Restoring Essex Sculptor’s Legacy in L.A.
Not many people will still recognize the name Henry Kreis, but anyone who has been in the Essex Town Hall, Rockefeller Plaza, or even looked at certain commemorative Connecticut coins, will have seen the sculptor’s work. Now, the Essex sculptor is being recognized once more, as one of his largest sculptures, the terra cotta façade of the Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial in Los Angeles, is being revived from anonymity and disrepair with a $6 million renovation and preservation due to be completed over the next two years.
Born in Essen, Germany in 1899, Kreis immigrated to the U.S. in 1923 and, after spending time in New York City, eventually settled first in Deep River, and then in Essex, where he spent the rest of his life. He studied at the school of Applied Art in Munich and the Beaux-Arts Institute in New York.
In addition to his commissioned memorials, he was also a renowned medallist, responsible for making several Connecticut Tercenternary Half Dollars, an Arkansas Commemorative Half Dollar, the Tercentenary Medal of the State of Connecticut, the 1940 Medal of Honor for the National Sculpture Society, and the Official World’s Fair Medal, New York, 1939. His officially commissioned memorials and statues are scattered across the country and the world, including the North Africa Military Cemetery in Carthage, Tunisia.
Closer to home, Kreis sculpted the original eagle that sat atop the old war memorial outside of Essex Town Hall. The sculpture was made out of local sandstone, which does not resist weather well; the eagle’s head fell off in 2004, and was moved inside to the third floor of the Town Hall. The Society of Connecticut Sculptors and the Essex Sculpture Fund made a plaster replica of the original and cast it in bronze; this more sturdy replica now sits in place of the original on the memorial.
“I always loved dad’s eagles,” said Luisa Kreis Whiting, Kreis’s daughter and longtime resident of Essex. Whiting, an artist in her own right, remembered growing up in a home full of art and sculpture, a legacy that ran in the family, and her father as a man who was always determined to be nothing but a sculptor, no matter the adversity he faced.
“The whole family was artistic, I don’t know why he chose to be a sculptor, but he just said, ‘I’m going to do this,’” said Whiting. “His father, who was an architect, said, ‘You’re crazy, you’re never going to do this, you can’t support a family with this,’ and dad said, ‘Well, I’m going to do it anyways.’”
A Start in Germany
Kreis was apprenticed to a stonecarver in Essen at age 14, and later went to art school in Munich. As an apprentice, he did a lot of life-sized carvings for gardens and he worked on many of these for the Krupp family.
“The Baroness von Krupp was very taken by him, so she asked him to play chess with her,” Whiting said—unfortunately, Kreis was less taken by the baroness. “My mom said, ‘Yea, he complained he had to play chess with her because for a 90 year old she had the worst bad breath in the world.’ I guess she was 90, she was the boss, and she could do whatever she wanted.
“There were a lot of sculptures for the von Krupp family in their garden, but they were probably obliterated by the war,” continued Whiting, beginning to allude to the very direct impact that both World War I and World War II—in this case the 1943 bombing of Essen—had on Kreis’s life.
Kreis was required to report to the army for the last six months of World War I. After the war, Kreis, along with many others, wanted to come to America to look for better opportunities than what was available in Germany at the time.
“Uncle Hans came first—he was a really good artist in his own right—and when he had saved enough money, it went to dad, the next in line—there were 10 kids in that family,” said Whiting. “Then Uncle Joe, then Aunt Mimi.
“He went to New York, and he apprenticed for Paul Manship and C.P. Jennewein—really good 1920s-’30s sculptors,” said Whiting. “Manship designed the Prometheus in Rockefeller center, but dad executed it with another friend from Venice, Angelo Colombo—they put the thing together. I don’t know who applied the gold leaf. But then my mom told me that Manship was getting jealous, because dad would get a lot of commissions, even though he was the assistant. So dad decided he was going to break out on his own.”
Looking for property to fit his needs, Kreis came to Connecticut and bought an old house in Deep River on Book Hill Road.
“Dad came to this country in ‘27, and I think he bought the Book Hill Road house, in about ‘30,” said Whiting. “And oh my God, it was awful—no electricity, trees growing practically inside the house, there was an outhouse because there wasn’t anything inside the house, but he restored it. And across the street there was the old barn, so he made that into his studio.
“After they were there for a few years, the well would always run dry, so in the meantime—dad was kind of a house nut, like I am—he bought the house on Dennison Road [in Essex] with the waterfall and the pond, and they used to go there in the summer because that well would never go dry,” continued Whiting. “But then they went for about three summers and decided to move to Essex. Dad restored that house, because originally, it was a bicycle spoke factory.”
The original Tiley, Pratt & Company factory building became the studio, and Kreis added the second story, so he could have two large skylights.
“It was a great place to grow up in. We could swim in the pond, and he also had a great time restoring the house while they were still living in Deep River,” said Whiting. “My sister and I pitched a fit—we said, ‘We’re not leaving Deep River, we love the schools,’ and about two weeks after we got to Essex we loved it, because the kids were so friendly. The [Deep River] house is still there. You wouldn’t recognize it because it has gotten so grand, but it’s still there. We loved that house.”
The main studio was less than 500 feet from the house itself, and Kreis spent much of his time in there.
“Because he had a family to support, he didn’t do any gallery work, he did only monuments, so when they came to him and said, ‘You’ve got to do a monument of thus and so,’ he did what they told him to do,” said Whiting.
When he was between commissions, he made sketches, smaller sculptures, and then decided if he wanted to carve them. Whiting has many of these around her current home in Essex, some on shelves next to a plaque that reads “America,” reflecting her father’s—and many others’—hopes that were realized through coming to this country after the Great War.
Living in the U.S. during World War II was difficult for Kreis and for other German immigrants who had settled in the area, though Whiting remains unsure if it affected the way he envisioned his memorials.
“That was terrible, they would have a thousand planes going over Munich, or Essen,” remembered Whiting. “He had a friend in Deep River who was German, and when that would happen, he’d visit her, and he’d pace the floor all night long. The thing that was amazing was that not one person in his family was killed in that bombing—he loved America, but that was bad.
“After the war he went back to Munich, before the rebuilding,” continued Whiting. “It was so depressing they stayed for about one day and he said, ‘I’m out of here.’ He did go back in the ‘50s, but he never saw Munich restored.”
A Body of Work
Many of Kreis’s works are war memorials, or otherwise dedicated to ideals of honor, freedom, justice, democracy, or liberty, themes that reoccurred and were expressed with notable art deco influences across his career. The Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial in L.A. was one of his largest pieces, and was recognized as the largest bas-relief terra cotta sculpture in the U.S. at 45- by 78 feet. It depicts the raising of the flag over the fort for the first time by the Mormon Battalion, the U.S. 1st Dragoons, and the New York Volunteers in 1847, at the first Independence Day in L.A.
The sculpture has fallen into disrepair with sections missing since its initial installation in 1957. These will be filled in by hand. The memorial features a waterfall, which has been shut of since the 1977 drought, and a 68-foot stone pylon designed by another immigrant sculptor, Albert Stewart. The waterfall will be turned on again, though re-engineered to not use as much water, after the completion of the renovation.
“He went out there to do it,” said Whiting. “It’s where the original fort was and dad said that the water was meant to show that there was life everywhere, even if you had to dig for it. He made the sculpture in a place called Gladding, McBean. They were the people who make the great big terra cotta sewer things, and they thought, that’s the place to go because they would be able to fire the sculpture at the end. I just can’t believe he went in January and then came back in May. I can’t believe he did it that quickly.”
The Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial was one of the later pieces of Kreis’s career; he died in 1963 in Essex, in a second studio he had built on his property.
“He smoked like a chimney. He died of cancer,” said Whiting. “He had so much clutter in there, the main studio. So he went up the hill—he had originally bought about 30 acres and would sell it off—and up there he built the little studio as we called it. In there he could look around and finally see stuff. He died in that studio, the little studio.
“If he was still here, he’d still be taking commissions for monuments,” continued Whiting. “He was a workaholic, he never stopped working, he’d go out at 8 in the morning to the studio, come back for lunch, then he’d go out again and come back at 5 p.m.—then he had two, stiff old fashioneds and he insisted on eating at 6 p.m.”
Whiting thinks that her father would have been pleased by the renewal of his work, as indeed, she is.
“He would be so happy. He was looking down at that eagle the day it was dedicated and laughing up a storm and probably having a nip—an old fashioned, which he loved,” said Whiting. “I know that when the monument in L.A. is restored, he’s going to be looking down and he’s going to be so happy, and probably having four old fashioneds.
“But in our wildest dreams we didn’t imagine this,’ continued Whiting, speaking of her family’s reaction to the news of the restoration. “We thought it was just a neglected thing. Oh, he’ll be looking down just beaming.”