Karl Bitter, Elmer Taflinger, and the Holliday Park Ruins

Written by on May 20, 2014 in Historic Miscellania - 6 Comments
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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.

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Sculptor Karl Bitter in 1907.

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.

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The St. Paul Building in Manhattan, New York, designed by architect George B. Post with second story sculptures by Bitter. 

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.

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Elmer Taflinger at his 90th birthday party in 1981 – photo from The Indianapolis Star

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.

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Taflinger’s original design for the ruins. 

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.

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Elmer Taflinger gesturing to a Leonardo DaVinci quote inscribed into the Ruins in 1976 – Photo from The Indianapolis Star

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.

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Today, the same inscription peeks out from under vines and brush. – Photo by Ryan Hamlett

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.

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The Friends of Holliday Park are now working towards turning an eyesore into the centerpiece of Holliday Park – Photo by Ryan Hamlett

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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About the Author

Ryan Hamlett, a Fine Arts graduate of Indiana University, turned a teenage fascination with exploring "haunted places" into a love of Urban Exploration or sneaking (not breaking) into abandoned buildings, armed with a camera and flashlight. That passion for photographing urban decay has led him to the Historic Preservation Graduate Program at Ball State University which he'll begin this fall.

6 Comments on "Karl Bitter, Elmer Taflinger, and the Holliday Park Ruins"

  1. basil berchekas jr May 20, 2014 at 6:33 am · Reply

    Have seen the “ruins” in the park and am thrilled to see they’re finally “getting their due”. Especially considering the fact that they’re from one of the nation’s first “skyscrapers”…(reminiscent of the Masonic Temple Building in Chicago and the Flat Iron building in new York City…)

  2. D MIKELS SHEA May 20, 2014 at 8:45 am · Reply

    And, as Paul Harvey would have put it, is how I found at an estate auction “the rest of the story” re Taflinger continuing to “tinker” with the wish that he had lived long enough for his tenacious crusade to come to fruition. I have–and would love to share via your posting, some undiscovered Taflinker drawings of how he envisioned incorporation those wonderful old Marion Co. Court house “Roman Godess” statues into the ruins. The drawings are huge rolls which I accidentally purchased from the estate of local historic landmarks pioneer Robert Braun, founder and first director of what was Marion Co Historic Landmarks Commission, now Indiana Landmarks.

    The goddesses were special to those of us who covered the Court House beat back when we had 3 local dailies which actually covered with live reporters the local scene. (40’s,50’s) –including that wonderful old historic Marion CO Courthouse (replaced by the bland City-County Bldg) with the statues evicted into oblivion. (Some are now in Crown Hill Cemetery–can’t remember how many there were originally but we reporters used to rest our coffee cups on the toe of one on the landing during time outs, jury out in criminal courts.

    Taflinger’s sketches are wonderful–showing how he envisioned keeping all the ladies together as part of the Ruins. I will make available if Historic or writer wants to photograph–I am clearing out my home and probably putting them and hundreds of other local artifacts and ephemera up for sale. (Braun was one of the original planners to gentrify Lockerbie and I also have the original plans for what was envisioned as Lockerbie Fair–same offer.

    • Tiffany Benedict Berkson May 20, 2014 at 10:30 am · Reply

      Libby Cierzniak and I were at that sale too. And I recall seeing those sketches of “Lockerbie Fair” Mr. Braun had so many amazing relics he collected through the years and it hurt my heart to see how that gorgeous house was 1/2 dismantled. It also pained me, having met Mr. Braun and knowing him to be the most private of people, to have the doors of his house thrown open and every inch of his possessions pawed over by such a large crowd, myself included. I only met and spoke to him a handful of times, but found him so charming and sweet. But I digress…

    • Shari Moon May 20, 2014 at 7:41 pm · Reply

      D Mikels Shea
      I would love to see the plans for Lockerbie Fair. I have always been interested in Mr. Lilly’s vision for Lockerbie.

  3. Louis Mahern May 20, 2014 at 9:21 am · Reply

    A goofy idea start to finish. Contrived ruins. Why not a fake archeological dig.

  4. Anne Weinkauf February 10, 2015 at 1:24 pm · Reply

    I was there in 1978 working in the gardens of the ruins where groundcover was transplanted and weeded and flower pots were kept. There was a reflection pool intended to be a skating rink in the winter. it is a sad reflection on our city to allow this decay of a hard fought cultural preservation and design.

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