On April 24, 1924, a memorial was unveiled in Grant Park honoring Theodore Thomas, founding music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Although designed as a lasting tribute to the man who established Chicago as a center for outstanding classical music, the monument itself has had a shaky history, and very nearly disappeared altogether. In this article, we will explore the creation of the Theodore Thomas memorial and how it ended up at its current location just north of Balbo Drive.
The B. F. Ferguson Monument Fund
Benjamin Franklin Ferguson was a prominent Chicago lumber merchant. His home, a massive brick Queen Anne style home completed in 1883, still stands in the West Jackson Boulevard landmark district. When he died in 1905, Ferguson left a bequest of $1,000,000 for the establishment of a fund, the income of which was to be expended by the Board of Trustees of the Art Institute of Chicago (of which John Glessner was a member) to fund public monuments. Specifically, the income was to be used “in the erection and maintenance of enduring statuary and monuments in the whole or in part of stone, granite or bronze, in the parks, along the boulevards or in other public places, within the city of Chicago, Illinois, commemorating worthy men or women of America or important events of American history.”
The first monument to be erected by the fund was the Fountain of the Great Lakes by Lorado Taft, dedicated in 1913 on the south terrace of the Art Institute of Chicago. By the early 1920s, additional monuments included:
-Statue of the Republic, Daniel Chester French, sculptor, 1918 (Jackson Park)
-Alexander Hamilton, Bela Lyon Pratt, sculptor, 1918 (Grant Park)
-Illinois Centennial Monument, Evelyn B. Longman, sculptor, 1918 (Logan Square)
-Eugene Field Monument, Edward McCartan, sculptor, 1922 (Lincoln Park)
-Fountain of Time, Lorado Taft, sculptor, 1922 (Washington Park, Midway)
Sculptor Albin Polasek
By the time the massive Fountain of Time was dedicated in late 1922, discussion was already underway for a permanent memorial to Theodore Thomas, who had died in 1905. The site selected was a location just south of the Art Institute, facing Orchestra Hall (now Symphony Center).
Czech-American sculptor Albin Polasek (1879-1965) was commissioned to create the work, which was titled “The Spirit of Music.” Polasek began his career as a wood carver in Vienna, immigrating to the United States in his early twenties and settling in Philadelphia. In 1916, he was invited to head the department of sculpture at the Art Institute, where he remained for over 30 years. He retired to Winter Park, Florida in 1950 and his home and studio are open to the public as the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens.
An article in the Chicago Tribune, dated April 13, 1924, noted the following:
“Albin Polasek, head of the sculpture department of the Art Institute, will soon have the satisfaction of seeing his beautiful monument to the memory of Theodore Thomas erected in bronze . . . ‘The Spirit of Music,’ Polasek has called his memorial. The figure is of heroic size and stands thirteen feet high. She holds a lyre in her arm, the strings of which she has just struck, the act being indicated by her uplifted right hand. With its granite pedestal the bronze figure will of course stand several feet higher than its thirteen feet. The great seat just to the east is a semi-circular affair about forty feet in length. Upon it figures of the orchestra are carved. Polasek has done in this a truly powerful and significant piece of sculpture. It is effective, simple, striking, decorative, impressive, and artistic.”
As noted in A Guide to Chicago’s Public Sculpture by Ira J. Bach and Mary Lackritz Gray (The University of Chicago Press, 1983), the bronze figure, actually 15 feet in height, was “to have the grandeur of a Beethoven symphony and to be ‘feminine . . . but not too feminine.’” The guide also describes the hemispherical base upon which the figure stands, featuring “low relief figures of Orpheus playing his lyre, Chibiabos, from Longfellow’s ‘Song of Hiawatha’ singing, and a group of animals listening.” Polasek insisted that the face peering out from a small classical mask at the lower end of the lyre was his own.
Howard Van Doren Shaw
Architect Howard Van Doren Shaw (1869-1926) collaborated with Polasek on the memorial, designing the massive granite exedra and bench to display Polasek’s incised carving of the orchestra members being led by Thomas. The back side of the exedra features a memorial panel with Thomas’ bust surrounded by the following inscription:
“Scarcely any many in any land has done so much for the musical education of the people as did Theodore Thomas in this country. The nobility of his ideals with the magnitude of his achievement will assure him everlasting glory. 1835-1905.”
The bronze figure was completed in 1923, the date noted on its base, but was not set into place and unveiled until April 24, 1924. The dedication ceremony began at 4:00pm with a program and concert in Orchestra Hall. Thomas championed German music, so it is not surprising that the works performed that afternoon included the Chorale and Fugue by Bach-Albert, the first movement from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, and the Prelude to the Mastersingers of Nuremberg by Wagner. Charles H. Hamill gave an address on the life and work of Theodore Thomas. Charles L. Hutchinson, president of the Art Institute and the B. F. Ferguson Monument Fund, presented the memorial, which was accepted by Edward J. Kelly, president of the South Park Commissioners. (The South Park District merged with others to form the Chicago Park District in 1934).
The assembled audience then adjourned to the location of the monument immediately south of the Art Institute. Thomas’s daughter, Mrs. D. N. B. Sturgis, unveiled the memorial “while trumpets played a theme from the ninth symphony of Beethoven and crowds stood with bared heads."
In 1941, the monument was moved to the north end of Grant Park, very near to the original peristyle designed by Edward H. Bennett. That structure was demolished in 1953 when the Grant Park underground parking garage was constructed, and The Spirit of Music was placed in storage. When it was re-erected five years later near Buckingham Foundation, only the bronze figure was installed.
In the late 1980s, the original granite sections of the exedra were found along the edge of Lake Michigan where they had been dumped. They were retrieved by the Chicago Park District and restored, and the present setting for the memorial was created at the northeast corner of Michigan Avenue and Balbo Drive. The rededication of the monument took place on October 18, 1991, concluding the year long celebration of the CSO's centennial season. Sir Georg Solti was joined by Rafael Kubelik and Daniel Barenboim for the ceremony, which was followed that evening by a concert recreating the very first performance of the orchestra in October 1891.
The adjacent Spirit of Music Garden has for many years now been home to the popular Summer Dance, continuing, in a somewhat different vein, the legacy of music in the cultural fabric of the City of Chicago.
In August 2015, The Spirit of Music was one of thirty statues in the city to be featured in “Statue Stories,” funded by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, and produced by Sing London. At each of the thirty sites, visitors can swipe their smart phone and get a call back from a celebrity, telling the story of the monument. The Spirit of Music story is read by soprano Renee Fleming, creative consultant with the Lyric Opera of Chicago. For more information, visit Statue Stories Chicago.