Finn Haakon Frolich’s statue of James J. Hill was created for Seattle’s first World’s Fair.
THIS WEEK, A monumental bust of James J. Hill, aka “The Empire Builder,” has been pulled from a new book titled “Seattle Public Sculptors.” The author, the Nordic Heritage Museum’s museologist and collections manager, Fred F. Poyner IV, has written with clarity and considerable detail about 12 artists who created “Seattle’s first ‘Golden Age’ of public monuments, memorials and statuary.” Many of these works, including Finn Haakon Frolich’s baronial bust of Hill, date from 1909, the year of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, Seattle’s first World’s Fair.
Frolich was born in Oslo, Norway, in 1868 “to a family of means.” We may imagine him as a fearless — or impetuous — adolescent, for by Poyner’s well-footnoted recounting, the young Finn took to the sea at the age of 9, and kept to it until 1886, when he jumped ship in Brooklyn. After answering a classified ad in a daily pulp, Frolich began his education in sculpting, working for several years in studios, including those of Daniel Chester French in New York and Augustus Saint-Gaudens in Paris.
Frolich first visited Seattle in 1898, when he was 30 years old. He failed in his first attempt to found a school of design here, but 10 years later, he returned to many successes. These included establishing his Beaux-Arts Workshop studio in the old Territorial University Building, which stood on Denny’s Knoll in downtown Seattle. He took on students, including those who attended his “live modeling in clay” demonstrations performed for audiences on stage at the Alhambra Theatre.
Frolich’s grandest success, in 1908, made him the Director for Sculpture for the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, held on the campus of the University of Washington. The responsibilities included many works of art, including the bust that Hill’s friends described as “so faithful a likeness, down to the minutest detail of resemblance and personality, as to be startling.” Six feet high, Hill’s statue was cast in bronze in New York and placed on the 12-foot-high granite pedestal displayed in the featured photo at the center of the fair’s Klondike Circle. Its ceremonial unveiling was handled by John A. Johnson, the governor of Minnesota, Hill’s home, and it was the Minnesota Club that gathered the last support needed to pay for it.
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In 1953, the statue was moved about a quarter of a mile, from Northeast Stevens Way to East Stevens Way, where its back faces More Hall, the university’s home for the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. In the interest of function over form, More Hall was given large windows by its architect, John Paul Jones. It is from these windows that Frolich’s otherwise-hidden bronze plaque of Hill’s steamer The Minnesota (once the largest vessel on the Pacific Ocean) can be seen with pleasure and, for some, also surprise. Attached about hip-high to the rear of the granite pedestal, the plaque is obscured by hefty shrubs. However, at the front of the Hill statue, a rendering of a “GNRR” steam engine can be seen exiting a tunnel in the Cascades.