man claimed to chat with angels and spirits from heaven, hell, and other planets (yet-to-be-discovered Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto were somehow omitted). His legend is also borne by anecdotes of supposed psychic talents: predicting fires, reading minds, and whatnot. Don’t be hasty to judge: Swedenborg had some odd notions, but he wasn’t a bad guy, and he preached (strictly through his writings; he had a speech impediment and never started a church himself) the usual messages of peace, love, understanding, and a theory of “usefulness,” inspiring people like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Chicago city planner/architect Daniel Burnham, who was a Swedenborgian.

A Mr. and Mrs. L. Bracken Bishop donated the bust in 1924, coming across the original in Upsala, Sweden, and paying a grand to cast it in bronze. The Bishops considered giving it to Washington, DC, but Mrs. Bishop preferred Chicago with its sizable Swedish population (more on Chicago Scandinavians can be found here). An early press kit notes that sculptor, Swedish artist Adolph Jonsson, had been a stickler for details, employing “studies of Swedenborg’s skull” to achieve the perfect likeness.

Unveiled and dedicated on June 28, 1924, to several thousand Chicagoans in attendance, the statue looked on as a “white-capped” chorus of 1,200 Swedish singers and a Viking ship float crewed by ladies dressed as Valkyries sang that stirring old Viking battle hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Mayor William Dever accepted the bust on behalf of the city; someone read a congratulatory letter from President Calvin Coolidge; and for extra Svenska goodness, Swedish Minister to the US Axel Wallenberg gave a speech. For Chicago’s Swedes, the bust was a big deal, though other Scandinavians are also immortalized in bronze around town, such as Leif Ericson in Humboldt Park, and zoologist Carl Linnaeus. Note: Linnaeus’ statue, before being moved to its current Hyde Park location, had its own problems, when, in 1972, someone snapped his arms off.

Swedenborg’s bust remained on Simmons Island (off Lake Shore Drive about 2100 north) for the next 52 years, assumedly mulling the secrets of the universe and making mental day trips to Alpha Centauri. Easily overlooked, thousands of people drove past it on Lake Shore Drive for years.

Then, sometime in January/February of 1976, it vanished. Made of bronze and weighing several hundred pounds. The metallurgist’s bust was probably another victim of scrap collectors. For the next 34 years, the bust was replaced by a squat pyramid, and in 2009, a car struck and badly damaged the pedestal. In 2010, the bust was recast, the pedestal repaired, and the site rededicated to the religious rocketeer. Godspeed you, Space Commander Swedenborg.

In an tacky case of statue abduction, on October 1, 1941, Chicago Postmaster Ernest Kruetgen reported the absence of the bronze statue decorating his family mausoleum at Graceland Cemetery. Kruetgen imported the statue from Germany in 1918. Weighing 750 pounds, it cost $1,500, and guarded the mausoleum’s door for decades, until local goons Alexander Stazhurski and Theodore Brzozowski drove into Graceland and threw it into their car in broad daylight.

Not being art connoisseurs, Stazhurski and  Brzozowski didn’t realize no scrap or junk dealer would touch an obviously hot statue. Not an intact one anyway. The Philistines armed themselves with hammers and went to work, shattering it into unrecognizable chunks and paying some kid a dollar to sell it at a North Avenue junkyard. For all their trouble, they netted just $31.50. Or rather $30.50 after they paid the kid. The chunks remained recognizable enough, and the dealer called the cops. Once nicked, Stazhurski and Brzozowski confessed to everything. Kruetgen never bothered to replace the statue, and its base remains bare.

Daniel Chester French is probably the most famous sculptor in this essay. He and his student Edward Potter crafted the World’s Fair Bulls with Maidens—two bulls, attended by two maidens: togaed Ceres, Roman goddess of commerce and grain, and a “Native American goddess of corn”—which stood guard in Garfield Park since 1909. Then thieves snatched the bull and his Native American lady friend March 15, 1986.

French is best known for his statue of Abraham Lincoln—the great big one at the Lincoln Memorial; the Concord, Massachusetts’ Minute Man statue; and the Pulitzer Prize Medal. Potter is known for the lions standing guard outside the New York Public Library. For the World’s Fair Bulls with Maidens, French made the goddesses while Potter sculpted the bulls. The statues weren’t masterpieces, but they were remnants of the Columbian Exposition, and thus precious to the city. The original statues were plaster and gigantic, and stood at the fair’s livestock exhibit. Afterward they were transported to Garfield Park, where they were cast in bronze, and placed outside the Conservatory.

Bolted to two-foot-high granite slabs and weighing a ton, the bull and maiden wouldn’t have been easy to filch, requiring a crane and truck to transport. The thieves attempted to take Ceres and her bovine pal as well it seems, since the Roman god-maiden lost an arm and the bull its tail. The case of the bulls suggests the thieves were men of taste. Though one wonders why the arm and tail of the other pair were snatched as well. Perhaps they intended to sell the statues for scrap, but the dealer had a good eye and the right connections to find a wealthy buyer. The Park District posted an award for $1,000 that went unclaimed, and the statue was designated missing/assumed melted. In 2003, the Park District hired art restorer Andrzej Dajnowski to repair Ceres and her bull and replicate the other statue, which is currently on display.

Happily, in February 2010, Chicago Park District historian Julia Bachrach received an e-mail from a New York auction house. They’d come across a statue on the estate of a recently deceased Virginian, and did they happen to be missing any bulls or maidens? The statue’s provenance since the theft remains unrevealed (the Virginian’s name was suppressed, per a legal agreement with his family, though they said he’d been the third owner). The original bull and Indian maiden have since been restored and placed back in their original location.

In a June 18, 1976, article, Trib writer Paul Gapp interviewed Friends of the Parks president and former Chicago Park District commissioner Cindy Mitchell about the abuse and neglect of our city’s statues. The piece makes intriguing mention of several long-missing figures that seemingly went poof.

Christopher Columbus statues around the country have been toppled, beheaded, or removed after the recent protests, but Chicago has/had its own tributes to the Italian explorer/genocidist. One was a massive 20-foot, 14-ton statue of Columbus set up in Grant Park in the 1890s. Accounts state the humongous Columbus to be universally disliked and removed. Mitchell discovered that it was melted down in 1903, and remade into a monument to America’s third assassinated president William McKinley—now in McKinley Park at 38th and Western. As of this writing, the smaller Columbus statue that’s stood in Grant Park since 1933, remains untouched. For now.

Ms. Mitchell also discovered Chicago was down two Minutemen—one in Lincoln Park and one in Garfield Park—and a sylphic young miss named Fountain Girl (aka, The Little Cold Fountain Girl).

Another idol raised by kids’ allowances ($3,000 to sculptor George Wade in 1893), Fountain Girl had been the brain child of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The women wanted to provide an alternative to booze on the street. Stationed near the WCTU’s booth at the Columbian Exposition, Fountain Girl was moved to LaSalle and Monroe, near the Women’s Temple (built by Burnham and Root in 1891–92; demolished in 1926). She ended up in Lincoln Park near Lake Shore Drive and North Avenue, until LSD construction led to her storage. In the 1940s the statue stood near the West LaSalle Drive underpass before being snatched in the 1950s. As it turns out, three copies of the statue existed in London, Detroit, and Portland, Maine. In 2012, a new casting was made from Portland’s Fountain Girl, and placed at her old spot.

Fountain Girl and the bull-maidens raise a worrying point. Chicago has few figurative art statues of women—specifically, it lacks women presented through realistic art, rather than abstract concepts, such as the Picasso—possibly inspired by model Sylvette David/Lydia Corbett, or mythological women like the creepy faceless statue of Ceres atop the Chicago Board of Trade. Once upon a time, a Joan of Arc bust rested at 5801 N. Natoma Ave. in Norwood Park. Eventually it didn’t. It remains unknown if the bust got lost, stolen, or stored away and forgotten. One hopes the immolated saint wasn’t subjected to the smelter. In recent years the city has erected statues of poet Gwendolyn Brooks and jurist Laura Liu, but as yet women remain poorly represented in Chicago statuary.

*****

Why does Chicago hate statues? Sometimes it doesn’t, as shown by efforts to restore or replace many of the monuments lost or damaged over the decades. Considering the current political climate, the city’s own troubling statues have yet to experience the actual iconoclasm happening elsewhere. Several of Chicago’s more irksome effigies have been warehoused (for example, the Fort Dearborn Massacre Monument), or are too far removed from protestors’ paths/ensconced in sacred ground to be considered in immediate peril. Nonetheless, slavery-enabler Senator Stephen Douglas’ memorial, the Confederate Mound at Oak Woods Cemetery, and the literal fascist gift that is the Balbo Monument may want to consider themselves on notice.

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