21 September 2010

Chicago's Alexander Hamilton Memorial

Photograph by Hedrich Blessing from the Archives of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Samuel Marx designed the Alexander Hamilton Memorial in Chicago's Lincoln Park in 1953 as a set of abstract stone slabs juxtaposed with a statue of Hamilton supported on a cantilevered block of red granite. The origins of the commission could be found decades earlier with a bequest to the Art Institute of Chicago to erect a monument in his honor.

Photograph by Hedrich Blessing from the Digital Archives of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

In the 1930s, philanthropist and art patron Kate Sturges Buckingham (1858 – 1937) decided Chicago deserved a monument to the country's first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton (1757 – 1804). She considered Hamilton to be “one of the least appreciated great Americans.” She believed he was responsible for the nation's financial prosperity and made her family's fortune in banking and grain elevators possible.

Photograph of original rendering by Eliel Saarinen at the Art Institute of Chicago by Flickr member chernobyl.skies.

Eliel Saarinen design proposed creating a monumental framework 80 feet tall to surround the bronze statue created by the New York figurative sculptor John Angel toward fulfilling Kate Sturges Buckingham's conception. The collosal stripped classical exedra wasn't favorably received by the public and the project remained incomplete upon her death in 1937 without a site or setting firmly established.

On her death TIME magazine published the following brief obituary:
Died. Kate Sturges Buckingham, 79, Chicago art patron, philanthropist; of heart disease; in Chicago. Of Miss Buckingham's numerous gifts to Chicago, most spectacular was $1,000,000 she gave in 1927 for the Clarence Buckingham Memorial Fountain in Grant Park, which she endowed for $300,000.
The Art Institute of Chicago was entrusted with carrying out her wishes in the erection of the Hamilton Memorial. Over time, questions were raised regarding the project and whether the funding would revert to the Institute if a memorial was never constructed.
Samuel Abraham Marx's design for the Alexander Hamilton Memorial.
The Institute directed architect Samuel Marx to design a more appropriate setting for the Hamilton statue. While the overall height of the structure (78 feet) was of a similar scale to Saarinen's design, the overall visual mass was reduced considerably emphasizing the free-standing sculpture which it was decided should be gilded. The site was to be in Lincoln Park.

Postcard of Lincoln Park, Alexander Hamilton Monument from the SAIC Digital Archives of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Unfortunately the structural basis for the stone clad monument was eventually found to be inadequate and in 1993 the modernist setting for Hamilton's statue was removed leaving only the red granite base set in a landscaped garden near ground level.

Photograph of Alexander Hamilton Memorial by Flickr member evanembee.

Thus, through a series of indirect decisions and circumstances, we find Alexander Hamilton in bright gold standing atop a block of red granite. While it certainly isn't quite as grandiose at Kate Sturges Buckingham originally envisioned, perhaps it retains some of the dignity she desired.

• • • • •

What do you think? Would Saarinen's more classical design been more appropriate and lasting? Or do you think Marx's modernist composition should have been retained and rebuilt? Or do you like the monument as it exists today?

• • • • •

I'll be giving a talk on the Morton May House in Saint Louis designed by Samuel Marx this Sunday  26 September 2010 at 3pm. The slide talk will be held at Landmarks Association of Saint Louis.

My talk is part of a series on mid-century modern architecture being held this fall. Reservations are required as the talks are quite popular and only 50 people can be accommodated.

Other talks in the series include:
Professor Eric Mumford, Washington University, Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Art 

Esley Hamilton speaking on Saint Louis modern architect Frederick Dunn 

Eugene Mackey, III, FAIA speaking on modern architecture in the 1950s 

Mary Reid Brunstrom, PhD Candidate speaking on Murphy and Mackey's religious architecture 

Toby Weiss talking on STL loves MCM (Saint Louis loves Mid-Century Modernism)


  1. Without knowing all the surrounding issues, it seems like restoring the Marx setting would've been the most appropriate thing to do. That slab had a real 2001: A Space Odyssey quality, in a good way.

  2. Steve, thanks for your comment. I didn't think of the 2001 stone slab, but you're right, it does have that vibe.

    I'm wondering if the structural framework for the monument was concrete or steel. If it was steel and moisture was seeping in, I could understand that corrosion could have destroyed its integrity.

    Somehow, concrete makes more sense to me for a masonry structure and shouldn't have had those kinds of problems. Perhaps there was a delamination of the stone veneer from its underpinnings. I wonder what the issues were?

  3. Anonymous06 July, 2017

    Somehow I got my Stingray bike up on that slab, a great into to modernist architecture!


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