At first glance, you might think they’re heroes of the American Revolution.
But why would the terra cotta portrait heads of Revolutionary War heroes be adorning the entrance of The Second City?
That’s right, The Second City; Chicago’s (and arguably the world’s) greatest comedy theater. The mere mention of its name evokes thoughts of improvisational comedy (commonly known as “improv” to us Chicagoans and anyone else who hasn’t been living under a rock the past 50 years).
I should also mention that The Second City is second to none as a training ground for students of improv and sketch comedy.
What has been described as “American theatrical satire” was officially born at The Second City in December 1959.
And since then, it has been nurtured and raised to a sophisticated and entertaining “middle age.”
Although these four guys may have been revolutionary in their fields, they had nothing to do with the American Revolution. In fact, they’re not even Americans; they’re Germans!
So the question is really more like, “Who are these German guys and what are they doing at the entrance to The Second City at 1616 North Wells Street in Chicago’s Old Town?”
Prior to my completing this story, if you had searched The Second City’s web site, you would have found no mention of them. If you had asked any of The Second City’s employees about their identities, they may have had guesses, but no one "really knew."
Even if you asked a prominent graduate of The Second City – such as Dan Castellaneta (versatile actor and the voice of Homer Simpson) − his answer would have surprised you.
As you can see from the photo, Dan wrote that these gentlemen are (clockwise from the upper left): “Abrahamn Lincoln,” “Abrahamn Lincoln with a beard,” “Abrahamn Lincoln in a bad wig,” and “Abe in a better wig.”
You can decide for yourself whether Dan was “hamming-it-up” while communicating a bit of Second City satire in his “Abra-hamn” identification of the heads.
Believe it or not, even though these four baked-clay (i.e., terra cotta) guys have been prominently displayed above the entrance to Chicago’s most revered comedy institution for nearly 50 years, their identities were subject to various opinions and uncertainty for almost all that time.
Over 40 years ago, on July 29, 1967, Chicago Daily Tribune society columnist Will Leonard wrote the following:
“There are as many Louis Sullivan devotees in Chicago as there are Civil War buffs. But the town’s No. 1 architectural mystery comes back to haunt us, now that the Second City, cabaret-theater in Old Town, is moving to a new location on Wells street.
“When Louis Sullivan designed the Garrick theater building on Randolph street in 1892, he decorated its facade with a second-floor balcony, and he ornamented the balcony with one dozen bas relief likenesses of German composers, poets, and philosophers, because this was originally the Schiller theater, devoted to German plays. When they tore the Garrick down in 1961, four of the stone cameos, and the three arches between them, became the sidewalk-level entrance of the Second City theater.
“Not one Louis Sullivan expert in all Chicago could identify the quartet of Teutons who gaze placidly at the Old Town scene. They may be Wagner and Goethe and Schiller and Beethoven − or they may be four other fellows.
“They’re moving, this week-end, from 1846 North Wells to 1616 North Wells. But not a soul knows to this day who they are – a strange situation in a city so filled with Louis Sullivan scholarship.”
Seeing this as a great mystery – and I love to try and solve mysteries – a not-too-serious scholarly investigation was undertaken. And, here’s the story . . .
As Will Leonard alluded to, it pretty much started with this guy Louis H. Sullivan, a native Bostonian who came to Chicago as a young man. If you’re not totally oblivious to Chicago’s architectural history, you may have heard Sullivan’s name mentioned on occasion. Perhaps you’ve even heard it in high school history class; unless, of course, you went to a Chicago public high school as I did, in which case it’s quite unlikely.
Anyway, Louis Sullivan is considered by many to be the father of modern architecture, as well as the founder of the “Chicago School of Architecture.” And if that doesn’t impress you, take note that Sullivan was also the mentor to that other architectural guy – Frank Lloyd Wright. Hopefully, the majority of Chicago’s public high school grads have heard of Frank Lloyd Wright (although granted, they may not have heard about him in high school history class).
Arguably, the most notable and prolific portion of Sullivan’s career was during his 15-year partnership with German-born Dankmar Adler. (No, not the Planetarium guy; that was Max). Adler, whose reputation is sometimes unfairly overshadowed by Sullivan’s, was himself an accomplished structural and acoustical engineer whose talents complemented Sullivan’s genius for unique style and intricate ornamental design.
In their heyday, the firm of Adler and Sullivan designed well over a hundred buildings and many of their most recognized works were in Chicago. By the way, it was during Adler and Sullivan’s partnership, that Sullivan hired a young aspiring architect from Wisconsin – that other guy, Frank Lloyd Wright.
One of Adler and Sullivan’s most recognized Chicago landmarks, which fortunately hasn’t been demolished in the name of progress, is the Auditorium Building with its exquisite Auditorium Theater. The Auditorium Building, located at 430 South Michigan Avenue, was originally designed as a multi-use building combining offices, a hotel, and a concert and opera hall. The Auditorium Theater has since become world renown for its acoustical perfection.
In addition to the Auditorium Building, one of the most notable Chicago structures designed by Adler and Sullivan was the Schiller theater building (later named the Garrick), formerly located at 64 West Randolph Street. Initially envisioned as a home for a German opera company, Anton C. Hesing, a prominent and wealthy Chicagoan of German ancestry, was the motivating force behind the project. Hesing was the owner and editor of the influential Illinois Staats-Zeitung (German language) newspaper, and he even served as the Sheriff of Cook County at the start of the Civil War.
When Adler and Sullivan received the commission to design the structure in 1891, the project was simply referred to as the “German Opera House Building.” When it opened in October 1892, the combined theater and office building was formally named the Schiller, after Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, Germany’s famed playwright, philosopher, poet, and historian.
The exterior was clad with a light brown terra cotta and trimmed with a decorative reddish-brown. Complementing the facade was the select placement of columns and arches, along with intertwined and geometrically-patterned terra cotta ornament.
With its 17-story-high center office tower, topped with a protruding decorative cornice and crowned with a 26-foot-high ornate belvedere, the Schiller was one of Chicago’s first skyscrapers. It was proudly advertised as “the highest and finest theater building in the world.”
In addition to the dozen terra cotta portrait heads above the second floor balcony, the Schiller’s tower incorporated a series of portrait heads depicting heroes of German folklore above the arches of the seventeenth story windows.
The entryway of the Schiller was graced with a marble-paved lobby and marble staircases leading to the main floor of the theater. Over the six-door entrance to the theater was a panoramic oil painting by Hermann Michalowski of the Muses of Greek mythology. On the left side of the painting observing the Muses were the theater's namesake, Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany's renown poet, novelist, playwright, and philosopher. On the right side of the painting stood Shakespeare.
The theater itself occupied the first six stories of the building and contained 1,270 seats. With an absence of pillars, each seat provided a clear and unobstructed view of the 40-foot by 80-foot stage. The proscenium arch [which framed the stage] was semi-circular and from it radiated eight intricately ornamented semi-circular arches in a color scheme of water green and gold, each ever-larger as they expanded outwards to the theater walls.
Beneath the arches on both sides of the stage were a set of three exclusive boxes for seating, each set adorned overhead by an exquisite terra cotta panel sculpted by Richard W. Bock. Portrayed on the left panel within a semi-circular arch was legendary Greek poet Homer surrounded by listeners. In the corners over the arch were allegorical representations of Art and Music. Portrayed on the right panel within an arch, was Schiller mounted on the mythological winged-horse Pegasus, surrounded by Muses and being led by a figure representing Genius. In the corners over the arch were figures representing Strength and Beauty.
On the side walls over the balcony were two large-scale, drama-inspired paintings by Arthur Feudel. One painting portrayed four of the primary figures from the play Mary Stuart, Schiller’s political thriller about the Queen of Scotland’s challenge to Queen Elizabeth I for the British throne. The other depicted a scene from Goethe’s epic play Faust, where Faust (who sold his soul to the devil) and Marguerite (his love interest) met on a Nuremberg street outside a church, while Mephistopheles (the devil) watched in the background.
The theater’s color scheme combined water green and coral pink, with a generous amount of gold employed to accent the borders and produce a harmonious visual effect. There were two curtains; an outer one of woven fireproof asbestos, and a drop curtain said to be the finest in the city. “Genius Crowning Intellect” was the pictorial theme characterized within a medallion occupying the center of the drop curtain. Genius, represented by a female figure, was shown crowning Schiller with a laurel wreath. Shakespeare appeared opposite Genius and a female figure representing History sat at Genius’ feet recording the event.
In addition to the acclaim the theater received for its decorative elegance, it quickly became recognized for its acoustical brilliance – a trait attributed to Adler’s genius for acoustical design. And finally, supplementing great beauty and near-perfect acoustics with safety, Adler and Sullivan designed the structure with the goal of making the theater “fireproof,” including such features as a steel skeleton, concrete walls, lots of terra cotta, and a thick fireproof wall surrounding the theater area. All that, for the bargain basement price of only about $737,000. (Although, in 1892, a dollar was worth about twenty-three of today’s bucks.)
Unfortunately, words cannot adequately describe the magnificent architectural and artistic qualities of the theater. Only the remaining photographs of the Schiller can do it justice, and regrettably, there are few that portray the Schiller at its finest during its early years.
In 1898 (after the death of Anton C. Hesing), the Schiller was taken-over by new management and re-named the Dearborn. In 1903, the theater was again taken-over, this time by the Shubert brothers’ theater-management organization. The Shuberts renamed the theater the Garrick – after David Garrick, the influential 18th- century English actor and playwright, and it became the nucleus of the vast Shubert chain of theaters.
From the time of its opening into the 1930's, the theater hosted almost every sort of drama, comedy, musical, and opera. The 1930's and 1940's saw a concentration on Hollywood films, and in 1950, the theater transitioned into the “Garrick Television Center,” serving as a television studio-theater. Some of you “middle-agers” may recall Garfield Goose and Frazier Thomas, whose first appearance on Chicago television took place in the early 1950's from WBKB Channel 4's new studios at the Garrick. In 1957, the Balaban and Katz Theater Corporation bought the Garrick and re-opened it as a movie theater.
Unfortunately, over the years the various owners of the Garrick allowed it to fall into disrepair, squeezing every cent of revenue from it without adequately maintaining or updating the architectural masterpiece.
In early 1960, Balaban and Katz announced that since the Garrick was losing too much money and was too old-fashioned, it was going to be demolished and replaced. And with what did the Balaban and Katz Theater Corporation say it would replace the architecturally unique Garrick? A high-rise parking lot, of course! (I can’t help but blurt-out that Joni Mitchell song: “Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone? They paved paradise and put up a parking lot . . .” But excuse me, I digress.)
The proposed demolition actually resulted in local, national, and international protests by architectural practitioners, historians, and admirers − not to mention dozens of sentimental past patrons of the Garrick. Then-Chicago Mayor “King Richard dah First” Daley even held-up the issuance of the wrecking permit, expressing an interest in saving the structure. However, Balaban and Katz took the City to court, ultimately forcing the issuance of the permit. Alas, the historical preservation movement of the early 1960's was in its infancy and lacked the laws needed to save the structure.
Although Balaban and Katz expressed a willingness to sell the building, neither the City nor anyone else would come-up with the money. As a minor consolation, Balaban and Katz agreed to stipulate that the wreckers, Atlas Wrecking Co., had to cooperate with any responsible agent who volunteered to remove the Garrick’s ornamentation. According to newspaper reports, the mayor, the building owners, and the wrecking company were bombarded with hundreds of letters requesting pieces of the structure.
Ironically, William M. Horowitz, the architect of the high-rise parking lot destined for the theater’s site, had plans to use about 20 percent of the theater’s ornamentation for the structure. Horowitz was quoted in the January 22, 1961, Chicago Tribune, as saying the parking structure “will be like a giant abstract piece of art five stories high. We feel the weight of the historical significance of this building and its meaning to art students and we are trying to retain the ornamentation Sullivan is so famous for.” But don’t bother stopping by 64 West Randolph to see what ornamentation was incorporated into the parking lot structure – it too, has since come and gone.
When the demolition of the Garrick began in early 1961, The Second City had been up-and-running for over a year at its first home, a building at 1842 North Wells. There, a hat shop had been transformed into a 125-seat cabaret theater area and the lobby next-door stood where the storefront for a Chinese laundry had previously been. Business was surprisingly good to everyone concerned, and by 1961, expansion of The Second City’s modest facility was in the works.
Bernard “Bernie” Sahlins was one of The Second City’s founders and one of its original long-time owners. His fascination with theater led him to sell his interest in a successful tape recorder business (when he was only in his mid-thirties) for the uncertainty of a new career in theatrical satire. During The Second City’s first 25-plus years, Sahlins served as employer, producer, director, teacher, mentor, and friend to many of The Second City’s most distinguished alumni. His memoir, Days and Nights at The Second City, is a fascinating look at the evolution of the world’s greatest comedy theater.
So how does Bernie Sahlins fit into the mystery of the terra cotta portrait heads? According to Sahlins, in early 1961, “We were building a new [Second City] theater and they were tearing-down the Garrick. I happened to wander-over and saw the building being demolished. I saw the heads [over the second floor balcony of the building] and was interested-in them. I spoke to the foreman and told him, ‘I wanted four heads and I didn’t care which four.’ He referred me to his boss and I negotiated the deal.”
And how did Sahlins know how many portrait heads [along with their accompanying arches] would be needed for Second City’s new building? He merely “envisioned that four heads would be about the right size” for the building. And what was the cost for this now priceless collection of Chicago’s architectural history? Sahlins said he paid “$1,500.00 − a lot of money at the time.”
Sahlins subsequently arranged for the relocation of the portrait heads from the Garrick to their new building at 1846 N. Wells, which was right next-door to The Second City’s existing location at 1842 North Wells. In May 1961, The Second City opened its new 225-seat cabaret theater at 1846 North Wells, proudly displaying the arches and heads which would become the institution’s hallmark. In case you’re curious, don’t bother stopping by 1842-1846 North Wells to see the buildings which first housed The Second City − they too, have since been demolished.
As fate would have it, or probably just a stonemason’s expediency, the two portrait heads from the left end of the Garrick’s second floor balcony wound-up on the left side of The Second City’s entrance, and the two from the right end wound-up on the right side of the entrance.
In August 1967, The Second City moved to its current, more spacious facility at 1616 North Wells. Once again, Bernie Sahlins arranged for their relocation and they have resided there to this very day.
Still, the question remained, “Who are these German guys?” When asked about their identities, Sahlins commented, “I knew they were musicians from speaking with the Garrick people − whoever I negotiated with.” Specifically, Sahlins said, they are “Beethoven, Haydn, Chopin, and one I can’t remember.”
But wait; all the pieces of the puzzle hadn’t quite fallen into place. Even if three of the heads portray Beethoven, Haydn, and Chopin, I still didn’t know the fourth. Furthermore, some other things just didn’t quite jibe.
I had previously corresponded with Sheldon Patinkin regarding the portrait heads. Patinkin was also one of The Second City’s founders and he has been a director, teacher, actor, advisor, and much, much more for the institution. Most recently, after 29 years at Columbia College Chicago, Patinkin stepped-down from his position as the chair of the theater department to take a sabbatical and catch-up on some writing.
Patinkin advised me that, “Actually, I’ve recently been informed that they’re philosophers, not musicians.” In his earlier comprehensive and enlightening book, The Second City - Backstage at the World’s Greatest Comedy Theater, Patinkin noted the following: “We eventually moved Second City into the bigger space [at 1846 North Wells], and the Sullivan arches were the only part of the building we took when we moved again in 1967 [to 1616 North Wells]. Across the top of the arches are bas-relief heads of four composers - we’re not quite sure who.”
Was it possible that Bernie Sahlins was misinformed or simply given some convenient “speculation” about the identities of these distinguished Germans? And who could have provided such information to Sahlins; the demolition company representatives? And how was it that someone from the Atlas Wrecking Co. was able to identify “who’s who” on the Garrick?
As my research would later determine, Bernie Sahlins was correct in that the portrait heads of Beethoven, Haydn, and possibly Chopin, did appear among the dozen which graced the second floor balcony of the Garrick. However, the portrait heads Sahlins received for The Second City did not include those of Beethoven, Haydn, and Chopin.
Speaking of their identities, Tribune columnist Will Leonard wrote in 1967 that the heads above The Second City “may be Wagner and Goethe and Schiller and Beethoven - or they may be four other fellows.” Like Bernie Sahlins, Leonard was correct in that the portrait heads of Wagner, Goethe, Schiller, and Beethoven were among the dozen on the facade of the Garrick’s second floor balcony. However, they are not among the four at The Second City.
The heads of Haydn, Schiller, Goethe, Beethoven and Wagner are readily identifiable on the Garrick’s second floor balcony (to anyone familiar with their images – as I have become after studying hundreds of them on the World Wide Web). They can all be seen in the online Encyclopedia of Chicago, which contains a photograph of the “1919 Rally for Chicago Plan Bonds” in front of the Garrick building. Using the zoom feature available on the web page, ten of the twelve terra cotta heads are visible in the photograph. Unfortunately, the two heads on the far right of the Garrick’s gallery − which now adorn the right half of The Second City’s façade − are not visible in the Encyclopedia of Chicago photo.
In the Encyclopedia’s photo, Haydn is clearly the third head from the left – just to the right of the first two heads which now adorn the left half of The Second City’s facade – and Chopin may be the fourth. Schiller and Goethe occupy the sixth and seventh positions, respectively, from the left. And, Beethoven and Wagner appear on the far right of the photo in the ninth and tenth positions, respectively. (I also have to mention that the fifth head from the left appears to be that of Shakespeare, which would challenge columnist Will Leonard's premise that all the theater's figures were German. In addition, although Chopin is arguably Polish, he was born in a village which at one time was part of the German Kingdom of Prussia.)
Since it was my goal to determine the identities of the gents on the facade of The Second City, as it turned-out, being able to eliminate the aforementioned potential candidates actually helped me.
When I first began my research, I was hoping to find a diagram of some kind showing who was where on the original Schiller (later the Garrick) facade. It seemed logical that Louis Sullivan, perhaps with input from Anton Hesing, knew which cultural figures he wanted for the facade and must have documented that information somewhere. Or, perhaps there was a list maintained by the sculptor whom Sullivan retained to create the portrait heads. But who was the sculptor (also referred to as the “modeler”) of these terra cotta works of art?
To my disappointment, I read that a fire had totally destroyed Sullivan’s office records. That dampened my hopes of finding answers from any of his documents. Still, Sullivan’s terra cotta modeler – if I knew who he was – would be just as good a source.
Although typically, the architect prepared a two-dimensional drawing of the terra cotta ornament he needed, it was the terra cotta sculptor-modeler who actually transformed the drawing into a three-dimensional clay model. In the case of a single, unique work (such as a bas-relief portrait head), once the clay model was sculpted by the modeler and approved by the architect, it was dried, sometimes glazed, and then baked to perfection in a huge kiln. (To produce numerous identical ornamental pieces, a plaster mold was fashioned from a completed model and that mold was used to form as many identical terra cotta pieces as were needed.) In the case of the Schiller’s portrait heads, it is likely that the modeler was simply told which figures were needed and it was up to him to complete the works using whatever limited depictions of the figures were available to him at the time (e.g., paintings, sculptures, photographs, etc.).
Since there were terra cotta heads of German cultural figures above the seventeenth story windows of the Schiller – in addition to the dozen above the second floor balcony – I also focused my research on them. I was fortunate to locate a monograph written by Timothy Samuelson and John Vinci (Conflict & Creativity - Architects & Sculptors in Chicago 1871-1937) which attributed the production of the seventeenth floor portrait heads to German-born sculptor-modeler Frederick Almenraeder. Almenraeder worked for the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company in Chicago at the time of the Schiller’s construction (1891-1892). Since it seemed logical that Almenraeder might also be responsible for the second floor heads, I decided to check-it-out.
It was a pleasant surprise to discover that Tim Samuelson is not only an extremely knowledgeable author on Chicago architecture and sculpture, he’s the cultural historian for the City of Chicago. I couldn’t have hoped for a more qualified source of historical information on one of Chicago most distinguished buildings.
Samuelson confirmed that indeed, Frederick Almenraeder was the modeler of all the terra cotta portrait heads at the Schiller. He said he learned of Almenraeder’s work from reading a translated newspaper article from the Illinois Staats-Zeitung which reported on the opening of the Schiller.
I later confirmed Samuelson’s information by locating (on microfilm at the Chicago History Museum) the article about the Schiller’s opening in the September 30, 1892, edition of the Illinois Staats-Zeitung. Although I have absolutely no German language ability, using various Internet translation sites – along with the gracious assistance of Alvin Fritz, the German Literature and Language Librarian at the University of Washington, I was able to put together the following translation of an excerpt from the tribute written by Anton C. Hesing in his newspaper:
To the designers, who planned the building with bold spirit and to the full satisfaction of all implemented its details, Messrs. Adler and Sullivan, I express my, and all our gratitude. The facade of the house already refers to its determination. The splendid heads which characterize the most significant poets and composers testify to the artistic sense which reigns here, and to the artist, Mr. F. Almenroeder (sic), from whose hands they originated.
(Note: Chicago’s city directories of the time, as well as the American Art Directory by the American Federation of Arts, and the book German Immigrant Artists in America by Peter C. Merrill, all indicate that the sculptor’s name is correctly spelled as “Almenraeder,” although it is occasionally seen as “Almenroeder” or “Almenroder.”)
Unfortunately, Tim Samuelson had some bad news: He has “never seen anything that lists the identities of the portrait heads,” and “if it exists, it’s a source not readily accessible.” Furthermore, he was not aware of any collection of documents that Almenraeder maintained of his own works. Samuelson said that sadly, “the terra cotta modelers have drifted into historical obscurity.”
Remarkably, Samuelson said he had “a distinct memory” of reading an article many years ago (probably in the original Chicago Daily News) about a contest in which The Second City offered a free show and dinner to anyone who could identify the heads. Furthermore, he recalled that someone won the contest. However, despite many hours of research, I was unable to locate such an article.
Samuelson suggested that an institution devoted to the study of German history – such as The Goethe Society or the Goethe-Institut – might be able to identify the portrait heads. (By the way, Goethe is more-or-less pronounced “goo-ter” in German. How do you residents of Chicago’s Old Town pronounce your neighborhood street of “Goethe?”)
Following Samuelson’s suggestion, my first request for assistance in this “challenge of sorts” went to Astrida Tantillo, PhD, Vice President of The Goethe Society. Dr. Tantillo is the also head of the Department of Germanic Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In an effort to help solve this mystery, Dr Tantillo graciously arranged to post on the Gothe Society’s web site, three of my photo collages showing the four portrait heads from different perspectives. The Society’s members were then queried for their opinions regarding identities of the German gentlemen.
Dr. Tantillo also quizzed a number of her colleagues at the university and noted that her “department members had a bit of fun trying to guess the identities, but could come to no agreement. The only ‘consensus’ was that one looked like Abraham Lincoln!” (Well, at least they were in general agreement with Second City alum Dan Castellaneta.)
The posting on the Gothe Society’s web site resulted in a number of responses which I followed-up-on.
One notable response was from Rita Terras, Professor Emerita of German at Connecticut College. She advised that the head on the upper right side of the collage could be that of Fritz Reuter (1810-1874), the author of “Low German” stories and poems. (“Low German” or “Plattdietsch” is a regional language used in Germany, the Netherlands, and parts of Northern Europe – as well as by Mennonite communities in numerous countries.) Professor Emerita Terras noted that Reuter’s works were published in New York and he was much-liked in the Midwest. She also advised that Reuter’s statue used-to (and probably still did) stand in Chicago’s Humboldt Park. (By the way, Reuter is more-or-less pronounced “roy-ter” in German.)
Sure enough, some Internet research and a personal visit confirmed that Fritz Reuter’s statue is still standing in Humboldt Park. According to Explore Chicago - The City of Chicago’s Official Tourism Site, Fritz Reuter was “a remarkable German novelist and politic al martyr” who is portrayed by the nine-foot-tall bronze monument. “Reuter was imprisoned for seven years by the Prussian government for participation in a student political activism club, yet he continued writing and conjuring characters in good humor. He was admired by the German Americans of Chicago who honored him by commissioning this sculpture. German-American sculptor Franz Engelsman (born 1859) was selected to sculpt the piece after he won an 1887 competition. The West Park Commissioners installed and dedicated the monument in 1893. Originally, four bronze relief plaques along the base of the monument depicted scenes from Reuter’s best-known works. Unfortunately, the bronze plaques were stolen in the 1930s and have never been recovered.” (Keep your eyes open at those Chicago garage sales!)
But how can we definitively conclude that the terra cotta portrait head on The Second City is that of Fritz Reuter? In this instance, we need only compare the aged bronze face of Reuter’s statue to the terra cotta portrait head.
Although the face of the centenarian bronze statue doesn’t appear to have aged as well as the centenarian terra cotta head, the similarities are undeniable.
I also can’t help but wonder if Frederick Almenraeder, while looking for depictions of Reuter for his model, might have actually met Franz Engelman and viewed his original sculpture of Reuter. Given the cohesive nature of Chicago’s German-American community at the time, it seems logical that fellow sculptors would have likely associated socially and professionally.
Although the comparison of Reuter’s statue to the terra cotta head at The Second City convinced me that Fritz Reuter does indeed adorn the theater’s facade, I wasn’t lucky enough to find any other statues in Chicago that matched the remaining overseers.
In seeking to identify the remaining German gentlemen in question, I had to resort to locating and examining literally thousands of Internet images of potential “candidates.” In addition to focusing on the facial feature likenesses in those images, it was my goal to attempt to find the artistic rendering that Frederick Almenraeder may have used to create each of the terra cotta portrait heads.
Not only did I examine the images with an eye towards matching individual facial features, I also looked for clothing in the images which appeared to match that of the terra cotta busts (e.g., collars, lapels, neck cloths, etc.).
In many instances, the potential candidates lived prior to the photographic age, or when photography was in its infancy and cameras were not widely available. Therefore, the only Internet images available for those individuals were of renderings such as paintings, etchings, and sculptures. Unfortunately, in many instances, the Internet images are low quality in resolution and taken from only one perspective. As a result, cropping and enlarging them for purposes of comparison resulted in some blurriness (for which I apologize).
Prior to the photographic age, it is truly amazing how many dissimilar paintings and sculptures there are of famous figures. Take, for example, Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart - better known to us as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). After examining dozens of images of Mozart’s portraits and sculptured busts, I couldn’t help but wonder if all the artists were actually looking at the same subject. And that observation proved true with many other potential candidates. It became clear to me that for accuracy in one’s true likeness, there is no substitute for a photograph.
Speaking of Mozart, as I was searching through his images, I found an engraving of a portrait painted by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein. The similarities are such (particularly the distinctive nose, mouth, chin, and ear – as well as the clothing) that it seems possible that Almenraeder could have used Tischbein’s painting in preparing a portrait head of Mozart. And I believe that terra cotta head − originally on the Schiller (later the Garrick) − now resides at The Second City.
To obtain a second opinion, I contacted Dr. Ruediger van den Boom, Director of the Goethe-Institut in Chicago (also known as Chicago’s German Cultural Center). After examining the images, he totally agreed that The Second City head and the engraving of the Tischbein painting were the same – it was Mozart.
I also found another image of a painting (by an undetermined artist) of an apparently much younger Mozart. Aside from the difference in the amount of hair, the younger Mozart’s profile is clearly evident in the terra cotta portrait head.
Unlike Fritz Reuter, I probably don’t need to tell you anything about Mozart, other than to mention that he has been one of the world’s most influential and prolific composers of classical music.
Another notable response I received from a Goethe Society member was that of Peter J. Schwartz, PhD, Assistant Professor of German at Boston University. Dr. Schwartz advised that the head on the lower right side of the photo collage looked like Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781).
Lessing is often referred-to as the “father of German criticism” and the founder of modern German literature. His scholarly works were instrumental in eliminating the classical French influence from German literature. Viewed as one of the most influential figures of the Enlightenment period, Lessing’s plays and critical essays greatly influenced the development of German literature.
Probably the most striking resemblance to our “suspect” on The Second City’s facade can be found at the Gaensemarkt in Hamburg, Germany. There stands the aged bronze statue of Lessing which was first unveiled in 1881.
The Gaensemarkt’s Lessing appears to be the “spitting image” of the overseer at The Second City. Note the facial features and profiles in the two comparison photos.
(Please excuse the white bird droppings; those damn pigeons have no respect for historical figures.)
In addition, on display at the “Lessinghaus” in Lessingplatz, Wolfenbuettel, Germany (which is the last home where Lessing lived), is a pearl white bust of Lessing.
The facial features and profile of the Lessing bust and the terra cotta head at The Second City are remarkably similar.
And last but not least, the figure of Lessing appears among many prominent German contemporaries portrayed by sculptor Christian Daniel Rauch (1777-1857) on the colossal Equestrian Monument (in Berlin) honoring King Frederick II of Prussia. Notice the profile of Lessing from the monument compared to our Second City overseer.
The identity of the fourth and final overseer turned-out to be the most difficult to determine. (Yes, that’s the one that resembles Abraham Lincoln.) I received only one “guess” concerning his identity from a Goethe Society member. That guess – Franz Liszt (1811-1886) – seemed plausible at first. However, after many hours of locating images and carefully studying and comparing them for similarities, I concluded that the remaining terra cotta head could not be that of Liszt.
Having eliminated Liszt as a suspect, I went back to basics. I scoured the Internet for images of German composers, poets, philosophers, musicians, playwrights, writers, and cultural figures in general. I hoped to find a face I would immediately recognize as “the one.” I also searched historic newspaper articles, looking for the names of the most popular composers around the time the “German Opera House Building” was being designed by Adler and Sullivan.
In a Chicago Daily Tribune column from November 1884, I noticed that the “prospectus for the season of German opera at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York” had been made public and the list of operas included “the greatest the world has produced . . . inferred from the fact that the following famous composers are represented: Beethoven, Wagner, Weber, Meyerbeer, Rossini, Gounod, Boildieu [sic], Hálevy, and Mozart.”
From that group of gentlemen, I eventually focused on the images of Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864). Once again, while studying the images, I couldn’t help but wonder if some of the artists who painted and sculpted Meyerbeer were actually looking at the same subject. Fortunately, by the time Meyerbeer had reached middle-age, the photographic age had developed (no pun intended), so I was able to find some photos of him in middle and old age.
One of the most striking resemblances to our remaining overseer at The Second City is evident in an 1857 photograph (above) of Meyerbeer by Adrien Tournachon. This photograph, taken when Meyerbeer was in his mid-sixties, captures the distinctive profile and facial features which are exhibited by our terra cotta gentleman. (Once again, I have to apologize for the photo’s blurriness due to enlargement.)
In addition, I located an image of an engraving of a studio portrait photograph of a middle-aged Meyerbeer (by an undetermined photographer).
This particular image not only displays the same distinct facial features of our overseer, it also seems to the have the same clothes as the sculptured bust (albeit shown at a slightly different angle).
And finally, I stumbled upon an engraving of a photograph of Meyerbeer taken by “Claudet.” This engraving reportedly appeared in the Illustrated London News on August 11, 1855, and it further captures many of the distinct characteristics of the remaining overseer at The Second City.
Giacomo Meyerbeer, whose birth name was Yaakov (or Jakob) Liebmann Meyer Beer, was one of the leading composers of opera in nineteenth-century Europe. Although at the time of his death, he was eulogized as having undying fame, Meyerbeer is not well-known today. Nevertheless, Meyerbeer was extremely popular and successful during his lifetime and his operas were widely performed for 50 years after his death. Meyerbeer is considered to be the originator of the French grand opera, which in its performance utilizes the composer’s music to present dramatic historical events on an extremely lavish and large scale.
Well, there you have it. Mystery solved! (Well, at least in my mind.) The Second City’s overseers are Giacomo Meyerbeer, Fritz Reuter, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing.
Their terra cotta heads first adorned one of Chicago’s most architecturally significant theaters. Now they adorn Chicago’s most comedically significant theater.
If these terra cotta heads could talk, they’d tell you a little about the history of architecture and entertainment in Chicago – and all about the laughs they’ve had at The Second City.
Copyright 2009 by R. M. “Bob” Burton