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Duty and Sacrifice: American Sculptural Memorials to Firefighters Past and Present

John A. Walker (Copyright 2009)

Mike Jorgenson (Photographer), Detail of Bronze firefighter by Neal Brodin, Illinois Firefighters Memorial, State Capitol, Springfield, IL, dedicated May 1999. (Copyright Jorgenson). -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------My research into visual representations of firefighters in both art and the mass media was prompted by a growing distaste for the worship of celebrities so

dominant in Western culture today. (1) Firefighters do not enjoy the same fame and money as celebrities but they are public-sector workers and volunteers who perform socially important tasks and, as 9/11 demonstrated yet again, they are genuine heroes willing to lay down their lives to help others. Public memorials to firefighters killed on duty, which have sculpted figures in bronze, zinc, wood or marble (‘White marble’, according to Thomas B. Brumbaugh, ‘represented the perfect transcendental material for an age of monumental rhetoric’. (2) ), are now commonplace across the United States but they have only been in existence for about 150 years: they date from the funerary art of the second half of the nineteenth century. Most are sited in cemeteries where fallen firefighters are buried, while others are located outside firehouses or in public parks and streets. Some are incorporated into drinking fountains, which can probably be explained by the need to water the horses that used to pull fire engines up until the 1920s and by the fact that firefighters employ water to extinguish fires. Not all monuments have figures: there are also Maltese Crosses, bells, Dalmatian dogs and, in the case of the 1997 Vendome Firefighters Memorial in Boston, a fire hat and coat as surrogates for the deceased. Typically, in early examples, a single figure stands on top of a plinth or column. While the height of these memorials varies, the firemen are normally raised above the viewer’s head to signify their importance and nearness to heaven. Height also enables the memorial to be visible from a distance and protects the sculpture from vandalism. The disadvantage, in the case of tall memorials, is that the sculptures on top cannot be seen clearly. Statues located out of doors, of course, are subject to

weathering that gradually discolours and erodes them and so some were given coats of paint to protect them and to make them appear life-like.

Leonard Wells Volk, Volunteers Firefighters Memorial, (1864). Chicago, Rosehill Cemetery. Photos courtesy of Mary Vileta, Below: detail of figure.

Figures pose on plinths with solemn dignity: most nineteenth-century sculptors did not try to suggest action or movement apart perhaps from one leg stepping forward. (This pose dates back to the Kouros – ‘young man’ - statues of ancient Greece.) Some figures wear uniforms, helmets and hold speaking trumpets or hosepipes while others carry a coat or a small child in one arm and a lantern in the

other. Most of the sculptors responsible were professional, fine artists trained in the studios or workshops of other American or European artists. Many were immigrants from Europe. For example, Robert E. Launitz (aka Robert Eberhard Schmidt von der Launitz, 1806-70), the creator of one of America’s earliest firefighting memorials - The Firemen’s Monument (1848) in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery - was born in Riga, Latvia and arrived in New York in 1828.

Robert E. Launitz, The Firemen’s Monument (1848), Marble and granite, Brooklyn: Green-Wood Cemetery. Photo Jeffrey L. Richman.

Often he provided designs or plaster models of sculptures, which were then carved by others, sometimes by artisans in Italy. After completing many memorials during a long career, Launitz was dubbed ‘Father of monumental art in America’.

Other artists are little known or unknown because they were artisans employed by local marble companies or bronze foundries or iron works. Normally, the funds needed to pay for the sculptures were raised by public subscription, by fire departments and firemen’s benevolent associations or were donated by wealthy individuals. The functions that such sculptures fulfil for firefighters, their families and friends are rather different than their function for the public and art lovers. For instance, a monument where, following an initial dedication, annual ceremonies of remembrance are held is not primarily a site of aesthetic experience. It is, rather, a site of emotion, grieving, memory, catharsis, renewal and solidarity with a particular community; consequently, sculptural monuments cannot be judged by their aesthetic qualities alone. Most such monuments continue the figurative, naturalistic style associated with war memorials and statues of generals and politicians made by academic artists during the nineteenth century, which in turn derived from the realist portrait statuary of Rome and the Renaissance in Europe. This is why firefighter memorials are generally ignored by the contemporary art world. (The artists who made them reciprocated by ignoring modern art.) As far as the prime audience for these memorials are concerned, it is likeness and subject matter that is important – not originality and formal experimentation. While many of the statues are generic – representing the whole body of firefighters – others portray, or are named after, particular individuals. For example, there is a tall, Egyptian-style monument in Mt. Hope Cemetery, Rochester, New York dated 1880, which commemorates Wendell Charles Byers, the first chief of the Rochester

Fire Department.

H. S. Hebard, Fireman’s Monument, (1880). Granite, 16 m high. Rochester, NY: Mt Hope Cemetery. Photo Richard Margolis.

The sculptor H.S. Hebard, who had been a volunteer fireman, executed the design and his Steam Marble Works fabricated it. Byers’ relaxed pose implies that he is resting on his return from duty. Greenwood cemetery in New Orleans has an imposing memorial erected in 1887 to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the City’s Fireman’s Charitable & Benevolent Association. The Firemen’s Monument stands on an earth mound and consists of a 46-feet-high, granite architectural canopy – four arches surmounted by a steeple - which shelters a life-size Italian marble statue of a fireman in uniform

and helmet who hold the nozzle of a hosepipe.

Charles A. Orleans and Alexander Doyle, The Firemen’s Monument, (1887). Marble and Granite. New Orleans: Greenwood Cemetary. Photos courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection.

The structure’s form and its neo-gothic style were inspired by the Sir Walter Scott Monument (1844), Edinburgh. The New Orleans Monument was designed and erected by the builder Charles A. Orleans, while the American-born artist Alexander Doyle (1857-1922) conceived the statue and the Carlo Nicoli Studio of Carrara carved it. Doyle’s rather stolid figure, of course, is an ideal-type intended to stand in for all New Orleans’ volunteer firefighters. Bronze was another common material. John G. Segesman used it in 1905 to represent a fireman carrying a child for a memorial in Austin, Texas. A monument had been erected in 1896, which had a tall obelisk with a fireman holding a hosepipe carved by German-born artist Frank Teich (1856-1939). However, due to structural problems, the obelisk was removed and a shorter plinth substituted, and Teich’s sculpture was replaced by a figure modelled by Segesman and cast in bronze by the

W.H. Mullins Art Metal Works of Salem, Ohio.

John G. Segesman, Volunteer Fireman Monument, (1896/1905). Austin, Texas: State Capitol Grounds. Photo Copyright Brent A. Thale 2002.

Segesman was born near Berne, Switzerland in 1865 and moved to the United States

at the age of 16. His bronze fireman is slim and tall probably to compensate for the foreshortening that would occur when he was viewed from below. This sculpture, which conveys an impression of calm deliberation – the sign of an experienced, unflustered firefighter - is one of most artistically accomplished of American firefighter statues. Museum visitors familiar with the sculptures of ancient Greece and Rome may be surprised to learn they were once brightly coloured; hence, the habit of colouring statues is a venerable one.

Unknown sculptor, Hand carved wooden statue, (1865). 178 cm high. Hudson, NY: American Museum of Firefighting. Photo courtesy of the Museum.

Such figures were usually mounted on the top of the facades of buildings used by Firemen’s volunteer companies or associations.

During the early years of the twentieth century, there seems to have been a minor vogue in the United States for polychrome, zinc statues placed out of doors; for example, painted figures of firemen carrying infants and lanterns can be found in Carlisle, Pennsylvania (1908), Slatington, Pennsylvania (1909), Owego, New York (1914) and Ottawa, Ohio (1915).

Caspar Buberl/Fiske Iron Works, Fireman’s Drinking Fountain, (1909). Zinc and paint. Slatington, Pennsylvania. Photos courtesy of David D. Altrichter.

Several of these statues were parts of drinking fountains and were identical in form. Since the same New York firm - Fiske Iron Works - supplied them – it must have had a mould capable of generating many examples of the same sculpture. No account of this subject could omit the massive Firemen’s Memorial in Riverside Drive, New York unveiled in 1913. The American architect and sculptor Harold van

Buren Magonigle (1867-1935) designed an oblong, pink marble cenotaph and the Italian-born artist Attilio Piccirilli (1886-1945) provided a marble relief sculpture depicting three galloping horses pulling a fire engine. (The relief was replaced with a bronze version during a 1934 restoration.)

Harold van Buren Magonigle, Sacrifice, (detail of ) Firemen’s memorial, (1912-13) New York: Riverside Drive, Photo Leo Sandstead.

Flanking the cenotaph are stone carvings, credited to Magonigle, of two seated figures personifying ‘Sacrifice’ and ‘Duty’. Sacrifice is a pietà-type sculpture: a partially draped female supports the semi-naked body of a dead fireman across her lap. Duty, a widow frozen with grief, sits next to a fire hydrant and consoles her young son with one arm while holding her late husband’s helmet with the other. Thus, the Memorial combines a scene of early, twentieth-century firefighting with Renaissance-style, female personifications. Art historian Donald Martin Reynolds regards the Memorial as ‘a superlative union of architecture, sculpture and symbolic ornament’ and as New York’s ‘quintessential commemorative monument’.

(3) Another memorial featuring a bronze bas-relief is the David Campbell Monument, (1927-28) in Portland Oregon. Campbell, a Portland fire chief, was killed in 1911 during a fire at the Union Oil Company plant.

Avard T. Fairbanks, David Campbell Monument, (1927-28). Bronze plaque set in limestone. Portland, Oregon: Portland Firefighters Park. Photo Steven Voss.

His friends raised $35,000 to pay for the Monument, which took the form of a limestone drinking fountain with two lanterns and a bronze plaque. Avard T. Fairbanks (1897-1987) was the sculptor who modelled the bas-relief plaque, which has a half-length portrait of Campbell. Like the figures in ancient Egyptian murals, the fire chief’s body is represented from the front, while his powerful head is shown

in a highly defined profile. This is a striking and memorable portrait of a male American hero as well as being a skilful relief sculpture. Fairbanks, the son of mural painter, was born in Provo, Utah into a Mormon family and has been described as defining ‘Mormon aesthetics for the greater part of a century’. While his portrait of Campbell is not an example of ‘Mormon art’, it has a spiritual and humane quality. Before San Francisco’s Firebelle ‘Lillie’ Hitchcock-Coit died in 1929, she bequeathed money for a memorial to the City’s Volunteer Fire Department. It took the form of a bronze, over life-size, group statue of three firemen, two of whom are wearing fire helmets, tunics and boots. One of them gestures skywards with his right arm and carries a speaking trumpet in his left hand; the second fireman crouches to control a snake-like hosepipe; the third figure, bareheaded and dressed in oilskin and boots, cradles a swooning female in his arms. The figures are artfully arranged on a circular, white marble base so that the sculpture works ‘in the round’. It was unveiled at a dedication ceremony held on December 3rd 1933 and is situated in Washington Square Park. The artist responsible for the statue was Haig Patigian (1876-1950), a man of Armenian origin who came to the United States in 1891. Since he was opposed to modernism and the social realist art of the 1930s, it is not

surprising his memorial

Haig Patigian, Monument to the Volunteer Fire Department of San Francisco, (1933) Bronze. San Francisco, CA: Washington Square Park. Photo John Dugger.

continues the Beaux Arts tradition of classical-style public sculpture with figures combining naturalism and gestural rhetoric.

RECENT MEMORIALS Although some recent memorials continue the nineteenth-century practice of placing statues of single, static firefighters on plinths, there has been a general trend to show firefighters in action and to reduce the height of plinths or to dispense with them altogether. Again, professional fine artists are commissioned to produce such monuments but some artists are self-taught and are serving or retired firefighters. While some fountains serve the practical function of slaking thirst, others spray

water for decorative purposes. Kansas City, Missouri is known as ‘the City of fountains’ because it has so many. A large and spectacular circular fountain was designed by Byron Bash and erected in Penn Valley Park in 1991. Its basin has 48 real brass fire nozzles squirting water. At its centre are two, realistic, bronze figures of firefighters - one of whom stands and points while the other kneels to control a hosepipe nozzle - created by Tom Corbin (b. 1954). To model the two figures, Corbin posed in front of a mirror dressed in a bunker coat and a helmet.

Tom Corbin, Firefighters Fountain (detail), (1991). Bronze. Kansas City, MO: West 31st Street and Broadway, Penn Valley Park. Photo courtesy of Corbin Bronze Ltd.

A third, bareheaded, African-American firefighter figure stands on a low, circular plinth on a memorial terrace with head bowed as in the act of mourning. While most memorials commemorate urban firefighters, some honour those –

called ‘smokejumpers’ and ‘hotshots’ - who fight forest fires. For example, David Nelson’s Wildland Firefighters Monument (1996), which was a response to a tragedy that occurred on July 6th 1994 on Storm King Mountain, near Glenwood Springs, Colorado. During a forest fire started by lightning, 14, young, wildland firefighters, who included four women, perished when they were engulfed by a wall of flame caused by severe winds. Nine of the deceased had belonged to the Prineville Hotshots, a crew from Prineville, Oregon. Their grieving parents commissioned a monument in their memory and to honour all those who have lost, and will lose, their lives combating forest fires. Nelson, a sculptor from Marble, Colorado, created the Monument and it was sponsored by STIHL Inc., a company that manufactures chainsaws and other power tools. Three, over life-size, bronze figures – two males and one female - laden with tools and equipment are represented in a realist manner. They cluster around the stump of a shattered tree and are shown working with an axe, digging tool and a chainsaw. The sculpture is located in the verdant setting of Ochoco State Park, near Prineville.

Joyce K. Killebrew with her bronze statue to the Storm King 14. (1995). Photo courtesy of the artist.

Another bronze memorial to the Storm King 14 by Arizona artist Joyce K. Killebrew was sited in Twin Rivers Park, Glenwood Springs in 1995 and a national monument to wildland firefighters was sculpted by Lawrence Nowlan and placed in the grounds of the National Interagency Fire Center, Boise Idaho in 2000. Hai Ying Wu’s Fallen Firefighters Memorial (1998), located in Seattle, was commissioned in 1995 following the deaths of four firefighters during the Mary Pang Warehouse blaze in Seattle’s Chinatown/International district.

Hai Ying Wu, Fallen Firefighters Memorial, (1998). Bronze and granite. Seattle, WA: Occidental Park, Pioneer Square. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Wu (b. 1962), the principal sculptor, had been trained as a public arts sculptor in China and was a survivor of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. The Memorial consists of four statues of anonymous firefighters standing, crouching and kneeling near a ruined wall and broken beams. (Viewers are left to imagine the inferno that confronts them.) Wu wanted the granite beams – on which the names of the fallen are inscribed - and the overall pyramidal composition to signify the strength and toughness he associates with firefighters. Breathing masks hide the figures’ individual identities, gender and race. A bronze sculpture called Citizen Firefighter (2001) by Kenny Hunter located in Glasgow, Scotland has a breathing mask for the same generic reason. In Communist China, there is a tradition of dramatic realism in sculpture that Wu was surely familiar with. His Memorial is different from nineteenth-century ones in depicting a scene of firefighters in action and having no plinth, which means that statues and viewers are on the same level. Furthermore, the separation of the figures enables spectators to move among them; this endows the sculpture with a strong sense of immediacy. Robert J. Eccleston (b. 1964) is the creator of the New York State Fallen Firefighters’ Memorial (1998) in Albany, New York. He has an unusual background for a visual artist because he studied industrial design and served as a Captain in

the U.S. Infantry. In 1993, he resigned from the army to devote himself to sculpture. When commissioned, Eccleston decided on a figurative sculpture depicting three male firefighters emerging exhausted from a blaze.

Robert J. Eccleston, New York State Fallen Firefighters Memorial, (1998). Bronze. Albany, NY: Empire State Plaza. Photo Tom Semeraro.

The central, bareheaded figure is severely injured and is being dragged to safety by companions on either side. One colleague strives to keep the injured man conscious, while the other takes the lead in seeking a way out. Eccleston’s aim was to convey ‘the firefighter’s indomitable will to survive and the camaraderie needed to overcome adversity’. There is a strong sense of drama and movement as the figures lean forward and the group sculpture, set on a low circular podium, is tightly focused because the men are supporting one another. Thus, the unity and compassion of firefighters is eloquently portrayed. The men’s heavy, 1960s’ style turnout coats, boots and helmets are rendered in a way that is both bold and detailed, and their faces are modelled with a high degree of expression and realism. The bronze was painted black and then details were burnished. Eccleston describes his style as ‘rough texture with highlights. The rough texture represents the seasoned firefighter covered with soot. The smooth highlights depict sweat and water running down the firefighter’s face and clothing’. This sculpture has been executed with considerable verve and possesses a strong emotional charge. Since 2000, Hamilton, Ohio has been called ‘The City of Sculpture’ because it has so many public sculptures. In 2001, Hamilton added a firefighters’ monument, which is located in Memorial Park near the Great Miami River. Butler County fire chiefs were much impressed by the fine detail of a wax model shown to them by the figurative artist George Danhires (d. 1942), of Kent, Ohio and so he was commissioned to create the statue. In his art, Danhires is keen to pay tribute to ordinary people and community values.

George Danhires, Firefighters Memorial, (2001). Bronze. Hamilton, OH: Monument

Ave, Memorial Park. Photo courtesy of the City of Hamilton.

A bronze firefighter dressed in full gear kneels on one knee and cradles an infant tenderly in his arms; hence, the sculpture repeats the ‘saved’ motif so familiar in firefighting iconography that dates back to an 1858 lithograph by Louis Maurer entitled Prompt to the Rescue. Many viewers will also be reminded of the photographs taken in 1995 of Firefighter Chris Fields carrying the corpse of infant Baylee Almon in Oklahoma City. On April 6th 2002, the California Firefighters’ Memorial in Capitol Park, Sacramento, was unveiled. A Memorial Wall made from polished limestone lists the names of 855 Californian firemen and women who have died on duty since 1850. Nearby are two, freestanding sculptures of firefighters, one by Jesus Romo and one by Lawrence Noble. Both sculptures are dramatic and represent moments of action.

Jesus Romo, Fallen Brother, (2002). Bronze. Sacramento, CA: Capitol Park, California Firefighters’ Memorial. Photo courtesy of the California Professional Firefighters.

Romo’s bronze, which is the smaller of the two, stands on a small circular base. Entitled Fallen Brother, it depicts a male firefighter carrying the limp, bareheaded body of a dead comrade away from a fire scene. Romo wanted to portray ‘the expression of desperation and pain and anguish that every firefighter feels when a brother goes down’. Essentially, therefore, the sculpture symbolises ‘brotherhood’. The 59-year-old artist was born in Mexico City and came to the United States at the age of 18. He is not a professionally trained artist but a retired Battalion Chief of the Sacramento Fire Department; consequently, he had personal experience of losing

colleagues. Noble, in contrast, is an experienced artist and illustrator based in Crestline, California.

Lawrence Noble, Holding the Line, (2002). Bronze. Sacramento, CA: Capitol Park, California Firefighters’ Memorial. Photo courtesy of the artist. His sculpture Holding the Line encapsulates the importance of teamwork in firefighting: three figures feed a hosepipe forward to a fourth in charge of the nozzle; they advance on a rising rocky base and so the helmet of the leading figure is about 14-feet above ground level. Towards the rear, one firefighter offers a helping

hand to the last in line. Some viewers of the sculpture have found this gesture especially moving. To signal the ethnic diversity of the Californian fire service, Noble represented one figure as a Latino and another as an African-American. Unusually, one figure is female. Rose Conroy, a Fire Chief from Davis, California, modelled for this figure. The face of another figure was derived from a photograph of Kenneth Earl Enslow who died in 1990 while fighting a forest fire. Photographs have prompted a number of recent memorials. Shortly after 9/11, Thomas E. Franklin took a colour photograph depicting three, dust-caked firefighters raising an American Flag, which they had found on the back of a nearby yacht. The photograph’s composition was already familiar because it echoed that of Joe Rosenthal’s famous shot of six American marines raising the Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima during World War II. Franklin’s striking photograph inspired plans for a 19-feet-high bronze monument entitled Flag Raising at Ground Zero honouring New York’s firefighters. A full-scale, clay prototype designed by StudioEIS – a commercial 3D design and fabrication enterprise founded by Elliott and Ivan Schwartz in 1976 - was unveiled on December 21st 2001. The completed bronze was due to be erected in Brooklyn in the spring of 2002 at a cost of $180,000. However, the planned sculpture proved controversial because political correctness had prompted a departure from fact: the three firemen who had raised the flag were all Caucasian but the sculpture itself represented one white, one African-American and one Hispanic in order to reflect the racial diversity of NYFD. In January 2002, the sculpture was cancelled because

the New Jersey Media Company that owns the rights to the Franklin photograph objected to the proposed alterations in the ethnic identity of the three firefighters.

Richard Kron, Ground Zero, (2002). Wood, paint. Brockport, NY: Fire Station and Museum. In spite of the above, a public sculpture based on Franklin’s photograph was erected in 2002 outside a Fire Station and Museum, in Brockport, New York. (In this instance, there does not seem to have been a copyright problem.) A local artist called Richard Kron, who was born in Germany in 1944 and came to the United States in 1956, created the sculpture, entitled Ground Zero. As a sculptor, Kron carves wood with the aid of chainsaws and sanders. His three, life-size figures are made from oak

and have been painted to create a realist effect. In this instance, therefore, there is a similarity to one trend in modern American art, that is, the 1970s’ vogue for hyperrealist, painted sculptures produced by such artists as Duane Hanson and John de Andrea. In 2001, the Bronze Division of Matthews International Corporation of Pittsburgh and its sculpture facility in Parma, Italy produced a realistic statue of a bareheaded, kneeling, grief-stricken, praying firefighter for the Fire Fighters’ Association of Missouri. The statue arrived at Kennedy Airport just before 9/11 and so the Missouri firefighters decided to donate it to the New York City Fire Department as a symbol of their loss.

Matthews International Corporation of Pittsburgh, Praying Firefighter, (2001). Bronze. New York. Photo courtesy of For months, the statue was displayed on a flatbed truck at 44th Street and Eighth

Avenue outside the Milford Plaza Hotel close to a Firehouse, where it attracted many spectators who added flags, flowers, candles, cards and drawings. Also displayed were two bronze plaques one of which had a bas-relief representation of firefighters caring for children. The statue now has a permanent home on a granite slab at the corner of Eighth Avenue and 44th Street. The installation was paid for by the Milstein family, which owns the Hotel. Bronze plaques and the names of the fallen are to be placed on the Hotel’s exterior wall opposite the statue. The Missouri firefighters were not deprived of a statue for long because they ordered a duplicate that was erected on a purpose-built memorial site in Kingdom City, Missouri. The statue, dedicated on May 18th 2002, forms the centrepiece of a black marble wall recording the names of the fallen. Similar monuments to those described above can be found outside the United States but no other country has so many and is adding so many new ones in the wake of 9/11. Their existence demonstrates that local communities in the United States have taken an intense pride in their fire departments since the mid-nineteenth century. A history of art that ignored popular sculptures of this kind – as histories of modern art do – would be an inaccurate and impoverished one. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

(1)John A. Walker is the author of Firefighters in Art & Media, A Pictorial History, (London: Francis Boutle, 2005). To buy book apply directly to

publisher. (2)Thomas B. Brumbaugh, ‘The Kentucky Monuments of Robert E. Launitz’, The Filson Club Historical Quarterly, Vol. 43, April 1969, pp. 165-72. (3)Donald Martin Reynolds, Monuments and Masterpieces: Histories and Views of Sculpture in New York City, (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2nd edn, 19897), p. xv.