Interpretive Resource

Essay: George F. Harding, Jr. and His "Castle"

Ask the guards in Gunsaulus Hall or any docent who leads public tours of the Art Institute of Chicago's galleries, and you will soon learn that the museum's collection of arms and armor is one of its most popular. These remarkable works of late medieval and Renaissance metalcraft—swords, staff weapons, firearms, and, above all, body armor—fill audiences of all ages with a sense of awe and excitement about times long past. Like most American art museums, however, the Art Institute has no long-standing tradition of exhibiting arms and armor. Indeed, the harnesses and weapons so proudly displayed since 1983 to millions of visitors are relative newcomers to the museum, and represent the passionate devotion of one man—George F. Harding, Jr.

On August 16, 1868, a third son was born to George Franklin and Adelaide (Matthews) Harding of Chicago. The son was named for his father, the first Illinoisian to graduate from Harvard University, who later practiced law in Peoria with Abraham Lincoln. The senior Harding secured great renown and wealth through providing legal services to railroads and making prudent investments in real estate. He proudly traced his American roots back to the seventeenth century, and was an avid collector of art, although the exact makeup of his acquisitions remains vague. His namesake, George, Jr., eventually inherited these holdings and the same passionate love of art. Soon, the fame and treasures of his collection eclipsed those of his father.

George F. Harding, Jr., was a lifelong Chicagoan and proud of his Illinois background. His grandfather, Abner Clark Harding, served as a private with the 83rd Illinois Infantry in the Civil War, saw action at Fort Donelson in 1862, and was discharged as a brigadier general. Further, Abner Harding was twice elected to Congress, and was also responsible for creating the Peoria and Oquawka Railroad (now part of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad). One of George Jr.'s closest childhood friends was the grandson of his own grandfather's business partner, a boy who later became famous as one of Chicago's more colorful mayors—"Big Bill" Thompson. George, Jr., attended Mosley Public School, Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, and, like his father, went on to Harvard University and Harvard Law School, from which he graduated in 1892. Four years later, he married Ellen Osborn Davis of Neenah, Wisconsin, with whom he raised two daughters. His wife and one of his daughters died some years later; a second marriage also left him a widower.

Harding followed his father in becoming an important Chicago businessman. From 1905 onward, he served as president of the Chicago Real Estate Loan and Trust Company, and, at the time of his death, was one of the largest landowners in the city and chairman of the board of the Consumers Company. In politics, too, Harding was a figure to be reckoned with. He became a major power broker as alderman of the Second Ward (1903–13), state senator for the First District (1912), city controller (1919–23), and Cook County treasurer (1926–30). His political importance even extended to the national level; he was named Illinois's representative to the Republican National Committee in 1936.

Harding maintained a lifelong interest in competitive physical sports, hunting, and fishing, which was fueled in part by his years as a star football player at Harvard. He was a member of several Chicago clubs and organizations, including the Harvard Club, the Chicago Athletic Club, the Chicago Yacht Club, and the Lake Shore Athletic Club. Technological advances and curiosities also delighted him. He was one of the first Chicagoans to own an automobile, and was an enthusiastic powerboat racer. Less than a decade after the Wright brothers' first flight, he learned to fly, and soon purchased his own aircraft, which he later crashed several times, although without serious personal injury to himself. A dapper, if conservative dresser, Harding seems to have felt incompletely outfitted without a walking stick; at the time of his death, he had amassed some one hundred and fifty of them. Many of these were singular specimens, incorporating such bizarre features as electric lighting or miniature musical instruments.

“The best adornment and treasure of a prince and sovereign includes ... his possession of magnificent munitions and military equipment." Thus Elector Christian I of Saxony was counseled in 1587 on the formation of an art collection. A similar philosophy seems to have guided Harding, who assembled one of the premier private collections of arms and armor in America in this century. Without doubt, the energy, splendor, romance, and trappings of knightly imagery—fueled in boyhood by the novels of nineteenth-century authors such as Sir Walter Scott—were partly responsible for his interest. Harding built upon his father's art collection, which had been started probably no later than the 1890s. While later accounts occasionally refer to the senior Harding's "medieval antiquities," no evidence of significant arms and armor purchases can be found prior to those made by his son, beginning in 1924.

Like his father, Harding did not acquire artifacts solely with an eye toward forming a scientifically compiled assemblage for scholarly classification and study. Furthermore, Harding's approach of displaying arms and armor together with various works of art, trophies, curiosa, and personal and family mementos followed a time-honored tradition practiced by gentlemen with antiquarian tastes. Various accounts from the 1930s and 1940s by visitors to Harding's home express astonishment over the great variety of his collection. Indeed, in the span of a few minutes, the viewer could gaze upon a fine painting by Eugene Delacroix, a group of armored figures on horseback, a piano given to Sarah Bernhardt by Czar Nicholas of Russia, a harp said to have belonged to Marie Antoinette, an anchor capstan recovered from the sunken battleship Maine, Napoleon Bonaparte's campaign bed, a heavy oaken door embedded with knightly maces, and an Egyptian sarcophagus complete with mummy.

Reflecting Harding's diverse interests and enthusiasms, his collection varied widely in terms of its quality and content. In a 1932 interview, Harding stated that he did not have a "particular kind of collection, it simply represent[ed] what two men [i.e., he and his father] ... liked." Some articles were obtained because they had an important or interesting provenance, others because they were technically intriguing or artistically unique. Many objects, such as the arms and armor, possessed all these attributes, and undoubtedly represented to him the craftsman's finest efforts in combining function and art. As a recognized force in Chicago business and politics, he might also have wanted to project the qualities historically attributed to those who wore armor, or were depicted in it, such as leadership abilities, bravery, and power.

Harding's house in Chicago at 4853 Lake Park Avenue in Hyde Park also had its fair share of peculiarities. Originally built for Brenton R. Wells of the boot and shoe wholesalers, M. D. Wells and Company, it was purchased in 1916 by Harding, Jr., and soon thereafter housed his father's art collection. With room to expand, Harding, Jr., began to actively explore the art market for anything that interested him, and by the mid 1920s, he extended his search into the field of arms and armor. He acquired so many items that they soon spilled over into his garage. Thus, less than a decade after he first moved in, the space in his home was nearly exhausted, and he was once again in need of housing for his artifacts.

Like many other American collectors, Harding had been impressed and inspired by the palatial estates and ancestral castles he had seen on his European travels. A 1962 newspaper article claims that Harding had originally planned to rehouse his collection in a real castle, purchased from its German owners. According to this account, he had even gone so far as to place a deposit on the structure. After a group of Chicago architects told him that the whole structure would have to be shipped back literally stone by stone, Harding is said to have gone to the city's chief engineer, and later mayor, Edward ("Big Ed") Kelly, to secure the necessary building permits and to inform Kelly of the specialized workmen he needed for its reassembly. When told that no permits would be issued unless Harding used Kelly's "specialists," Harding stormed out of the office, never to speak to the man again.

By 1927, a modern, two-story, castlelike addition had been built by contractor Charles Magnusson and connected to Harding's residence by way of an enclosed, elevated walkway. An expression of Gothic Revivalism, the turreted stone annex was fashioned in a freely interpreted medieval manner, with cannonballs studding the exterior walls. As a pilot, Harding was greatly concerned about the hazards of flying and so had a navigational beacon installed in 1928 on the turret for the benefit of aviators landing at nearby airfields. His "Castle on the Illinois Central Railroad" was also outfitted with "secret stairways, passages, a dungeon, and other features of a medieval keep." Indeed, it even included a pew said to have come from the very fortress where Richard the Lion-Heart of England was held hostage en route home from the Crusades. Before long, this combined residence and museum became popularly known as "Chicago's Treasure House."

For Americans interested in obtaining great art, particularly arms and armor, the two decades following World War I were most auspicious years indeed. Because of the great political and social upheavals the war had wrought among European nobility, many families were reluctantly forced to part with age-old treasures and painstakingly assembled private collections. At the same time, the United States was a growing economic and political power whose monied class sought socially acceptable ways to demonstrate its artistic acumen and good taste. It was thus a perfect market for European owners and dealers seeking hard cash, and for Americans who had it.

To satisfy his collecting interests, Harding employed the most up-to-date technology of the day, including the telephone, the telegraph, and air travel. Harding so loved flying that he had his own airplane custom built, engaged the services of a well-known aviator as his personal pilot, and regularly flew to Europe, with occasional journeys to Africa and Asia. He loved Europe, above all, however, and spent several months each year searching the continent for new pieces. His prizes came from such diverse locales as Paris and London, St. Petersburg, and Vienna. Harding was a person who was used to having things done one way—his way. He recognized, however, that were it not for his cooler-headed assistants, his quick temper and no-nonsense approach would have destroyed sensitive transactions, such as his joint purchase in 1927 with New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art of arms and armor from the hereditary collection of the Marquesses de Dos Aguas of Valencia, Spain.

From time to time, Harding's audacity served him well. While in Paris in 1931, he was contacted by a representative of the art firm E. & A. Silberman of Vienna, who informed him that two jousting helms of the type known as Stechhelm might be available for purchase from an Austrian noble family. Harding promptly flew to Vienna, and was taken to the estate. He studied the helms while the agent and the owner's representative argued back and forth in German. Becoming impatient, Harding broke in and demanded to know if the pieces were for sale or not. When told yes, but without the suggestion of a price, Harding just said, "All right, they're sold," and allegedly walked off with a helm under each arm, while simply telling the agent to "complete the transaction." Such panache attracted great media attention. Indeed, when Harding's plane landed in New York, the press corps that met him joked that, as "a Chicagoan, [he] would need armor-plate protection—which made Mr. Harding laugh heartily."

Harding was not at all reclusive with his collection. He actively associated with other collectors and museum curators, and joined the prestigious Armor and Arms Club of New York sometime around 1928. Even before the castle was made available to the public on a regular basis, he permitted weekly tours by appointment. Some visitors were quite pleasantly surprised to find that their guide was none other than the owner himself, who might generously top off the tour with a well-laid smorgasbord. Of course, Harding also entertained the rich and famous of the day, including Chicago politicians and 1936 presidential aspirant Alf Landon. Before dining, guests enjoyed such exotic hors d'oeuvres as rattlesnake, Stilton cheese, herring in wine, and snails, accompanied by several rounds of his special, rather potent, bourbon-based drink called a "Mamie Taylor."

In 1930, the museum became a tax-exempt charity. Subsequent changes to Harding's will left the collections financially endowed as a public trust. The collection was made available to scholars and the public alike through loans to arms and armor exhibitions. Through the 1930s, his holdings grew in quantity and importance; works by famous masters and from the celebrated centers of Augsburg, Greenwich, Tula, Maastricht, and Nuremberg filled his castle. There, great collections were represented by pieces that had once belonged to Austrian emperors, the Saxon royal house in Dresden, the Russian czars' Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the Princes Liechtenstein and Radziwill, and the Royal Armouries of the Tower of London. There seemed no reason to doubt that these happy days of seeking and acquiring fine arms and armor would go on for years to come.

On April 2, 1939, Harding suddenly died. Earlier that January he had undergone gallstone surgery and was supposedly on the mend when he took an unexpected turn for the worse. Fortunately, the collection remained accessible as a public museum, which was in keeping with Harding's wishes. For the next two decades, the museum stayed in the castle, and was open several hours a day, five days a week, year round except for a complete shutdown during July and August. The museum building included several public galleries. The Old Gallery housed armored "knights" on horseback, helmets, and other armor components, as well as a collection of ancient ship models, naval guns, and figureheads. In the Halberd Room, swords, daggers, staff weapons, and helmets were featured. A Remington Room proclaimed Harding's interest in the nineteenth-century American artist Frederic Remington (1861–1909), who specialized in images of western cowboy life and who was represented by thirty-two paintings and eight bronzes, including his first bronze, The Bronco Buster. Strategically placed throughout the castle were more than two hundred medieval and later paintings, some one hundred pieces of medieval and Renaissance furniture, contemporary bronze sculptures, and propaganda posters from World War I.

Long considered one of Chicago's more unusual sites, the castle was popular with visitors from all walks of life. A well-known manufacturer of waxes featured it in a 1947 advertisement, proudly noting that his products were used to keep the castle's floors and woodwork gleaming. The impeccable maintenance of the castle was due to the hard work of a small but dedicated staff. Harding's original housekeeper stayed on after his death to focus her attention on the museum itself. During the 1940s, Charles Magnusson served as the building and exhibits caretaker, with Harold Lutiger acting as the collection's curator and conservator for nearly thirty years. Mr. Lutiger was also an accomplished restorer and artist; he prepared numerous highly detailed drawings for the museum's publications. Famous post-war visitors included World War II General John P. Lucas, a colleague of General George S. Patton, Jr. General Lucas noted that Patton would have been mesmerized by the place, as he considered himself "an authority on armor and [was] a bug about ship models."

Although it escaped unscathed, a proposed Hyde Park-Kenwood road renovation plan put the museum in jeopardy in 1956. Four years later, in 1960, the city proposed demolishing the castle and residence as part of an urban renewal project. After a hurried search, museum officials procured space for Harding's collection in 1961 in the former John Crerar Library building at Randolph Street and Michigan Avenue. Their search was not in vain; the residence and gallery in Hyde Park were finally condemned in 1962 and demolished in 1965. For the next sixteen years, while waiting for a more permanent location, a selection of objects was on display in the museum's interim home, but could be seen by appointment only. The rest of the collection was largely brought out only for cataloguing by Stephen V Grancsay, Curator of Arms and Armor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in concert with a conservation review by Harold Lutiger, who was also preparing various diagrams and drawings of makers' marks. The museum's official entry in the international Directory of Museums of Arms and Military History for 1970 stated that it was "currently closed to the public pending relocation." Items were occasionally loaned to special exhibitions elsewhere, but in 1981, the collection lost its second Chicago home when the building was sold and demolished. This time, all the art was crated and put into storage.

The following year, 1982, was a most auspicious one for the Harding collection. With the active assistance of the state attorney general's office, an agreement was reached between the officials of the Harding Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago for a permanent transfer. Harding's topically diverse collection was assigned to the appropriate Art Institute departments, with the arms and armor entering the Department of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture and Classical Art. Through the tireless efforts of the late Dr. Leonid Tarassuk, former Keeper of Western Arms at the Hermitage Museum and then consultant to the Harding Collection, and the work of colleagues within the Art Institute and museum community, a massive project was launched to unpack, record, and examine the cornucopia of crated objects. Artifacts were thoroughly inventoried, catalogued, accessioned, conserved, and housed. A selection of the most important objects was prepared for display in Gunsaulus Hall and publicly opened on March 24, 1983. With the legal dissolution of the Harding Museum in 1989, the format permanent transfer of ownership to the Art Institute was complete.

One cannot help but think that the Harding collection of arms and armor was somehow guided by fate to become a stellar part of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1932, Harding mused on his desire to give his treasures to the museum, and, in so doing, to the people of Chicago. A half a century later, Harding's wish that the collection be made available to as many people as possible was fulfilled.

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