Kept in the Dark | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

Kept in the Dark 

What will it take to bring a spectacular Italian mosaic out of storage?

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By most accounts, the Italian pavilion at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, which commemorated the fourth centennial of Christopher Columbus's discovery of America, was a marvel of artistic riches. Located in the 30-acre Palace of Manufactures and Liberal Arts, the pavilion displayed bronze statuary, marble and wooden carvings, ornamental furniture, paintings, mosaics, bas-reliefs, Venetian glassware, ceramics, and lace, as well as treasures from the Vatican.

Also on display were several works commissioned by Chicago law partners Van Higgins and Henry Furber for a downtown skyscraper they'd financed. One of the pieces was a ten-ton, nine-foot-high bronze sculpture by Moses Ezekiel, a Virginian living in Rome, of an armor-clad Columbus with his hand on a ship's tiller. The figure was made from melted-down crucifixes, statuettes of Christ, and other artifacts and had been cast in Rome, where it was blessed by Pope Leo XIII. The partners had also commissioned 11 bronze bas-relief panels depicting scenes from the life and voyages of Columbus as well as two mosaics designed by master craftsmen of the Venice-Murano Company of Italy. Each of the mosaics measured eight and a half by six and a half feet, including a steel frame, and was composed of thousands of smalti, a kind of colored glass tile. According to Daniel Bluestone's 1991 book Constructing Chicago, one panel was called Landing of Columbus and the other Columbus Before Ferdinand and Isabella. In a process handed down from father to son for centuries in Venice, the tiles had been affixed to paper, then brought to Chicago in sections by artisans who assembled and embedded them in cement.

In 1894 these artworks were moved to Higgins and Furber's Columbus Memorial Building, at 31 N. State. "Here the appropriation of civic form by commercial interests went beyond architecture to civic ritual," writes Bluestone. "The skyscraper stood as a celebration of both the discovery of America and of Chicago's triumphant commemoration of the event in the Columbian Exposition." The sculpture was mounted in a niche above the grand entrance arch, and the bas-reliefs were placed around the inside of the recessed arch. The mosaics were installed on the back walls of two adjacent stores that faced State Street, where their colored tiles glowed in the natural light that streamed through skylight domes. One of the shops would later be converted into a cafeteria, recalls Charles Gregersen, a Pullman architect who tracks down and writes about remnants of the Columbian Exposition. "I ate in that restaurant when I was a kid in the 50s, and I remember seeing the mosaic."

In June 1958 Israel Swett, secretary-treasurer of the State & Washington Building Corporation, which owned the Columbus Memorial Building, announced that the structure would be demolished and that the Columbus statue, bas-reliefs, and mosaics were available. The corporation offered to donate the works to a Chicago-area group, and the Sons of Italy, the Science Museum (later the Museum of Science and Industry), Chicago State Hospital, and the Park Ridge Military Academy were among those that expressed interest. The corporation also said it would consider cash offers from groups outside of Chicago. "'A pound of letters' and endless telephone calls were received" about the statue, reported the Chicago Daily Tribune. "Housewives sought it for gardens. Columbus, O., wanted it for its new airport. Columbus, Ind., and Peoria, Ill., coveted it. So did Disneyland, but it bid too low."

In August Swett announced that the statue, mosaics, and bas-reliefs would be donated to the Municipal Art League of Chicago, which had been founded in 1901 to promote civic art and had worked closely with the Art Institute and city agencies on various projects. It also had its own art collection. "Once Chicago showpieces, [the mosaics] have been sadly denigrated," wrote a Daily News reporter. The scene of Columbus landing in the New World and being met by natives was in the rear of the cafeteria, half hidden behind chairs and tables. The scene of him in the court of Queen Isabella, natives in tow, was completely hidden behind panels in the fitting room of the other store, which had been closed for years.

The Municipal Art League formed a committee to decide what to do with the gifts. There was some talk of constructing a building to house them. The Art Institute didn't want the mosaics. "Too big," decorative-arts curator Hans Huth told the Daily News, "and too commercial." The committee rejected several suggested sites for the works, then finally raised $6,000 to move them to a lumberyard at 515 S. Loomis, where they sat in storage for several years.

In 1966 the Columbus statue was adopted by the city's Italian community. At the urging of state senator Victor Arrigo, the city created Columbus Plaza (later renamed Arrigo Park) for the sculpture at Polk and Loomis in the Little Italy neighborhood, and a citizens' committee was organized to raise $25,000 to maintain it. It still stands there, at the center of an elliptical granite fountain, and has come to symbolize the rebirth of a neighborhood whose ethnic character was almost eradicated when the University of Illinois at Chicago campus was built.

Curiously, the bas-reliefs had disappeared. "They have not shown up anywhere," says Gregersen. "I don't think they were salvaged."

In the late 60s or early 70s the league donated the mosaics to Columbus Hospital, which was run by the Chicago archdiocese and the Chicago order of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. The league's contract with the hospital, which is at 2520 N. Lakeview, stated that the city's Department of Urban Renewal, which had become joint caretaker of the mosaics, would "relinquish all right, title and interest" to the works "provided said panels are not destroyed and will be publicly displayed within the Columbus Hospital complex." It also said that the hospital "agrees...not to sell or transfer the same except to a non-profit institution or institutions which will also agree to maintain and preserve said panels for public display."

The mosaics stayed in storage until 1975, when the architectural firm of Belli & Belli was hired to remodel the interior of the hospital. Edo Belli, who runs the firm with his sons Allen and Jim, says the nuns asked him if he could use the mosaics. "They wanted to get rid of them. We said, 'Sure, let's pick them up. We'll have them fixed up and put in the lobby.' So we took them out of the warehouse."

The tiles were grimy, and the panels couldn't be installed side by side because the lobby space wasn't big enough. Bob McKenna, at the time a construction consultant to the hospital, says, "My recollection is that they were too large to fit and they had to be trimmed off at both sides."

The Bellis hooked the hospital up with Conrad Schmitt Studios, a New Berlin, Wisconsin, conservation firm that agreed to remove, clean, and restore the mosaics. The company was also asked to divide the Landing of Columbus mosaic into three separate panels. But when the mosaics were transported to Schmitt Studios, some tiles were knocked loose from both panels and other tiles were cracked. Conservators had to take tiles from Columbus Before Ferdinand and Isabella to repair the Landing of Columbus. The scavenged mosaic stayed behind at Schmitt Studios. Landing of Columbus was installed on the south wall of the hospital lobby in 1976.

In the mid-80s the lobby was again remodeled, and Schmitt Studios was contracted to remove the mosaic and store it until the hospital could find a place for it. McKenna says the hospital did try to find a place. "It was very frustrating," he recalls. "We thought maybe we could put them in the dining room, but then that wouldn't have offered a good vista--there would've been tables in front of them. It wasn't carried out. There didn't seem like an appropriate setting for them."

Sometime in 1988 McKenna, by then vice president of property management and development, wrote to Schmitt Studios saying that the hospital, which had new administrators who weren't happy about paying storage charges for both mosaics, couldn't find a proper place for the work and that it wanted to transfer ownership to some entity that could fulfill the requirements of the Municipal Art League contract. But no such institution was found, and in 1991 the hospital transferred the rights to the mosaics to Schmitt Studios. The Municipal Art League contract had stipulated that the works could be transferred only to a nonprofit, and Schmitt Studios set up the Gruenke Foundation for the Arts largely to accommodate that clause. The contract had also stipulated that the mosaics be publicly displayed, but they continued to sit in the warehouse.

Several years ago an employee of the Chicago archdiocese, who doesn't want to be identified because he wasn't acting in an official capacity, called Schmitt Studios about the mosaics. "I was curious to see what happened to them," he says. "I felt we lost the right to them, and I was interested in getting them back. They said no way--we were delinquent in our storage payments. I asked them how much it would cost to get them back, and they said they were 'priceless.' It would cost a number of thousands of dollars." He vaguely remembers that the figure was $100,000 to $150,000, and he assumed that was to cover the storage charges as well as the cost of repairing the scavenged work. A conservator familiar with old smalti mosaics says it would cost around $10,000 just to have the good panel transported to Chicago and installed, and roughly $40,000 to stabilize, restore, and install the scavenged one. The archdiocese employee thought Schmitt Studios was asking too much, particularly since the mosaics had been in Schmitt's care when they were first damaged.

William Hickman, attorney for Schmitt Studios, acknowledges that one panel was "cannibalized" to repair damage to the other and that there were "some issues regarding storage" with Columbus Hospital. He also says that because of contractual restrictions on the mosaics, the firm looked into giving the pieces to some arts foundation a few years ago, but it didn't happen.

Dominic Frinzi, former president of the Italian Community Center of Milwaukee, says that five years ago the center expressed interest in the mosaics: "We wanted to have them donate them to the center." But Frinzi says that when he found out that money was involved, he didn't pursue it. "We never discussed price."

So the mosaics are still gathering dust in the warehouse. "I'd love to have the mosaics in this community," says Brian Bernardoni, executive director of Chicago's University Village Association, which is working to restore the historic Italian identity of the Taylor Street area. "We're trying to create foot traffic here, and that's the kind of thing we could use. It would fit in well and generate a lot of positive activity." He points out that 10,000 people of Italian descent still claim the near west side as home.

Bernardoni isn't concerned that some people might not want public art depicting Columbus as hero rather than harbinger of colonialism. "If they're as priceless as alleged, why not?" he says. "I have no qualms. Some things I can't do anything about. Columbus changed history--that's all there is to it."

Bernardoni believes the mosaics ought to come back to Chicago, the city for which they were made. "As a sign of goodwill, [Schmitt Studios] should donate the mosaics to the Italian-American community of Chicago," he says. "It would be a generous and wonderful gift for the community. But we don't have hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend." Still, he adds, "I'd be willing to work halfway across the table with them and connect them to people who might like to pay something."


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