Lorado Taft Plaque Honored 1903 Iroquois Theatre Fire Victims
CHICAGO (CBS) – A group of aldermen and other civic leaders plan to rededicate a bronze plaque at City Hall, which was sculpted nearly 100 years ago by celebrated artist Lorado Taft.
Ald. Edward Burke (14th) will be joined by other aldermen, and members of the Union League Club and the local arts community in rededicating the sculpture. It has hung near the LaSalle Street entrance of City Hall since the 1960s, but there is no sign or marker to indicate what it is.
The plaque, titled “Sympathy,” is a tribute to the victims of the Iroquois Theatre Fire of 1903, which to this day is the deadliest single-building fire in U.S. history. A total of 603 lives were claimed in the fire, more than in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
“This is an interesting tale about an historic piece of art that becomes lost for years in a corner of City Hall’s basement, then is rescued only to spend decades forgotten all over again — while in plain view,” Burke said in a news release.
Some background information on the plaque was found in a Dec. 31, 1911, issue of the Chicago Tribune. The newspaper says the plaque shows “the Motherhood of the World protecting the children of the universe, the body of a child borne on a litter by herculean male figures, with a bereaved mother bending over it.”
The Iroquois Theatre was located at 24-28 W. Randolph St., on the current site of the Ford Center for the Performing Arts-Oriental Theatre. On Dec. 30, 1903, a crowd of people – most of them women and children – were watching a production of “Mr. Bluebeard” when the fire broke out.
Despite advertisements that declared the new theater fireproof, a fire broke out. The fire curtain became stuck as the crowd rushed for hard-to-find or obstructed exits, and hundreds were trapped inside and perished.
The commemorative tablet hung in the waiting room at the old Iroquois Memorial Hospital on what is now Wacker Drive, until the hospital was demolished in 1951. It was left in the City Hall basement until the 1960s, when it was hung inside City Hall.
But with the lack of a marker, its significance has been lost to the public, the news release said.
Taft was a renowned sculptor who lived in Chicago and taught at the Art Institute. He is best known locally for the “Fountain of Time” sculpture at the mouth of the Midway Plaisance in Washington Park.
His granddaughter, Dr. Jean Bandler, expressed gratitude to the City Council for honoring the sculptuire in City Hall.
“It is fascinating how treasures from the past turn up, and how things that are forgotten come back again,” said Dr. Bandler, who is also the daughter of the late alderman and Illinois U.S. Senator Paul H. Douglas.
The rededication ceremony will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at the LaSalle Street entrance to City Hall.