Every time I look out my window I see him. Every time I walk to the bus stop I see him. And every time I head up the street to the grocery store or the drugstore I see him.
Dressed in threadbare gold leaf and standing on a pedestal at the northernmost section of Lincoln Park in the triangle formed by Diversey, Sheridan and Stockton.
How the statue ended up in this place, 31 floors beneath our living room window, is a story that goes back over 80 years.
In 1928 Kate Sturges Buckingham put one million dollars into an Alexander Hamilton Trust Fund, the purpose of which was to mount a memorial to a man she felt was an underestimated American hero.
Of course, you recognize Buckingham’s name -- the most popular attraction in Chicago’s Grant Park is the Buckingham Fountain, a one million dollar gift to the city from Buckingham along with a $300,000 endowment to support the fountain’s continuing operation. Dedicated to the people of Chicago, the fountain was built to honor her brother, Clarence, who died suddenly at the relatively young age of 58.
Buckingham, who never married, was born to a family that was very much a part of Chicago history. The Fulton elevator, the city’s first grain elevator, was built by her grandfather, Solomon Sturges. Her father, Ebenezer Buckingham, was also responsible for the construction of grain elevators and elevated railroads in the city.
Buckingham eschewed the life of the wealthy. Instead, she turned to philanthropy. She was called “Godmother to opera” and was a generous patron of the arts. Whenever the subject of her generosity was raised, she responded, “I did no more than I ought to do as a good Chicagoan.” [Owens, Carole. Pittsfield—Gem City in the Gilded Age]
When she died in 1937, she left $500,000 to her friends and relatives and $126,000 to her maid and chauffeur, the children of her caretaker, her nurses, and the doormen and elevator men at her Chicago residence. In today’s dollars, that’s over $8.9 million. Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is the former estate of Kate Buckingham.
Anyway, Buckingham pledged the million bucks to the Chicago Park District to honor Hamilton, who she felt had put the United States on a sound financial footing and had made “its glorious future possible.” [Chicago Tribune, October 28, 1993] Park District officials suggested a number of locations, but Buckingham, for one reason or another, found each one unsuitable.
Work began, however, on the statue and the architectural setting on which it was to be placed. John Angel, one of the most prolific and highly regarded sculptors of his day, was selected to create the figure of Hamilton. Angel’s work can be found at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and St. John the Divine in New York City, at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., and on the Cook County Courthouse right here in Chicago.
The architect chosen was Eliel Saarinen. His groundbreaking entry for the Tribune Tower competition of 1923 was widely viewed as the best entry even though the New York firm of Hood and Howells was awarded the commission.
Saarinen created an extraordinary monument with 115-foot columns, a tad oversized for the nine-foot statue John Angel had been hired to create. You can see Saarinen’s design. It hangs in Architecture and Design Gallery 285 at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Well, you can imagine how the design tickled the fancy of a woman so understated that she had her name removed from the Social Register. To say the least, Ms. Buckingham was not pleased. “My statue would be lost,” she said, noting that the monument to Hamilton "shouldn’t look like a modern skyscraper.” [Chicago Tribune, October 28, 1993]
Then in December of 1937, after spending over $41,000 on the project, Kate Sturges Buckingham joined Alexander Hamilton in the Great Beyond. Her will directed the trustees of the Alexander Hamilton Trust Fund, two of whom were directors of the Art Institute of Chicago, to carry out the work that she had started. The will stated further that if contracts for the project were not completed within ten years, the one million big ones would go to the Art Institute. [The Milwaukee Sentinel, May 13, 1951]
Conflict of interest? What conflict of interest?
Within four years after Buckingham’s death, a larger 13-foot statue had been cast in bronze at the cost of $50,000. Still, no agreeable sight could be found after continuing meetings with the Chicago Park District, and Hamilton was carried off to a warehouse.
In 1943 came the inevitable lawsuit. The States Attorney for Cook County sued the Board of Trustees, accusing them of slowing the progress of the Hamilton project so that the lions of the Art Institute could wrap their paws around the million.
On April 16, 1943 Judge Benjamin P. Epstein decreed that the years of the war, however long it lasted, should be regarded as a moratorium with the terms of the will to be resumed at the war’s end.
Judge Epstein, by the way, once held an entire jury in contempt of court after the individual on trial, along with the sheriff in charge of the jury, took the panel on a day trip of local saloons which included “many a beer, dancing, attempted petty larceny of a radio and a bar stool.” [Time Magazine, May 3, 1937]
What’s not to love about Chicago?
On May 7 of 1947 the project received yet another setback when Park Board President, James H. Gately, announced that the trustees of the fund and the board could not come to agreement on placing Hamilton’s statue in Grant Park as part of a larger music court. [Chicago Tribune, May 8, 1947]
Then, finally, 24 years after Kate Buckingham made the offer, the statue was unveiled in its present location on July 6, 1952, just five months short of the deadline that Judge Epstein handed out years earlier.
Chauncey McCormick, chairman of the Alexander Hamilton Memorial Trust, acted as master of ceremonies. John Angel was on the dais along with the architects of the new memorial, Samuel A. Marx, Noel L. Flint, and Charles W. Schonne. Brigadier General Pierpont M. Hamilton, a descendant of Alexander Hamilton and holder of the Congressional Medal of Honor gave a speech along with Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen. [Chicago Tribune, July 5, 1952]
The Tribune described the architectural setting for the statue as a “modern fortress of limestone and granite.” A pylon of polished black granite rose 78 feet above the ground. It towered above a three-level plaza of Indiana limestone and polished black and red granite.
In late 1993 the whole affair was dismantled. Neighbors had complained that it attracted a bad element. It was marred with graffiti. And it had deteriorated so badly that a half-million dollars was needed to make it structurally sound again.
Julia Sniderman, the Park District’s preservation planning supervisor at the time, said, “I’ve gotten a lot of calls from people in the neighborhood who have wondered what was going on. But when I tell them that the statue will be back on a smaller pedestal, they’re relieved. I keep waiting for someone to be really upset, but so far it’s been really positive.”
Erna Tranter, director of Friends of the Parks, said, "That thing was horrible."
Today Alexander Hamilton, as much bronze as he is gold, the man whose life prompted the philanthropic Kate Sturges Buckingham to pledge a million dollars to honor him, sits in the northwest corner of Lincoln Park atop a simple polished red granite base, dwarfed by the dark and menacing muscularity of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and his eagle just to the north.
Just my opinion, of course, but looking out my window at Mr. Hamilton's coat tails, I don’t think old Kate got her money’s worth.