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A tale of sculptures saved, lost, and found

What once was lost may well be found, but with public art, there are usually no saviors, and fate is unpredictable. Take, for instance, two sets of monumental sculptures removed in 1961 from the landmark Witherspoon Building at Walnut and Juniper Streets.

A bust of John Witherspoon is readied for conservation. The statues were made for the Witherspoon Building at Walnut and Juniper Streets.
A bust of John Witherspoon is readied for conservation. The statues were made for the Witherspoon Building at Walnut and Juniper Streets.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

What once was lost may well be found, but with public art, there are usually no saviors, and fate is unpredictable. Take, for instance, two sets of monumental sculptures removed in 1961 from the landmark Witherspoon Building at Walnut and Juniper Streets.

One group of nine-foot statues, fashioned by Alexander Stirling Calder, was taken down, stored, and re-installed in 1967 in the court of the Presbyterian Historical Society's new home on Lombard Street in Society Hill.

The other, a group of 10 enormous biblical prophets created by the renowned Thomas Eakins and his friend and former student Samuel Murray, became the Lost Prophets, dealt off for a pittance in the 1960s and forgotten, but recently rediscovered.

Both sets were fabricated from terra cotta, so this becomes a tale of two castings: one set preserved and cared for, the other ignored and lost until found in the most unlikely circumstances.

The six Calders depict historical luminaries of the Presbyterian Church, which built the ornate Witherspoon building for offices in the 1890s, and directed removal of the artworks for safety reasons at the time of a 1960s renovation. The statues stood above the entrance pediments on Walnut and Juniper Streets. (Calder is probably most familiar in Philadelphia for his creation of Swann Memorial Fountain on Logan Square, co-designed with Wilson Eyre.)

The "Witherspoon Presbyterians," the only known examples of Calder's work in cast terra cotta, are now undergoing conservation and repair. Laser scans documenting every millimeter of their stonelike surfaces recently were completed and the statues dismantled (they were cast in sections) and taken to the workshop of the Materials Conservation Co. in Kensington for conservation. The society plans reinstallation next year.

But the 101/2-foot-tall Eakins-Murray statues, which ringed the Witherspoon at the eighth-floor level, were sold off in the 1960s for $319 each.

Eight of the 10 statues, which were modeled on prominent Philadelphians, including Eakins' wife, Susan, and her father, William Macdowell, were dispatched to a cemetery in Frazer, Chester County.

The cemetery, Philadelphia Memorial Park, now run by a national chain that eschews statuary, has no idea what happened to the sculptures, according to current officials there. None of the works apparently survives. A 2006 biography of Eakins suggests at least one of the cemetery prophets - Samuel - remained into the 1970s; if so, it has since vanished.

The other two Eakins-Murray prophets were bought by Arthur Garrett, president of Community Utilities in Skagway, Alaska. They were crated and shipped off to the remote north country more than half a century ago. That, apparently, was that.

But amazingly, Skagway's Lost Prophets have survived, after a fashion, and what's left of them - mostly the bases and torsos - sits in piles in the high grass behind the Skagway Museum.

Over the decades, many parts of the sculptures, which depict Moses and Elijah, have been vandalized or stolen.

Art historians say that Moses is a rendering of Eakins' friend Walt Whitman - Eakins apparently modeled it on the death mask he made of the poet. Elijah may be a depiction of artist Samuel Murray himself, although scholars are cautious about this identification. Eakins probably did the work on Elijah as well.

No one can say why the prophets - works by Philadelphia's greatest artist and his well-regarded former student - were treated so cavalierly.

It may be because Eakins was considered a toxic personality at the time of the original commission, thanks to his famous 1886 dismissal from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for removing the loin cloth of a male model in front of female students. He did the same thing at the Drexel Institute in 1895 and met the same fate.

Probably because of his sullied reputation, documentation of his work on the prophets is scanty at best. The original commission went directly to Murray, but it was widely known that Eakins was working on the project. (Calder was also a former Eakins pupil.)

For whatever reason, knowledge of the prophets was hardly widespread by the 1960s. Off they went.

Then, in 2009, while on an Alaskan cruise, Los Angeles businessman Lloyd Silverstein and his wife, Jane, wandered onto the Skagway Museum grounds during a stop. Within a few minutes, Jane Silverstein noticed something in the weeds.

"She's looking around in the bushes and she sees pieces of concrete and some Hebrew letters," Silverstein said in an interview. "She thought that was really interesting."

They poked around some more and determined that the pile of concrete (actually terra cotta) was made up of sculptural fragments. Some Hebrew lettering was carved some surfaces of figures, which were identified as Moses and Elijah.

Silverstein, who took photographs, said Skagway Museum staffers explained the piles thus: "Some preacher sent them over." The museum "didn't know what to do with it, so they've been sitting there."

Returning to Los Angeles, Silverstein searched the Internet and discovered a Presbyterian Historical Society blog post about the prophets. He dashed off an email describing his find.

Those sad piles of Lost Prophets remain outside the Skagway Museum to this day. According to Judith Munns, director of the museum, the sculptures belong to the Diocese of Juneau and were initially intended for a mission school.

They were never unpacked and sat on the Pius X Mission School grounds for many years, even after the school building was razed. They were then moved to the museum grounds in the mid-1980s, where they remain.

"As the statues were shipped in pieces and never assembled in Skagway, little was actually known locally about the origin of the sculptures," Munns said. Garrett, who bought the sculptures and donated them for use by the school, died shortly after the purchase.

There are no immediate plans for the remaining fragments, Munns added, although recently members of Skagway's St. Therese Catholic Church used fragments of the statues in their church garden landscaping.

The Calders, on the other hand, have been well cared for. John Carr, founder of Materials Conservation, said the main damage has come from water seepage and corrosion within the hollow terra cotta bodies. Armatures have rusted, he said, old mortar repairs have accelerated cracking, and some breakage has occurred.

As one of the sculptures was dismantled last week, a leg collapsed on itself, the result of a spiderweb of cracks. "It was very unstable," Carr said.

All such damage will be repaired. When the statues are returned to the society next year, they will again be arrayed in the courtyard. But there will be a refashioned landscape and new lighting, and the society hopes to develop educational programming around these unusual works.

So why were the Calders saved and reinstalled back in the 1960s, while the Eakins-Murray works were sold for the cost of crating?

No one really knows. The historical society records are mute on the subject, although it seems clear that the Eakins connection was not well understood in the 1960s.

"It's a mystery we've carried around for years," said Fred Tangeman, the society's development and communications coordinator. "I don't think we can speak to exactly why."