Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Milton Horn's Chicago Rising from the Lake

Milton' Horn's Chicago Rising from the Lake on the Columbus Drive Bridge (JWB, 2011)

Next time you’re down by the river, take a few minutes to look at the sculpture on the northwest side of the Columbus Drive bridge.  You’ll find a woman in braids holding, in her r-e-a-l-l-y big left hand, a sheaf of grain while wrapping her right arm around a bull.

The sculpture is a 1954 piece by Russian-born Milton Horn, entitled Chicago Rising from the Lake.

A title equally appropriate for the three-and-a-half ton sculpture might be Chicago Rising from the Back Lot of the Municipal Bridge Repair Shop.  Because somehow for close to 15 years the sculpture went missing until it was finally re-discovered at Thirty-First and Sacramento, overrun with weeds, a home for art-loving raccoons.

The model for the sculpture was the artistr's wife, Estelle (JWB, 2011)
Its creator, Milton Horn, came to the United States from Kiev as a nine-year-old in 1915.  The family settled in Taunton, Massachusetts and although the young Milton never graduated from high school, he studied at the Copley Society in Boston and at the Beaux Arts Institute of Design in New York.

He set about building a reputation in architectural sculpture in New York, cataloging Egyptian antiquities at the Brooklyn Museum.  While still a teenager, he met Estelle Oxenhorn in the winter of 1925, and they were married in the summer of 1928.

Estelle immediately became the center of Milton Horn’s life.  “She was his muse, his publicist.  They acted as one . . . The whole story is all right there in his work.  You can feel him looking at her and her at him,” said Paula Ellis in a 2001 Chicago Tribune article by Robert L. Kaiser.  Ellis serves as the executor of the Milton and Estelle Horn Fine Arts Trust, and she and her husband, Peter, struck up a friendship with Horn that continued until his death.

JWB, 2011
It was Estelle, Horn’s “muse,” who served as the model for Chicago Rising from the Lake.

The commission for the great sculpture came just four years after Horn left his position as a professor at Olivet College in Michigan and moved to Chicago with Estelle.  Mayor Daley, filled with visions for a renewal of the city, asked Horn for a great piece that would show Chicago’s important place in the country and the world.

Five thousand bucks was a lot of money for a sculpture back in the early 50’s, especially one that would eventually hang on the north-facing wall of a parking garage under construction at 11 West Wacker.

Horn, preferring to work on a vertical scale, got down to work, building a massive scaffold and framework that could accommodate the weight of the clay as he sculpted the great symbolic piece.  Estelle, his model, worked right along with him, working clay, mixing plaster, writing to the architects, the contractor, the foundry that would cast the great bronze that Horn called Large Relief for Parking Facility No. 1.
A three-and-a-half ton statue dwarfed on the exterior of the
Shaw, Metz & Dolio designed parking garage at 11 W. Wacker
(from forgottenchicago.com)

According to Kaiser in his 2001 article, the sculpture hung on the north wall of the garage, a Shaw, Metz & Dolio design, for 30 years until the building was torn down in 1983.  Horn was hospitalized with a bleeding ulcer when the sculpture was taken down and carted off to the bridge-repair shops iron-working facility at Thirty-First and Sacramento.  First, it was housed in a warehouse and then transferred to the yard behind the shops.

It would sit there for another 14 years – as the sculptor’s beloved wife, Estelle, died, and then, finally, as Horn, himself, passed away in 1995.

After all that time – exposed to the severity of Chicago winters, baking in the heat of the summer – it was quite a process to restore the sculpture to a condition that would allow it to be displayed.  Ultimately, the restoration cost over ten times more than Horn received for it back in 1954.

It’s quite a story, a story that doesn’t get told with a quick glance down on the river at Columbus Street.  Horn saw this city as his sculpture depicts it, a city that rose out of its natural setting to be one of the great industrial cities in the world.

There’s that imposing female figure in the center of the piece, the age-old symbol of fertility and abundance, hip-deep in the waters of Lake Michigan. 

In her left hand she holds a sheaf of wheat . . . appropriate since it was the shipping of agricultural products to Chicago that got the great grain elevators built and hastened the construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal . . . those two forces helping the city to grow from under 30,000 people in 1850 to over two million 50 years later.

JWB, 2011
Her right arms disappears behind a great bull.  The great Union Stockyards, which officially opened in 1865, sprawled between Pershing Road, Halsted Street, 47th Street, and Ashland Avenue.  A half-million gallons of fresh water were pumped daily from the Chicago River into the yards, and by 1900 they encompassed 475 acres, contained fifty miles of road, and had 130 miles of railroad track close by.  This was the scene that prompted Carl Sandburg to call Chicago “the hog butcher to the world.”

There are details – the eagle and the organic elements – that reference the great debt the city owes to its natural setting and the freedom enjoyed in a country where such miraculous growth could occur.

"Self-Portrait" Milton Horn
The one element in the statue that had to be totally replaced was composed of the curved bars that wind around the figures from the upper right to lower left as you look at it.  The originals were never found and had to be replaced.  In Horn’s original vision, the three bronze bars represented the railroads, industry and commerce, additionally connoting a kind of globe with Chicago at the center.

So there it hangs today, resurrected and reborn, a monument to the city as much as it is to the artist who created it in the image of the woman that, in the end, he could not live without. 


chris miller said...

Thanks for doing such a good story on my favorite sculptor!

Now.... you've got to visit his masterpiece, Hymn to Water, at the Water Filtration Plant.

For security reasons, it's been off limits for decades. I haven't seen it for 30 years.

But it's a great thing. Maybe you can pull some strings and get us inside.

Chicago Old and New said...

Thanks, Chris. I knew very little about Milton Horn before I began the research. But he is an apt representative for this city, a place that really impressed the heck out of him. It would be great to see the Jardine piece. Maybe one year they can open up the place for just one day . . . so we can all take a look.

amart54 said...

I still have the Tribune article showing the sculpture lying in a dump, so glad they were able to bring it back to life.

Leonard said...

The massive bull's head reminds me of the Milton Horn sculpture, "Not by might.. . " on the exterior of West Suburban Temple Har Zion in River Forest. That was completed before 1953 when my family joined the congregation.

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