Monday, August 13, 2012

The Wasp and The Nose

Both Darla and Linda wanted to know about the wasp that was chiseled off of John D. Rockefeller's nose.

As I recently wrote, the columns flanking the front and rear entrances to Yerkes Observatory are ornately carved with repeating motifs. One such motif is a caricature of John D. Rockefeller, whose substantial donations allowed William Rainey Harper to establish the University of Chicago as a world-class institution right from the start. When the University opened in October, 1892, five of the campus's main buildings were already standing, with another five to follow in 1893. The architect, Henry Ives Cobb,would turn his attention to the observatory in Wisconsin shortly.

The observatory and the main Chicago campus are designed in entirely different architectural styles. The campus is hidden behind looming Gothic buildings that shield the intellectual community from the outside world. In sharp contrast, the observatory is set on a sweeping, open lawn. Cobb adorned both sites with ornate carvings and gargoyles. And herein lies the tale of the wasp and the nose.

Yerkes Observatory was dedicated in 1897, five years after the University of Chicago opened its doors. When unveiled, the columns contained the caricature of Rockefeller, sporting a vastly exaggerated nose, with a large wasp poised on the end. The wasp's face was supposedly a caricature of William Rainey Harper. I say supposedly because I have never seen a photograph of the original carvings. I have read that the wasp was Harper, I have heard that the wasp was a trustee. Regardless of who the wasp was, the nose was carved out of proportion, indicated Rockefeller had been stung severely.

The official version of the defacement is that George Ellery Hale, the first astronomer of Yerkes and the Chicago faculty, found the caricature of Rockefeller and the wasp inappropriate and embarrassing. The word "grotesque" pops up in more than one commentary on the carvings. It was certainly not something Hale wanted on his world class observatory.

Hale ordered the wasps chiseled off. I heard he wanted Rockefeller removed as well, but others convinced Hale that removing the entire offending carving would mar the columns and draw attention to the issue.

It has been suggested that the wasp was "stinging" Rockefeller for more money for the University, which would lead me to believe that it was Harper's face on the wasp. Stories of the relationship between Rockefeller and Harper, built upon the tension between Harper's vision of a world class institution and Rockefeller's reluctance to part with the millions necessary to create it, still reverberate around the Gothic quads at Chicago. 

Hale had his way: the wasps came off. The stories remain. As do the chisel marks.


Linda said...

Thanks for filling us in. Interesting story, artists certainly do think differently and I am grateful for that.

Rebekah said...

Very interesting! You're a great writer, by the way:).