Arrows in our chandeliers: Native American-themed decoration in late 1920’s Chicago

Chicago was originally the domain of Native Americans, including the Pottawatomie, Illinois, and Miami nations.  In fact, in the name Chicago comes from a Native American word for wild garlic, which apparently grew all over the place (as a garlic fan, I wish it still did).  When the area was invaded by Europeans, native people were driven out and killed.  By the early 20th century, few Native Americans remained and those that did faced severe discrimination—at least until the late 1920’s when they were welcomed back…as decoration.

While out and about in Chicago I recently noticed a weird trend: the use of Native American imagery in architectural decoration and public sculpture from 1928-1929.

powhaton

The Powhatan apartment building is in the Hyde Park neighborhood.  Built in 1929 for rich people, it remains today one of those places where wealthy people live and no doubt have a lot of  free time to complain about their doorman and the temperature of the pool.

Powhatan Indians were indigenous to present day Virginia.  In the Powhatan building, they are indigenous to spandrels, columns, window bars and light fixtures.  You could say this building is well crafted and jaunty.  Or you could just say “Hey, sorry about the genocide but thanks for holding up my balcony with your headdress.”

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Just an art deco totem pole themed mosaic in the foyer, you know, like we do in 1929.

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The Bowman and the Spearman, by Croatian artist Ivan Meštrović, are awkwardly placed  public sculptures in downtown Chicago, just off Michigan Avenue.  Perhaps when they were installed in 1928 they guarded a more grand entry space—nowadays it’s just an area behind the Art Institute with a staircase no one has much of a reason to climb.

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I wonder why the city thought it was a good idea to hire a Croatian to sculpt Native Americans—-did Meštrović ever meet an American Indian?

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HOB and I saw a lot of Meštrović’s work in Croatia and we admired it.  I admit this (invisible bow) Bowman and horse have dymanic appeal (and admirably ripped musculature).

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Am I the only one who thinks this naked horseback riding business might be kind of hard on the tender man bits?

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The Indian Boundary Park Fieldhouse is in my neighborhood, Rogers Park, and I straight up love the place (and it’s handy public bathroom).  Built in 1929 in a bizarre but somehow charming combination of Tudor Revival and Native American Folklore, this building sits in a lovely landscaped park.

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This carving greets you on entering the Fieldhouse, which also serves as a cultural center for the community.

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Oh no!  Inside the entry there’s more of that “using headdresses to hold up walls” business.

And just like in the Powhatan, the interior designer just could not resist making light fixtures out of Native heads, and oh dear, yet more arrows.

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Let’s suppose that the urban planners and building designers of the late 1920’s had actually hired Native American artists—-what kind of city would we have now? This carving, from the interior of the Fieldhouse, is perhaps a good guess.  The Indian has dignity, a face more expressive than stylized, and—thank goodness—-he’s holding a ceremonial pipe, not an arrow.

 

How we around Chicago: by foot and on the train.
Where we slept: at home. Price: mortgage, assessments and utilities. Recommended: highly.

 

 

 

15 comments

  1. This is really fascinating. We have a lot of this Indian architectural stuff in my hometown of St. Paul too. Massacres to masonry, I guess. I love the Fieldhouse in your neighborhood especially.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Massacres to masonry: ugh! Does the architectural stuff in St. Paul has a similar craft aesthetic?

      HOB and I live in a Tudor Revival apartment building made at the same time as the Fieldhouse and I have a soft spot for the more campy aspects, like faux chimneys and crenellations.

      Like

      1. Look up St Paul Courthouse Indian. We have a huge towering marble Indian God of Peace in the lobby. I haven’t been inside in years, but it’s all Art Deco with a lot of Indian themes—I’m sure there must be arrows and such. I like the sound of your building!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. There’s usually a kind of polite fetishism of conquered peoples once they’re no longer seen as threats, quaint figures that can be petted while still being held at arm’s length.

    I really have a thing against Brits who are happy to have figurines of early 20C African American minstrels dotted around their home furnishings but would be chary if a black family moved in next door.

    When we see and hear about the deprivations and abject poverty that many Native Americans currently exist with we can’t help despising the ‘noble savage’ view these architects and designers subscribed to while ignoring their treatment. Makes me angry, especially given the dreadful attitudes social and public media exposes on a daily basis.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Polite fetishism is a really perfect way to put it. And why would you bother learning about a culture’s heritage when you could just use an ahistorical fantasy to decorate your lobby?

      When I was a kid I would still see some of those creepy lawn jockey statues around, which was especially weird since we lived in the plantation-free Midwest.

      Our current presidential administration in the US is hell bent on removing protections from National Monuments and drilling in Native sacred lands. It is a threat to what heritage the Native nations have left and of course hugely damaging to our natural heritage. I think I know who the savages are here and it is certainly not the American Indians…..

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Great post. I love all the architectural details. I think the mosaic is a bit strange, with a warrior in a Plains Indian headdress against a backdrop of Northwest Coast totem poles. A sight never to be seen in reality. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Not to mention the neither Plains nor Coastal white antelope….

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The guy in the fieldhouse under that overloaded headdress also has “a face more expressive than stylized”. Its not a very happy expression.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Can you blame him? I must be hard work holding up a cornice.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Why do you expect people in the 1920s to have the same sensibilities you do? Using sculptures of people to hold up bits of buildings is hardly new – look at the caryatids on the Acropolis in Athens. Lot of them on Art Nouveau and Art Deco buildings in Europe, although Europeans.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, there is quite a long tradition of human-like sculptures holding up buildings—-I’m especially fond of Telamon figures. And you’re right about the Art Nouveau. We were recently in Riga and there were an abundance of them, particularly lots of bare-breasted ladies with flowing locks.

      As to the question of me expecting people in the 1920s to have the same sensibilities as I do: I don’t expect that. Had I lived in the same time and place I likely would have thought the same. Seeing art made in different generation in a new context is something those of us who work in museums talk about a lot these days. For example, there are plenty of paintings that were once uncontroversial which now seem downright skanky in the #metoo era. As this blog is indeed about my experiences and sensibilities, it is the right place to write about things that make me uncomfortable. Certainly seeing depictions of Native peoples used decoratively in a country that a short time before was committing genocide against, repeatedly breaking promises to, and most tragically, destroying the culture of that same people it upsetting to me in a way that seeing stylized god-humans hold up temples in Sicily does not.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re right about the art. There was a particularly lecherous “Lot and Daughters” by Rubens in Schwerin I didn’t care for at all (but I am not a fan of Rubens). Then there are all the rapes – Lucretia, the Sabine women, Zeus’ targets. I have long thought that the nudes in Renaissance and later art were really soft porn. Maybe why I prefer the Dutch. But I don’t think we should automatically write off the art because of it.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Was hoping to get to Chicago this year but family commitments have put it off this year’s agenda – maybe next year or I’ll have to rely on your photos.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. By next year can I officially call you Doctor?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, that’s the goal.

        Liked by 1 person

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