Who are the Overseers of The Second City Comedy Theater in Chicago?

That’s not the Terra Cotta Head of Thomas Jefferson at Willowbrook High School

I stumbled upon it while I was Googling around, looking for images of one of my favorite, late great works of Chicago architecture - the Schiller theater and office building.

In case you’re not familiar with it, the Schiller - later renamed the Garrick - was one of Dankmar Adler’s and Louis Sullivan’s most renown Chicago structures.  It stood stoically at 64 West Randolph Street from 1892 until 1961.

It was on one of Willowbrook High School’s web site history pages - a photo of a terra cotta head with its nose knocked-off.  

Even without its nose, I immediately recognized it as one of the dozen terra cotta portrait heads which originally adorned the second floor exterior balcony of the Schiller. 

Then, I read the description accompanying the photo:

Willowhistorypic4-4 “The terra cotta head of Thomas Jefferson, stuck in the southeast wall of Willowbrook (and minus its nose), originally ornamented the Louis Sullivan-designed Garrick Theatre in downtown Chicago.  It was transferred to Willowbrook by Mike Venezia (Class of 1963).  Mike’s father and uncle were contractors for the razing of the theatre building (1961), and Mike was able to retrieve the Jefferson head for Willowbrook.”

Fascinating!  And somewhat thrilling - at least to me.  This meant I had located another one of the 12 original heads from the now-demolished theater building.  (One of my meager life goals is to find each of the 12 terra cotta heads from the Schiller/Garrick’s second floor balcony facade, as well as to determine each of their identities.)

But wait, there’s something wrong.  That’s not the head of Thomas Jefferson (minus its nose) stuck in the southeast wall of Willowbrook High School in Villa Park, Illinois.  And I think I can prove it. 

For me, it all got started with those four terra cotta heads above the entrance to The Second City - Chicago’s foremost institution of improv and sketch comedy.


My daughter has been a dedicated student and performer at this great comedy theater, and from the first time I saw those terra cotta guys, I was curious about who they were. Eventually, my curiosity was supported by some motivation, and I undertook a little investigation.

Having spent a career in government, the speedy completion of an investigation was never one of my strong points.  Thus, it took quite a while for me to piece together the history surrounding The Second City’s four heads (and their eight “brothers”) who formerly resided on the facade of the Schiller/Garrick.

Still, when all was said and done, I not only learned something about Chicago's architectural history, I also determined the identities of those four guys at The Second City.  (For all the details, see my blog post; “Who are the Overseers of The Second City Comedy Theater in Chicago?”)

Allow me to provide you with a little history regarding the Schiller.  When the architectural firm of 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 theater was initially envisioned as a home for a German opera company, and 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.  Since the theater was intended for German plays, Louis Sullivan ornamented the second floor exterior balcony with the likenesses of composers, poets, and philosophers of primarily German origin.   

During the dedication of the Schiller (and in his newspaper), Hesing paid tribute to Frederick Almenraeder, the German-American sculptor/modeler of the theater’s terra cotta portrait heads which Hesing characterized as depicting some of “the most significant poets and composers.” 

So, let's recap.  While Adler and Sullivan were designing the structure, it was called the “German Opera House Building.”  When it opened, the building was named after Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller.  The theater building was originally envisioned as the home of a German opera company.  Sullivan ornamented the second floor exterior balcony with the likenesses of composers, poets, and philosophers of primarily German origin.  Anton C. Hesing characterized the terra cotta heads as depicting some of “the most significant poets and composers.” Hmmm . . . I just don't see a nexus here to Thomas Jefferson, one of America's founding fathers and presidents.

Admittedly, I do not know the source of information from which Mike Venezia (and/or his father and uncle) concluded that Willowbrook High School’s terra cotta head was that of Jefferson.  I can say, however, that the true identities of the Schiller/Garrick’s heads have been the subject of speculation and misinformation for many years.

During my research, in addition to reviewing literally hundreds of documents related to the Schiller/Garrick, I carefully studied the available photographs of the terra cotta heads on the exterior second floor balcony of the building and compared them to Internet images of hundreds of composers, poets, philosophers, and other cultural figures.

The image below shows the five terra cotta heads on the left-hand side of the Schiller/Garrick’s second floor exterior balcony.  The terra cotta head that Willowbrook ultimately received is the one in the middle.

In the images that follow, I have done my best to show the similarities between the middle head above and a photograph I have taken of Willowbrook’s head.

Unfortunately, to do so, I had to crop and blow-up a small portion of the above image (i.e., the middle head) which resulted in a comparison image with poor resolution and poor detail.  Nevertheless, I believe I can point-out the matching details in both images and demonstrate that Willowbrook’s head is the middle one shown in the image above.  

There a couple of factors which need to be kept in mind when viewing this comparison collage.  Willowbrook’s head (on the left, of course) was photographed by me at straight eye level, as opposed to the head on the Schiller/Garrick’s balcony which I believe must have been photographed at a slightly downward angle and from quite a distance away – probably from the window of a building across from the theater on Randolph Street.

Haydn - Willowbrook H-3

Therefore, I was unable to put together a comparison collage using images with the heads looking-outward at the same angle.  In this collage, the head from the Schiller/Garrick’s balcony appears to be tilted slightly downward.

Unfortunately, as I previously mentioned, the cropping and blowing-up of this single head from the larger image of the Schiller/Garrick has resulted in poor resolution, dark areas, and a loss of detail.  

Regardless, you can still see matching features in the hairline, hair curls, neck cloth (or cravat), coat collar, shirt collar, and (most distinctively) the knot in the neck cloth.

As for determining the identity of this terra cotta head, a number of factors came into play.  This particular individual lived prior to the photographic age, so the depictions available for comparison purposes are limited primarily to paintings, drawings, and sculptures.  In making comparisons, it is sometimes amazing at how dissimilar the same individual can appear in different paintings and sculptures.  Occasionally, I can't help but wonder if the various artists who completed these works were actually looking at the same subject.  

When it comes to identifying an individual, I have become a true believer in the old saying, “There’s no substitute for a photograph.”

Unfortunately, an original photo of this individual doesn't exist.  Even so, no matter how dissimilar an individual’s depictions may have been prior to the photographic age, in most instances there are sufficient similarities that a consensus of features or characteristics can form the basis for making an identification. 

In the case of Willowbrook High School, it is my belief that the terra cotta head is a depiction of Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809), better known as Joseph Haydn. Haydn was a prolific Austrian composer of the Classical era and he is often referred-to as “the father of the symphony and the string quartet.”

Haydn - Willowbrook H-4 
In the above collage, the depictions on each side of the Schiller/Garrick’s head are from Internet images of paintings, etchings, and sculptures of Joseph Haydn.  It is based on these images that I have concluded that the terra cotta head at Willowbrook is that of Haydn. 

In fact, this whole situation is somewhat ironic.  The southeast wall of Willowbrook - where the terra head is situated - is actually the outer wall of the school's music wing.  For all these years, Willowbrook has unknowingly had “the father of the symphony and the string quartet” listening-in on its performances. 

Well, that’s my opinion about the identity of Willowbrook’s terra cotta head - and I’m sticking to it.  

Copyright 2011 by R. M. "Bob" Burton