Lute Lady

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My mother died 19 years ago tonight, far from her Chicago home. At about the time she died, my sisters and I discovered a nifty way to memorialize her in her old North Side neighbourhood.

The Mid-North Association, a Lincoln Park area civic group, began selling personalized bricks with which to repave a park known variously as Mid-North Park and the Belden Triangle, and to rehabilitate it somewhat. For U.S.$60, we had two lines engraved that said, simply, “Maggie Murray” and “I Miss Chicago.”

On my next trips to Chicago after ordering our brick, I would visit Mid-North Park to see whether it had been installed yet. I finally found it – quite near bricks bought by local businesses she used to patronize, as well as Bill Kurtis, the TV newsman she so admired.

Whenever I’m in Chicago, I still make a little pilgrimage to that park.

But in the intervening years, the park has changed. At the time of the brick-laying, it featured a beautiful sculpture of a veiled woman playing the lute, with two children on either side of her. A few years ago, I noticed that the sculpture was gone – replaced by a (forgive me) rather uninspiring fountain. It was installed as part of a beautification project to renovate or construct 18 fountains in parks, triangles formed by some of the city’s weird intersections of three streets, plazas and other open spaces.

I think Mid-North Park/Belden Triangle got one of the more pedestrian fountains. But I always wondered what happened to the sculpture.

I decided to seize the moment, probably prompted by the anniversary of my mother’s death, and contacted Chicago Park District (CPD) historian Julia Bachrach. She directed the years of research that resulted in the Chicago Park District Guide to Fountains, Monuments and Sculptures, an impressive online resource providing the histories of those features in CPD parks.

Julia told me that the sculpture I was interested in, known as “Lute Lady” or “Seated Woman With Children,” was originally part of a bandstand in Lincoln Park designed by Chicago architects Pond & Pond, and sculpted by Lorado Taft in 1915.

The Lute Lady has had a rough ride. In 1983, she and other sculptures were found along Lake Michigan, north of 39th Street, where they were waiting to be used as landfill! Julia sent me a story from the Chicago Tribune (6 May 1983) describing the find, which included columns from the city’s old federal courthouse building and the bas relief backdrop to “The Spirit of Music,” a memorial to Theodore Thomas, founder of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

The Trib article quoted Ben Bentley, then the CPD’s director of public information, saying that the CPD warehouse had become too crowded with materials that no one had asked about. The sculptures were going to be used as part of a landfill to help retard lakefront erosion.

“What we have done is a perfectly legitimate thing,” Bentley is reported to have said at the time.

Since then, the Federal Building columns and the conserved “Spirit of Music” have been installed in Grant Park, Julia said.

And what of the Lute Lady and her children? “They are currently in storage, which is probably a good thing, because they are marble and really shouldn’t be outside in the Chicago climate,” she added. “We really need to find a good indoor location for the Lute Lady.”

As to the photos in this post: I’m not sure whether they’re mine or were taken by my sister Roxe Murray. We shared our prints back then – at least the ones relating to our mother’s memorial and family history. Somewhere in my cluttered home office, I have a full photographic study of the Lute Lady, shot from a variety of angles. I’d like to think I was prescient when I took those photographs, but I probably just wanted to fully document my mother’s memorial. When I find those prints, I’ll scan and post them.

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