Last episode, we learned of the short but prolific life of Austrian born, Indianapolis transplant Rudolph Schwarz, sculptor of the Soilders’ and Sailors’ Monument. After his untimely death, his art school friend and fellow Austrian ex-pat, Karl Bitter, came to Indianapolis for his friend’s funeral and to make sure Schwarz’s family was provided for. It was to be the last visit Indianapolis by Bitter, before he too met a sudden death. But some four decades later, some of Bitter’s finest works would echo his journey from New York to Indianapolis to face an uncertain fate of their own.
Karl Theodore Francis Bitter was born in Austria on December 6th, 1867, attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna–where he met young sculptor Rudolph Schwarz–and joined the Austrian army after graduation, where his artistic ambitions were ridiculed by superior officers. Bitter fled his tormenters, deserting first to Germany where he worked as a sculptor’s apprentice, then to the United States in 1889, to escape extradition back to Austria.
Bitter applied for U.S. citizenship soon after his arrival in New York City, where he quickly made a name for himself, first winning a competition to design one of three sets of doors for Trinity Church in 1893. As a result, he caught the attention of renowned New York architect, Richard Morris Hunt, who conceived the doors for William Waldorf Astor in memory of his father John Jacob Astor III. The two would work together on the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, on the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and on one of New York’s first skyscrapers, the St. Paul Building in lower Manhattan. For The St. Paul Building, Bitter designed three atlantes– columns or pilasters resembling human figures, carved as if they are supporting the building, à la the legend of Atlas. The figures are intended to be holding up the sky and entitled “The Races of Man,” and include Caucasian, African-American and Asian man, working together to support the building.
These three figures held up the facade of the St. Paul Building until 1958–incidentally, 43 years after Bitter was struck and killed by a car on a Manhattan sidewalk. The Western Electric Company, which had acquired the building, announced its intentions to raze the St. Paul, to build a modern headquarters. Bitter’s sculptures, however, were to be spared, and a contest was created to come up with the best use of the trio. Enter Indianapolis born artist and Manual High School alum Elmer Taflinger.
Taflinger’s design called for the eight ton statues to be incorporated into a recreation of the St. Paul’s facade, which rose before a reflecting pool complete with dual geysers. The design won, and Indianapolis was awarded the Bitter statues valued at $150,000. Elmer traveled to New York that year to oversee the removal of the statues–the very same figures that had startled a 19 year-old Taflinger while walking to The Battery on New Year’s Eve 1910, then a pupil of New York Art Student’ League.
Not long after the statues’ arrival in Indianapolis, the future of the “Ruins” project was off to a rocky start (ahem). The statues sat in their crates as the city debated how to proceed. It was nearly two years until they were placed within Holliday Park, and even longer until Taflinger’s plans were instituted. As the years ticked by, the combination of a lack of funds on the city’s part and a perpetually changing vision of what the monument might be (on Taflinger’s part) resulted in the project progressing at a snail’s pace. By 1970, the Ruins were decried as a safety hazard for climbing teens and Western Electric publicly lamented awarding Bitter’s sculptures to Indianapolis.
Perhaps fearing New York would attempt to reclaim the figures, in 1970, Mayor Richard Lugar provided an extra push to the Department of Parks and Recreation to complete the project begun over a decade before. The Ruins were finally dedicated in 1973, though Taflinger continued to tinker with its design. As the nation’s 1976 bicentennial approached, he proposed additions to the monument to honor the occasion. He proposed giant slabs of limestone carved with the first 13 words of the Constitution, 13 fir trees representing the 13 colonies and 51 boxwood trees represented each state and Washington D.C., all of which was carried out. But after Taflinger passed away in 1981, and the rest of his vision slowly fell to, well, ruin.
In 1994, plans surfaced proposing the dismantling of the Ruins so a nature center could be constructed in its stead. The public outcry that resulted saved Bitter’s statues from a second relocation though it would be nearly 20 years until plans to restore The Ruins began to take root. Today, the Friends of Holliday Park are raising money to restore the monument and revitalize area, in many ways staying true to and improving upon Taflinger’s original plan.
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