Monday, May 24, 2010

Photo of the Week: Wood Gull

Location:  Merchandise Mart, River Promenade
Sculptor:  Minna Harkavy
Installed:  1953

The gull rests on the head of Robert Elkington Wood as his bust, commissioned by Joseph P. Kennedy, stands at the east end of the Merchandising Hall of Fame along the Chicago River.  In 1945 Kennedy bought the building, which cost close to 40 million bucks to construct in 1930, for 13 million.  When the Kennedy's unloaded the building in 1998, they got close to 550 million for the thing.

Wood graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1900.  He served in the Philippines during the Philippine insurrection and for ten years in the Panama Canal zone during construction of the canal.  He was named Quartermaster General of the Army toward the end of World War I.

In 1919 Mr. Wood turned from the military to merchandising, taking a position as the general merchandise manager before being named vice-president.  He left Montgomery Ward in 1924 to take a position with Sears and Roebuck and Co. as the vice-president in charge of its factory operations.

In this capacity Mr. Wood initiated a program to open Sears retail stores outside of major cities, and the success of this expansion program brought Wood the presidency of Sears in January of 1928.  In 1939 he was named chairman, and he continued to direct Sears throughout World War II.

From 1945 to 1953, based on a program that Mr. Wood had assembled during the war, Sears spent more than $300 million on additional stores.  Sears went form being the largest mail-order business in the world -- but one primarily serving the rural population -- to the world's largest merchandiser.  Wood also created the All State Insurance Company as a subsidiary of Sears.

Mr. Wood retired from Sears in 1954, but remained an honorary chairman of the board.  he died in 1969 at this home in Lake Forest, Illinois.  He was 90-years-old.

The gull in the photograph chose Wood's bust over the busts of seven other giants of the merchandising world, lined up on the south side of the Merchandise Mart, in what David Letterman once referred to as the Pez Hall of Fame.  The other honorees are:  Julius Rosenwald, Frank Woolworth, Marshall Field, John Wanamaker, George Hartford, Edward Filene and Montgomery Ward.

Minna Harkavy, the sculptor, was born in Estonia and came to the United States with her family around 1900, where she settled in New York City.  She taught sculpture in a studio set up in her penthouse atop the Ansonia Hotel, a hotel on Broadway between 73rd and 74th Streets.  At one time or another residents of the hotel included Babe Ruth, Arturo Toscanini, Enrico Caruso, Igor Stravinsky, and Theodore Dreiser.  

Ms. Harkavy was best known for her oversized sculptures of heads or figures in stone, bronze or clay.  Wood's bust is quite exceptional in her work since most of her sculptures depicted subjects that reflected her social and political views, views that were decidedly different than Mr. Wood's. 

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