Lewis, Alonzo Victor (1886-1946)

  • By Fred Poyner IV
  • Posted 2/17/2020
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20974

The sculptor and painter Alonzo Victor Lewis began his career in the early twentieth century modeling portraits and monumental statues in bronze, first in Tacoma, and later in Seattle after relocating his studio in 1919. Throughout his life, Lewis faced financial difficulties arising out of both his relationships with his mother and brother and difficulties collecting commissions for sculptures he completed during the 1920s and 1930s, including a monumental statue of a World War I solider for the city of Seattle. Several memorials of U.S. military figures by Lewis are found today in the Pacific Northwest, a lasting testimony to both the sculptor's ambition and his ability.

Early Life

Born in Logan, Utah, on August 22, 1886, Lewis was one of three children of Marion and Lena Lewis. His mother and his younger brother, Warren, remained in close contact with Lewis in later years through though letters often tinged with talk of financial troubles, family concerns, and desperation over living situations.

Lewis did what he could to support his brother and mother, but had his own struggles finding a place in the world, with fine art always his focus. At the age of 15, he was living in Butte, Montana, studying under the western painter Edgar S. Paxson (1852-1919). His stay was short lived. A letter of support sent to Lewis by the mother of a female admirer, Credwyn Evans, remarked on his move from Butte: "There is certainly not much there to develop an artistic temperament, but one cannot always find it convenient to leave even a disinteresting place at once" (Letter, Mrs. Evans to Lewis).

Lewis continued his studies in both painting and sculpture at the Chicago Art Academy (today the Art Institute of Chicago). It was here that he first developed an approach bordering on the classical, especially in historical statuary, portrait busts, and full-figure statues. He received a gold medal in life drawing during the1906 academic year and served as secretary for the Art Academy League. But distant horizons beckoned to the young artist. He move first to New York, then to Cuba and to Mexico. In the last location, he demonstrated a command of realistic sculpting technique by modeling a bust of Mexican President Porfirio Díaz (1830-1915).

To the Northwest

By 1909 Lewis arrived in the Pacific Northwest and visited Portland, Oregon, where his brother Warren was working as a small-time newspaper editor. The sculptor traveled around the region and moved to Eastern Washington in 1911. While living in Spokane, Lewis met Bessie Juanita Magee, and the couple married on August 31, 1912, in Kootenai, Idaho. Nine months late  they welcomed their first child, Dorian Lorraine ("Linnie"), into the world.

In 1915 Lewis returned to the coast and settled in Tacoma. In a letter addressed to his "darling wife and babies," he described his arrival in Tacoma at night, and awaking the next morning to "a mixture between a barn, a café, a storehouse, a brick yard, a carpenter shop, a painters studio, a flower nursery, a dog kennels -- but I shan't worry" (Alonzo Lewis to Bessie Lewis).

Reports by Lewis to his wife on work and family continued. His mother was now living in Tacoma as well, his brother Warren had a new job in Portland, and the Washington State History Museum owed him money for a death mask made of the museum's recently deceased curator, William Henry Gilstrap (1849-1914). Lewis confided that the museum reminds him of "a dew drop [sic] on a haystack, after a look at Los Angeles and San Francisco museums" (Alonzo Lewis to Bessie Lewis). Bessie and the children joined him later that year, settling in at the sculptor's studio at 721 South E Street in Tacoma's Stadium District.

Opportunity and Struggle

In 1915 Lewis completed a monument for Point Defiance Park commemorating Captain Charles Wilkes (1798-1877), a project that was supported by the Daughters of the American Revolution. The dedication on the monument's plaque was authored by Thomas Prosch (1850-1915) of Seattle in correspondence with Professor Edmond S. Meany (1862-1935) at the University of Washington. Lewis also made a death mask of Prosch for the historical society's collection.

Lewis's brother Warren had been a student and then a writer, but was barely able to take care of his own affairs, let alone those of their elderly mother. The boys' father, Marion "Lon" Lewis, wrote to Alonzo during the years 1913 to 1917, but offered little in the way of support for the family, financial or otherwise. Warren felt burdened, and wrote to Alonzo to voice his concerns over family finances:

"I am trying hard to study and get along. However things sometimes worry me. Mother has only $50.00 left and we pay rent of $25.00 next April 4th. As I keep the accounts I realize how fast things are dwindling and with no income. Yes dear brother the world will someday doff her hat to you and talk of the struggle you have made" (Warren Lewis to Alonzo Lewis).

The sculptor continued to struggle to support himself and his work, despite earning a major commission in 1915 to model a 10-foot-tall statue statue of Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865). Only after Lewis filed a lawsuit to collect $4,500 still owed for the work were donations collected by Tacoma school children to pay the bill. In a letter dated February 9, 1917, to William Geiger, superintendent of Tacoma School District No. 10, Lewis confirmed he would finish the statue only if the funds were assured. Another year passed before the work was finally dedicated at Lincoln High School on February 12, 1918.

A second Lincoln statue, begun in 1921 for Spokane, dragged out for years while Lewis tried to collect on the original promise of $25,000 for the work. In 1925 members of the Grand Army of the Republic supplemented part of the cost with $6,000, again collected by local schoolchildren. It was finally unveiled in 1930 and remains today (2020) in downtown Spokane.

The Lincoln statues reflected an approach and style to sculpture that Lewis followed throughout the remainder of his career. He preferred to work on a monumental scale, as seen in the 12-foot-tall bronze casting for Spokane's Lincoln statue. He modeled his subjects first in clay, then made casting molds in plaster of paris for shipment to the Roman Bronze Works foundry in Brooklyn, New York. An active correspondence between Lewis and the foundry from 1912 to 1922 indicated his preference for it as a source for producing bronze statues using the lost-wax casting method.

Yet even his relationship with a favored foundry was not without financial complications. On September 17, 1918, Lewis received an invoice from the foundry for $137.26 for the bronze casting of an inscription tablet titled Clark Way. The tablet -- sent COD to the sculptor at the Washington State Historical Society -- was not accepted by Lewis, ostensibly owing to a lack of funds. Nor was this the first time Lewis had delayed payment for the shipping costs of sending either plaster models to the foundry or completed castings back to him. In a cordially worded letter, the Roman Bronze Works stressed its desire to "avoid any misunderstandings with the express companies" and required from Lewis drafts drawn on New York banks for payment "on all future shipments" (Roman Bronze Works, Inc. to Alonzo Lewis). Such was the reputation Lewis developed over time with patrons and providers alike.

Lewis preferred to work with live models, even when his original subjects were long departed. For Tacoma's Lincoln statue, Lewis secured the services of a William Neilson to pose for him as a model. The sculptor paid the sitter three dollars a day for 26 consecutive days of posing for three hours at a time. The subjects for these commissions were often heroic in stature and steeped in history, and ranged from such local as figures Ezra Meeker, Francis Cushman, and Isaac Stevens to those of national or international prominence, including Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Nez Perce Chief Joseph, French military hero Marshal Ferdinand Foch, and Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen.

The sculptor was equally skilled at portraying allegorical subjects. A statue created for Pendleton, Oregon, embodied the spirit of the American cowboy, and Lewis's Prospector (also called Trail of '98) statue for Sitka, Alaska, memorialized those who sought fortune in the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-1898. Lewis used his son Max and another Seattle boy, William Schroder, to strike poses for the Prospector's figure of "Skagway Bill" Fonda.

Another Move

Despite steady demand for his services as both a painter and sculptor, Lewis's Tacoma years between 1915 and 1918 were marked by debt collections, court complaints, and legal bills. One terse letter from a Tacoma attorney indicated patience with the sculptor was clearly at an end. There was also an ongoing slew of letters from his brother and mother that highlighted the drama and interdependence of the family members.

Lewis did listen to his brother, at least so far as following a suggestion to relocate to a more profitable venue. After a brief sojourn to Los Angeles, the sculptor returned to the Northwest and opened a studio at 2611 Eastlake Avenue in Seattle. The timing coincided with an offer from the University of Washington to serve as a lecturer on fine arts for its extension program during the 1919 and 1920 academic years.

The move to Seattle proved to be a permanent one for Lewis. He professed a love of the Pacific Northwest and was dedicated to his family, which now included three children -- daughters Charmain (age 1) and Dorian Lorraine (age 6), and a son, Max (age 5). Max recalled helping later in the new studio, doing such physical labor as mixing plaster or applying clay to the oversized sculptures modeled by his father.

The Doughboy

The move to Seattle soon led to a commission for a monumental artwork that ultimately proved to be one of the most controversial and challenging of Lewis's career: A 14-foot-tall statue of an American soldier from World War I.

In 1917 the U.S. Army formed the 91st Infantry Division, comprising young men from Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and half a dozen other western states, stationed at Camp Lewis near Tacoma. By October 1918, men from the 91st were engaged in action in Europe. The war ended on November 11, 1918, and following a period of post-war service in France, the 91st Division's surviving members returned to America. Two years later the unit still numbered more than 15,000 members, and the close bonds formed in wartime extended into the peacetime era.

Lewis, who had never served in the military, was approached by the 91st Division Association before its planned second reunion, to be held at the Butler Hotel in Seattle on September 24 and 25, 1921. The association wanted a temporary, large-scale statue of a soldier returning victorious from the field of battle to be displayed at the reunion. Publicized accounts describing the group's reunions in both 1921 and 1922 make no mention of a such a statue, but an effort soon was underway to promote it as a new public monument for Seattle.

After a year of effort and three tons of clay, Lewis completed a model of a U.S. Army doughboy (a popular nickname for American infantrymen in World War I) in December 1922. Both the realistic presentation of the figure and its meaning as a national symbol were explained by the sculptor:

"'In America there is a demand for all to forget the war ... but I feel we don't want to forget the war. Rather, we want to forget the horrors of war. When I started on my American Doughboy I wanted to portray America's participation in the struggle, America's glorious victory and at the same time, do it with a smile'" ("American Doughboy Bringing Home the Bacon," p. 90).

The statue Lewis produced showed a smiling soldier, his left eye closed in a wink, wearing an infantryman's uniform -- boots, leggings, belt and helmet -- and with a Springfield M-1 rifle with bayonet affixed slung over the right shoulder. Also slung across his shoulder were two German helmets, souvenirs from the European battlefields. The soldier's left hand is closed in a fist and frozen in the action of the arm swinging forward in tandem with the left foot, captured in mid-stride.

The sources Lewis used to model Doughboy were taken from life. Three soldiers from the local Fort Lawton army base reportedly served as models, while the sculptor had also studied "the faces, expressions and thoughts of dozens of men who left Seattle for France and who lived through the scene depicted by 'The American Doughboy'" ("The Doughboy," 8). A photograph by Webster and Stevens, contract photographers for The Seattle Times, pictured the finished clay model of the statue in the sculptor's studio, with Lewis shown working near the figure's right knee.

While the 91st Division Association's planned reunion statue was never intended to be more than a temporary decoration, it opened the door for Lewis to pursue other venues for the finished work to be placed as a permanent monument. He first offered it to the University of Washington for placement on campus. In anticipation of obtaining approval, Lewis contacted the Roman Bronze Works about the cost of casting the figure into bronze. He received a reply on October 16, 1922, with the foundry quoting $3,630 for a casting, which would take four to five months to complete.

Lewis received a commission in 1922 for another statue of a soldier, destined for Centralia to memorialize four American Legionnaires killed in the Centralia Massacre of 1919. Like many Lewis works, the finished piece was monumental in size and depicted a soldier standing at attention. Called The Sentinel, it was installed in Centralia's George Washington Park on November 11, 1924. The sculptor also gained brief nationwide recognition when his painting of boxer Jack Dempsey (1895-1983) was included in a group exhibition of predominately landscape paintings at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1923.

A Long Time Coming

Over the next six years, Lewis continued his efforts to gain support for the World War I monument from local veteran groups, the Seattle's Board of Parks Commissioners, and the Seattle mayor's office. But it was slow going.

New support for the statue finally materialized in early 1928. A delegation from American Legion University Post No. 11, led by Post Commander Harry Lewis, came to the February 23, 1928, meeting of the Board of Parks Commissioners to propose that the Doughboy statue be installed in one of the city's parks. As part of its proposal, the Legion endorsed an offer from the Seattle City Council to provide $5,000 through the park board's budget for funding the statue "designed by Lewis," with the balance of the $50,000 total cost "to be paid for by contributions" ("Special Business," 251). The proposal to have the statue serve as a public monument to those who participated in World War I was carried unanimously by the park board.

The park board had secured a fraction of the funds promised to Lewis by the American Legion for Doughboy. The veterans group now focused on finding additional funding on the civic front, and enlisted Seattle Mayor Frank E. Edwards (1865-1942) to the cause. In August Edwards announced he was forming a committee of 173 prominent business and civic leaders to support the Lewis statue -- now renamed Armistice -- as the first-ever memorial dedicated to Seattle's World War I dead. The location envisioned for the new statue was City Hall Park.

Despite the city's reluctance to release funds, the sculptor sent his plaster model of the 14-foot-tall statue to the Roman Bronze Works. Foundry records show the order was commissioned for Doughboy on January 28, 1930, with a cost of $3,600 to cast the statue using the lost-wax method. The completed work was shipped back to Seattle on July 3, 1930. Upon arrival from New York, the statue was stored in its shipping crate at the yard of the city water department's maintenance barn in Fremont.

While the fate of the now-cast Doughboy still remained uncertain, Lewis and his wife endured a personal tragedy in 1931. Their eldest daughter, Dorian, died in California at the age of 17. Tragic as the event was, the sculptor could not avoid the ongoing controversy in Seattle over his artwork.

While the bronze soldier waited in storage, the King County Superior Court ordered the city council to come to terms with Lewis on the question of any remaining compensation still owed to the sculptor. On February 29, 1932, the city council passed Ordinance No. 62319, which called for the city to complete the furnishing and erection of Doughboy as a new public sculpture, and authorized a final $5,000 payment to the American Legion University Post No. 11. The ordinance was approved by Mayor Robert Harlin on March 1, 1932.

On May 30, 1932, the statue was finally unveiled in front of Civic Auditorium at what in now Seattle Center. Renamed The American Doughboy – Bringing Home Victory, it was officially dedicated six months later, on Armistice Day, November 11, 1932. In the period between the unveiling and the dedication, the two German helmets slung across the soldier's shoulder were removed by persons unknown (public criticism at the time characterized the helmets as war trophies). It had been a long struggle and a hard-won victory for the sculptor, an example of the career-long difficulties he had promoting himself as an artist and establishing clear terms for payment for his commissions.

For the next three decades, The American Doughboy remained as a war memorial at what would become Seattle Center. It was later relocated twice: The first time in 1962, to a site behind the Opera House and out of immediate public view, and again in 1998, when it was relocated to the Veterans Memorial Cemetery at Evergreen-Washelli in North Seattle.

The Post-Doughboy Era

Despite the prolonged saga of Lewis' Doughboy statue, its public dedication in 1932 did not mark Lewis's last contribution of public statuary. He later completed his third major World War I statue, a $100,000 bronze sculpture group of four U.S. military figures posed with the winged figure of Nike, Greek goddess of victory. Following that memorial's dedication on the grounds of the state capitol campus in Olympia on Memorial Day, May 30, 1938, Lewis was named Washington's sculptor laureate by the state Legislature.

Besides The Doughboy, the Lewis studio produced four other major public sculptures for the Seattle area: The "First Around-The-World Flight" monument at the Sand Point Naval Air Station, which featured a pillar topped with bronze wings and a plaque memorializing the flight (1924); a dual portrait medallion in bronze dedicated to both Will Rogers (1879-1935) and Wiley Post (1898-1935), who died in a plane crash; a profile medallion of Will Rogers, placed at the Olympic Riding and Driving Club's Will Rogers Memorial Field in Lake City (1936); and a bronze bust of Reverend Mark A. Matthews, installed in Denny Park (1941).

While the United States engaged in another world war, Lewis experienced new financial hardships and personal upheavals. He and Bessie had divorced in the late 1930s, and he was married his second wife, Betty in, 1941. That same year she gave birth to their first son, Victor Hugo.

Early in 1943 the Alaska Yukon Pioneers, a former patron of Lewis, petitioned the Seattle City Council to allow it to purchase his  studio after he had failed to keep up tax payments. The Pioneers claimed to hold a mortgage on the studio dating back to 1937. The council backed Lewis, with councilman Frank Laube stating that it wasn't "going to become a collection agency for private organization" ("Alonzo Lewis Will Get Home"). This allowed Lewis to buy his home back from the city

In March 1946 Lewis lost a lawsuit brought by an apprentice involved in the studio's fabrication of sculpture busts of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945). In the same year, Betty and Alonzo had their second son, Sigmond Marion. It would serve as a final joy to the sculptor, now age 60. However, the joy was short-lived: Lewis died from a heart attack on November 7, 1946.


Sources:

Mrs. Evans to Alonzo Victor Lewis, November 1, 1909, box 1, folder 1-4, Alonzo Victor Lewis Papers, Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma, Washington; Alonzo Victor Lewis to Bessie Lewis, December 7, 1915, Alonzo Victor Lewis Papers, box 1, folder 27-50, Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma, Washington; Warren Lewis to Alonzo Victor Lewis, December 7, 1913, Alonzo Victor Lewis Papers, box 1, folder 13-24, Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma, Washington; Roman Bronze Works, Inc. to Alonzo Victor Lewis, September 17, 1918, Alonzo Victor Lewis Papers, box 2, folder 7, Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma, Washington; Agreement between Alonzo Victor Lewis and William Nielson, January 25, 1915, Alonzo Victor Lewis Papers, box 2, folder 14-16, Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma, Washington; "The Doughboy," Heroes & Dignitaries – A Self-Guided Tour (Seattle: Evergreen Washelli, 2009), 8; "Special Business," Board of Park Commissioners minutes, February 23, 1928, vol. 9, series no. 8601-01, Seattle Municipal Archives, Seattle, Washington); "1928-1930 Ledger," (Roman Bronze Works Archive, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas); "American Doughboy Bringing Home the Bacon," The Seattle Times (Graphic-Fiction section, unpaginated), December 10, 1922; "Alonzo Lewis Will Get Home," Ibid., February 10, 1943, p. 7; Fred Poyner IV, Seattle Public Sculptors -- Twelve Makers of Monuments, Memorials and Statuary, 1909-1962 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland Press, 2017).


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