Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Murray Christmas!

“ ‘I think the Christmas card was one of my best inventions,’ [the Devil] said. ‘Yes, I think the Christmas card has done as much to put Christmas to the bad as any other single thing. And I began it so cleverly; just a few pretty Victorian printed greetings, and then – well, you know what it is today.”

Robertson Davies
When Satan Goes Home for Christmas

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Lute Lady

My mother died 19 years ago tonight, far from her Chicago home. At about the time she died, my sisters and I discovered a nifty way to memorialize her in her old North Side neighbourhood.

The Mid-North Association, a Lincoln Park area civic group, began selling personalized bricks with which to repave a park known variously as Mid-North Park and the Belden Triangle, and to rehabilitate it somewhat. For U.S.$60, we had two lines engraved that said, simply, "Maggie Murray" and "I Miss Chicago."

On my next trips to Chicago after ordering our brick, I would visit Mid-North Park to see whether it had been installed yet. I finally found it - quite near bricks bought by local businesses she used to patronize, as well as Bill Kurtis, the TV newsman she so admired.

Whenever I'm in Chicago, I still make a little pilgrimage to that park.

But in the intervening years, the park has changed. At the time of the brick-laying, it featured a beautiful sculpture of a veiled woman playing the lute, with two children on either side of her. A few years ago, I noticed that the sculpture was gone - replaced by a (forgive me) rather uninspiring fountain. It was installed as part of a beautification project to renovate or construct 18 fountains in parks, triangles formed by some of the city's weird intersections of three streets, plazas and other open spaces.

I think Mid-North Park/Belden Triangle got one of the more pedestrian fountains. But I always wondered what happened to the sculpture.

I decided to seize the moment, probably prompted by the anniversary of my mother's death, and contacted Chicago Park District (CPD) historian Julia Bachrach. She directed the years of research that resulted in the Chicago Park District Guide to Fountains, Monuments and Sculptures, an impressive online resource providing the histories of those features in CPD parks.

Julia told me that the sculpture I was interested in, known as "Lute Lady" or "Seated Woman With Children," was originally part of a bandstand in Lincoln Park designed by Chicago architects Pond & Pond, and sculpted by Lorado Taft in 1915.

The Lute Lady has had a rough ride. In 1983, she and other sculptures were found along Lake Michigan, north of 39th Street, where they were waiting to be used as landfill! Julia sent me a story from the Chicago Tribune (6 May 1983) describing the find, which included columns from the city's old federal courthouse building and the bas relief backdrop to "The Spirit of Music," a memorial to Theodore Thomas, founder of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

The Trib article quoted Ben Bentley, then the CPD's director of public information, saying that the CPD warehouse had become too crowded with materials that no one had asked about. The sculptures were going to be used as part of a landfill to help retard lakefront erosion.

"What we have done is a perfectly legitimate thing," Bentley is reported to have said at the time.

Since then, the Federal Building columns and the conserved "Spirit of Music" have been installed in Grant Park, Julia said.

And what of the Lute Lady and her children? "They are currently in storage, which is probably a good thing, because they are marble and really shouldn't be outside in the Chicago climate," she added. "We really need to find a good indoor location for the Lute Lady."

As to the photos in this post: I'm not sure whether they're mine or were taken by my sister Roxe Murray. We shared our prints back then - at least the ones relating to our mother's memorial and family history. Somewhere in my cluttered home office, I have a full photographic study of the Lute Lady, shot from a variety of angles. I'd like to think I was prescient when I took those photographs, but I probably just wanted to fully document my mother's memorial. When I find those prints, I'll scan and post them.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

South High School, Denver

Toronto's Bishop Strachan High School is not alone in not knowing why there are certain sculptures (in this case, chimps) on its building. As I discovered in researching the stories behind many of Toronto's architectural faces, that information is lost for a lot of buildings - but I was left with no doubt that architects and stone carvers had specific people or ideas in mind when they created those faces.

One school that has an elaborate sculpture programme and has kept the stories behind it alive in its yearbooks and on its website is South High School in Denver. My friend Kathy Lingo, one of the principals in Avenue L Architects, took me on a tour of the school (designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1992) when I visited Denver a few years ago. CORRECTION: Kathy Lingo has informed me that contrary to its claim, South H.S. is not a National Historic Landmark and not listed on the National Register. It is, however, a Denver Historic Landmark. (Thanks, Kathy!)

The Romanesque building, designed by the architectural firm of Fisher & Fisher (actually a whole family of architects, which you can read about in this PDF), was completed in 1924. The Fishers, originally Canadian, became a force in Denver architecture.

Apparently, Arthur A. Fisher was a proponent of using painting and sculpture in Denver public buildings, and influenced the use of the sculptures adorning South High.

The most prominent exterior sculpture is the slightly more than one metre tall gargoyle on the roof, the "symbolic protector of South," according to the school's website. Created by sculptor Robert Garrison, it is said to have been inspired by one on Italy's Spoleto Cathedral.

Striped poles flank the front entrance. They are topped by figures said to be faculty members holding creatures representing final exams. The creatures seem ready to devour students whose heads are on piles of books in front of them (see right).

One of two friezes above the main door (pictured below) is known as "Faculty Row," and shows the principal in the centre of a line of the entire faculty. To his right is the assistant principal; on his left is the dean of girls (no longer a position at South). The second frieze, called "Animal Spirits" and not shown here, has figures the symbolize unscholarly behaviour such as rubber-band shooting and gum chewing. (To think that those were the big behaviour problems in classrooms as recently as 10 years ago; now it's students using cell phones and iPods in class.)

Above another door is a frieze showing children going to school - some eagerly, others less so. The less enthusiastic children tend to be toward the back of the line, like this one seen here in close-up: