Group Efforts: gods in peril | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Group Efforts: gods in peril 

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Gwen Lux was 20 years old when she brought the gods to Michigan Avenue. It was 1929, and Lux and her husband Eugene had been commissioned to create sculpture for a 16-story skyscraper going up at 520 N. Michigan. The building's architects, Frederick J. Thielbar and John Reed Fugard, wanted embellishment that would complement the art deco building's sweeping vertical lines and setbacks.

The Luxes responded with a celebration of strength and grace. Their three heroic figures, Helios, Atlas, and Diana, are muscled, modern interpretations of the Greek and Roman originals. Carved in relief on limestone panels, they were placed three stories above the entrance, where they still stand, anchoring the building's soaring piers. A winsome ring of zodiacal figures a floor below completes the scheme.

When promotional materials for the building went out, the only artist credited was Eugene Lux. But it was Gwen who subsequently became a celebrated architectural sculptor. After 520 N. Michigan (which quickly became the McGraw-Hill Building), the couple did a series of panels for the Trustees Systems Service Building, 201 N. Wells. Then Gwen Lux's solo career took off. She was commissioned (along with the likes of Georgia O'Keeffe and Stuart Davis) to create art for Rockefeller Center's Radio City Music Hall. Her powerful aluminum Eve--clearly a sister to the 520 N. Michigan gods--was more than Radio City management had bargained for. They banished it, then caved in to pressure and brought it back. Shortly after that, she won a Guggenheim Fellowship and exhibited (by invitation of the artists) with Piet Mondrian and Robert and Sonia Delaunay at the Salon des Tuileries in Paris, where management again found her work too radical and attempted to remove it.

The Luxes divorced in 1942. Eugene Lux had given up sculpture; she had put him in the shade, he said. Gwen Lux went on to collaborate with some of the period's most prominent architects, including Edward Durell Stone, Victor Gruen, and Eero Saarinen. She married twice more and died in 1986 in Honolulu.

Now her gods might be falling. A mighty deity of retailing needs a doorway on Michigan Avenue, and developer John Buck plans to raze the McGraw-Hill Building to provide it. Greg Merdinger of the John Buck Company says it is "feasible" that the Lux work could be saved and incorporated in a new building, though no such plan has yet been developed.

The Commission on Chicago Landmarks will consider giving 520 N. Michigan landmark protection at a meeting scheduled for 12:45 PM Wednesday, April 5, in room 516 of the traffic courts building, 320 N. Clark. The meeting is open to the public. Call 744-3200 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos?Jon Randolph; courtesy of Rockefeller Center.

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