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Monday, 20 July 2009

Statuary





Junto Photos: Richard Carreno

Did Academy Award Oscar Rip Off Ceres?

By Richard Carreno
Junto Staff Writer
Chicago I've always been suspicious of city tour-guide 'facts.' One of the first things I do as a new visitor -- or one who has been away for many years, as is the case now in regards to my few days in Chicago -- I like to hop aboard a double-decker 'Big Bus' and zip by most of the top tourist hot spots. In Chicago, this process is almost cut-throat; three competing bus companies operate from the same corner venues. Watch out!

With competition like this, and when price isn't the issue (the companies have price-fixed their fares), something has to give. In my experience, it's often the truth. Verisimilitude in the tour bus business is something akin to veracity in public relations, wherein facts often morph into what the late great John Tebbel at NYU used to warn us about: Lies, damned lies, and statistics.

And showmanship.

Jeff was my guide the other day as we toured 18 city venues, from the newly-created, Frank Gehry-inspired Millennium Park in the Loop; up northern Michigan Avenue, known as the 'Magnificent Mile;' past the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower); and a score of other well-known sites in the Windy City.

Jeff was good. Very good. His banter was a combination of factoids and wise-cracks.

Factoid: Did you know, the expression, 'In the Loop,' meaning 'in the know,' comes from being within the confines Chicago's center city, known as the Loop?

Wisecrack: No, folks, the 'El' subway which encircles the Loop is not short for 'The Train.'

Factoid: Chicago's sobriquet as the 'Windy City' does not refer to the velocity of its winter winds, but rather the 'windy-ness' of its pols. The New York Times, no less, bestowed the title on the city, and, according to Jeff, locals are OK with the designation. All right, Jeff. Which American city is then the windiest? Boston, anyone?

Who's to dispute our man Jeff. He's on a roll.

Factoid and Wisecrack: The 'skin' of the IBM building, near Grant Park, was originally clad in marble. But winter weather proved too much, and bits of the marble started cracking and falling, dangerously, to the street. The marble was replaced by granite, and that in short order solved the problem. OK, Jeff, you're on. Drum roll, please: 'Don't take marble for granite.'

I had learned the truth of the Windy City designation decades ago, and I assumed, then, that Jeff might actually be talking some sense about another thing or two. To be perfectly honest, I wasn't always paying strict attention to Jeff's banter. This being an almost four-hour tour (traffic tie-ups were horrendous), Jeff's voice was getting a bit annoying.

But then ... then, he said something about the Statue of Ceres, atop the Board of Trade building. My ears perked up.

'You know, folks. As in the Goddess of Agriculture. That's where we get our word 'cereal.' In a way, she's the Goddess of Wheaties.'

Jeff, enough already.

Actually, Ceres is the Roman goddess of grain and, given that Board of Trade deals in grain futures, it's not surprising that Ceres is also the patron saint of corn traders.

As we headed south along the great canyon of LaSalle Street, facing the Board of Trade, Jeff directed us to look into the statue's face, or rather, as he pointed out, non-face. I've gazed up at Ceres dozens of times over the years. (I used to bank at The Northern Trust Company, which has its head office just a stone's throw down LaSalle from the Board of Trade). But I never noticed, nor knew that the statue was faceless.

'That's because the sculptor John Storrs was angry with the Board Trade. That was in 1928.'

Hello, I'm all ears now.

'Storrs was noted for his use of detail,' Jeff went on. 'But he eliminated all detail in Ceres? Why? Because he was angry that Board members were planning to place the huge statute on high on top of the building, not at eye-level. Storrs had already been paid for the statue. So, he had nothing to lose. He reworked it, making it faceless. He delivered it to the Board, thinking they might reject it. Instead, they loved it, and, as planned, put it on top of their building.'

True story? That was Friday.

Yesterday, I visited the Art Institute of Chicago, and, as I toured the early American galleries.... There it was. The statue of Ceres. A miniature form, to be sure, at about 24 inches tall.

What I learned was another version of Jeff's tale. In fact, according to to the information card accompanying the 'reduced' statue, Storrs was so 'impressed' with the final 'outcome' of his work that he made several miniatures of it to distribute among private collectors. As for the blank face? The information card was mysteriously mute on this.

Something was fishy. Maybe Jeff was half right about Storrs' falling out with the Board. Besides there was something that bothered me at about the the Ceres statue that went unmentioned. That it looked uncanningly like a chrome version of the gold-plated Oscar -- another faceless statue -- of Hollywood's Academy Awards. Had Ceres been ripped off?

Still I knew he was dead wrong about something else. With Tebbel's admonition regarding 'lies, damned lies, and statistics' still in mind, I was shocked when Jeff declared, 'And Ceres is the tallest statue on top of any building in the United States!'

Whoa! Jeff. I'm from Philly. Ever hear of Philadelphia City Hall? William Penn, maybe?

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