Gamboling about downtown Chicago last Sunday night after the conclusion of the Third Coast audio festival, I walked up LaSalle Street past Chicago City Hall. I think I was inside once, back in the early 1970s, tracking down a copy of my birth certificate so I could get a passport. I don’t know the building well.
So I was struck, looking across LaSalle, at a series of four bas reliefs on the wall of the building. They are heroic renderings interpreting the life of the great city as it was understood a century ago, when City Hall was built. I found one of the panels arresting: It depicts what I saw as a woman in the waves, with a lighthouse nearby. Something about the sweep of the waves, the woman’s expression, the figure’s apparent passiveness in the midst of (what I see as) peril, the presence of the lighthouse, made me think this was about near-drowning and rescue — maybe depicting the city’s role as guardian of the shores. Or something.
Delving into the history of the City Hall figures a little, here’s what I can readily establish: The bas reliefs were designed (if not executed) by a well-known American sculptor and medalist named John Flanagan. Most Americans know one piece of Flanagan’s work: George Washington’s head on the quarter.
What are the bas reliefs meant to depict? Here’s some research by way of the April 25, 1956, editions of the Chicago Tribune. The piece was written to mark the beginning of sandblasting at City Hall to remove nearly a half-century’s accumulated grit and coal-smoke residue. The story makes it sound like that before sandblasting, it wasn’t even apparent that the “woman in the waves” relief was there. The writer takes up the figure shown in the waves:
When the writer of this piece looked at the same bas relief I was viewing the other night, he saw it as an “Adonis like figure with long, wavy hair, and he is bathing in some extremely high surf.” He, not she.
Huh. If you look at the other three reliefs — here, here and here — the male figures are all, to my eye, unmistakably male. The few female figures are clearly female. So I’m wondering what the sculptor’s intent, as executed by construction workers, actually was.
But here’s something that I’m sure colors my viewing of the piece: When our mom was nine years old, she survived a near-drowning out at the Indiana Dunes. Four others in her family — a brother, an aunt, a cousin, and an uncle — all died. So that image, to me, is anything but abstract. When I look at it, I see tragedy and loss.