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.
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.”
Just an art deco totem pole themed mosaic in the foyer, you know, like we do in 1929.
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.
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?
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).
Am I the only one who thinks this naked horseback riding business might be kind of hard on the tender man bits?
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.
This carving greets you on entering the Fieldhouse, which also serves as a cultural center for the community.
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.
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.