Last month, when writing about Ida McClelland Stout and Charitas, her sculpture submittal to the high-profile competition sponsored by the Daily News Fresh Air Sanitarium, I discovered that the five-member jury included Emil Zettler. Although Zettler was a prolific Chicago sculptor who created architectural ornamentation for many buildings I admire, until recently, he and his work had been unfamiliar to me. Once I became aware of him, however, Zettler’s name seemed to appear all over the place. Most recently, when I attended the Chicago History Museum’s exhibit, Modern by Design: Chicago Streamlines America, I saw a drawing of the official World’s Fair Medal. Sure enough, Zettler produced this iconic Art Deco artwork. And so, this month I am compelled to write about another largely forgotten sculptor, Emil Robert Zettler.
Born in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, Emil Robert Zettler (1878-1946) immigrated to America with his family at the age of four. He attended the Chicago public schools, and later worked as a stone carver while studying at the School of the Art Institute. At that time, he lived with his parents, siblings, and an uncle in their Roscoe Village home. In 1905, Zettler travelled abroad and continued honing his skills as a sculptor at the Royal Academy of Berlin and Académie Julian in Paris.
Soon after returning to Chicago, Zettler began exhibiting artworks and winning awards across the country. He displayed two artworks at the 1910 Exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. One of them, a marble portrait bust of Professor T. Schoelle, received a bronze medal at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. At a 1916 exhibition of American artists in Chicago, Zettler was also awarded the Potter Palmer Gold Medal and a $1,000 prize for his figurative sculpture of Job. According to The Monumental News, that award represented the “first time that this important prize was awarded to a sculptor and the first time it has been won by a Western artist.”
Along with receiving increasing attention for his work in the mid-1910s, Zettler became active in arts organizations and related groups. He began serving on the Municipal Art Commission in 1915. He was a member of the Friends of Our Native Landscape, a group founded by Jens Jensen that sought to conserve important natural areas. At Jensen’s suggestion, playwright Kenneth Sayer Goodman wrote a “masque,” entitled “Beauty of the Wild,” which was performed annually in natural landscapes threatened by development. Zettler was a cast member of the 1914 production of Goodman’s allegorical play, staged that year in a tract of primeval forest in Lakeside, Michigan. By mid-decade, Zettler was already a prominent member of Chicago’s arts scene, and it was around this time that he moved into Tree Studios, a famous building at 4 E. Ohio Street where artists could live, work, and exchange ideas.
Zettler was soon winning several awards each year. He received the Frank Logan Medal of the Arts for his Woman and Child sculpture in 1918. (Depicting a woman in a toga-like garment holding a baby, this figurative work may have inspired Stout’s Charitas.) The following year, the Art Institute commissioned Zettler to sculpt a new Logan Medal for the next recipients. Featuring two female figures in draped clothing and a winged nude male, the bronze medal bears the artist’s initials, E.Z.
During this period, Zettler began teaching Architectural Sculpture and Architectural Modeling at the Armour Institute (later renamed the Illinois Institute of Technology). Armour’s four-year architecture program was then co-sponsored by the Art Institute, and Zettler would go on to establish an Industrial Arts program for the School of the Art Institute in 1929. Despite his busy teaching schedule, Zettler continued making busts and figurative works, while also accepting commissions for architectural ornament.
The firm of Perkins, Hamilton & Fellows hired Zettler to create ornamentation for its new office and studio at 815 E. Tower Court, across the street from the Water Tower. Completed in 1917, the four-story Arts and Crafts style building incorporates Gothic details that were produced by Zettler. Shortly after the structure’s completion, Architectural Record suggested that the architects had a “leaning toward the use of Gothic details,” but that the project involved “no direct copying of specific Gothic forms.” The article explained that Zettler, “who spent several years studying medieval sculpture at Chartres and other famous works in Europe,” had followed only rough sketches from the architects showing the general characteristics of the ornaments. Along with producing all of the exterior architectural details for the building, Zettler created a plaster model for a carved oak panel that stood over an interior fireplace. He went on to collaborate with Perkins, Fellows & Hamilton on several other projects, including the Edgewater Presbyterian Church and the Gymnastic Wing of Evanston Township High School.
Another architect with whom Zettler frequently worked was George Grant Elmslie. A Scottish immigrant who apprenticed under several important Chicago architects including Louis Sullivan, Elmslie worked in partnership with William Gray Purcell until 1921, when he formed a solo practice. (Like Dwight H. Perkins, Elmslie is now recognized for his contributions to Prairie School architecture.) Elmslie often selected Zettler to create sculptural details for his buildings.
Elmslie’s work often featured bold geometric massing, and Zettler’s sculptural embellishments enhanced this treatment. For the1922 Capitol Building and Loan Association in Topeka, Zettler’s ornamentation highlighted window openings, crowned doorways, and served as capitals for pilaster-like piers with imagery of sun flowers, sheaves of wheat, and allegorical figures of pioneers. Zettler also created interior elements that incorporated similar motifs. Although this structure was razed in the late 1960s, extant examples of Elmslie-designed buildings with Zettler’s details include the 1924 Old Second National Bank of Aurora, Illinois. Here, Zettler’s sculptures symbolize a number of themes such as agriculture, transportation, and manufacturing.
By the late 1920s, Zettler was working with many of Chicago’s most popular architects. Holabird & Roche commissioned him to create sculptural details for both the Palmer House and the Stevens Hotel (now Conrad Hilton). Each of the stately red brick buildings has a handsomely contrasting limestone base. At the Palmer House Hotel, Zettler’s Classical ornamentation includes whimsical elements such as medallions depicting Poseidon surfing on a large fish above pedimented niches with elaborate urns.
Some architects provided Zettler with highly detailed drawings, but needed his help to transform their ideas into three-dimensional models. This was the scenario for Jerrold Loebl and Norman Schlossman, who were young architects when they received the commission to design Temple Sholom at 3480 North Lake Shore Drive. The two had been students of Zettler at the Armour Institute, and he was happy to oblige them. In fact, Schlossman described Zettler as “a very genial fellow” who was well-liked by all of his students. Zettler helped his former students create the synagogue’s highly decorated capitals in which Jewish symbols, such as menorahs and Torah scrolls, intermesh with fanciful Classical elements, as well as a few Deco flourishes.
Although building construction waned across the nation during the Depression, Zettler received a few commissions in the 1930s. Among his extant work of that period is Wynadotte High School in Kansas City by Fellows, Hamilton, & Nedved, and Thorton Fractional High School in Calumet City, Illinois, which was designed by George Elmslie with William S. Hutton. Of course, Zettler also sculpted his iconic Century of Progress medal during that period. Zettler retired from teaching in 1943, and he died only three years later.
Today, only a handful of architectural historians and enthusiasts seem to know Zettler’s name or contributions. In his 1981 book, Chicago Sculpture, James L. Riedy wrote that “Perhaps no sculptor of prominence in Chicago obtained more local architectural commissions than Emil Zettler.” But sadly, a number of the buildings Riedy references have been razed since then. I suppose we should all look closely at architectural details to better appreciate the legacy of Zettler and other artists. And let’s hope that his existing buildings will endure.