Carleton Angell's beloved sculptures return to the Natural History Museum
The two pumas that guarded the Ruthven Museums Building on North University for sixty-six years are missing. Generations of kids had clambered over the stylized black cats, and countless museum visitors had posed for pictures standing in front of them. But last July, a hole was noticed in the head of one of the pumas.
Officials first suspected vandalism. "They've been hit with paintballs. They were once trimmed with masking tape to look like zebras. And they've been painted green (probably in deference to a certain Big Ten rival)," writes museum employee Dan Madaj. But a more careful look made it clear that the real culprit was years of exposure to the elements. The big cats were removed for restoration and replacement—the first time they'd left their perches since museum sculptor Carleton Watson Angell put them there in 1940.
A farm boy from Belding, in west Michigan, Angell overcame great obstacles to build a career as an artist. Born in 1887, he got his first art lessons as a child from a customer on his father's milk route. But then his father died, and his mother moved back to her hometown of Hion, New York, where Angell worked for seven years to save up for art school. He finally enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1909, at age twenty-two. Afterward he worked at the American Terra Cotta Company in nearby Crystal Lake, making decorative panels for building facades but lost that job during an economic downturn. He returned to Illinois, worked in his brother's grocery store, and married Gladys Thayer.
But Angell continued sculpting and drawing, and in 1922, when he was thirty-five, his persistence finally paid off: he got an offer from the U-M to be a half-time instructor at the College of Architecture and Design. By then he and Gladys had three children, so to supplement his income, they ran a boardinghouse at 1438 Washington Heights (about where the new School of Public Health building is today). Their daughter, Jennett Angell Hamilton, remembers watching her dad strip the sheets from the beds and bring them down for her mother to wash.
In 1926 Angell was offered additional work at the U-M Museum of Natural History, which was preparing to move from State Street to North U. Celebrated industrial architect Albert Kahn designed the V-shaped building, but Angell contributed many decorative details, including the bronze front doors and the limestone bas-reliefs of animals and naturalists on the facade. And even after the building opened in 1928, he continued to produce busts of important people connected with the museum, both living and dead. They were placed in alcoves around the rotunda as he finished them during the 1930s.
The pumas were his last major contribution to the decoration. In an article in the August 17, 1940, Michigan Alumnus, Angell explained that although lions are often chosen to guard public buildings, he preferred Michigan's native cats. After building scale models to check the proportions, he constructed full-size figures of wood, wire, plaster of Paris, and clay. From these he created plaster molds, which were used to cast the final versions in terrazzo, a stone aggregate. Sixty-six years later, the terrazzo finally began to show its age.
Angell's main job was to make models for dioramas, miniature recreations of natural and historic scenes. He worked with scientists to model extinct animals from fossil skeletons, and with anthropologists to show how people in different cultures lived. He often depicted American Indians, whom he typically showed at work—making pottery, drilling, carrying things.
None of Angell's Indian dioramas are still on display, but it's interesting to wonder how he would have reacted to the recent protest by art students who charged that the museum's current representations of Native Americans are racist. Angell worked hard to create accurate depictions. Jennett Hamilton recalls how the family traveled to a reservation in Missaukee County, where her father spent nine hours sculpting an Ottawa chief named Henri. When the chief died soon afterward, the Angell family went back north for the funeral.
His work at the museum led to commissions from other university departments, community groups, and individuals. Angell eventually completed hundreds of local projects, including a bronze bas-relief of philanthropist Horace Rackham in the Rackham Building and a plaque at Angell School depicting the school's namesake, U-M president James B. Angell (the two Angells were believed to be distant relatives).
By 1936 Carleton Angell was earning, enough that he and his family were able to leave the boardinghouse. They lived at 933 South State Street and 1217 Lutz before building a home at 3125 Hilltop in the early 1950s. Angell created Arborcrest Memorial Park's Four Chaplains monument in the family room at the Hilltop home. It depicts four clergymen—two Protestants, a Roman Catholic, and a Jew—who died after giving up their life jackets to others when their ship was torpedoed during World War II. He completed another commission—relief panels for the Washtenaw County Courthouse depicting local life—in the home's garage. Daughter Jennett remembers how when he was done her father enlisted her husband and brothers, along with every other able-bodied relative and friend he could find, to help him deliver the massive artwork.
Angell died in 1962 from a massive heart attack. Though he was seventy-four, granddaughter Barbara Gilson says that his death came as a shock, since he seemed in good health and was by then taking care of Gladys, who had suffered a stroke. Dariel Keeney recalls, "The last thing my grandfather said to me on my last visit to him in the hospital, hours before he died, was 'Take care of your grandmother. She is so precious to me.'"
Since their installation, Angell's pumas have served as symbols of the museum, standing out in all weather. Over the years various small repairs were made, but last July's discovery made it clear that the time had come for a complete overhaul.
This time the museum is taking a twor pronged approach. The Fine Arts Sculpture Centre in Clarkston made molds from the original figures and then cast replicas in bronze. The Venus Bronze Works in Detroit has added a black finish to the bronzes, and also has restored the original terrazzo figures.
The pumas are expected back around the middle of May. The bronze cats will take over the plinths outside the doors, while the terrazzo originals will be placed in a yet-to-be-determined location inside the museum. On June 2, the museum will celebrate their return with a Puma Party, including a display of Carleton Angell's work in the rotunda.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: Farm-boy-turned-artist Carleton Angell created much of the ornamental detail on the Ruthven Museums Building, including the ornate bronze doors and the bas-relief sculptures on the facade. The two pumas guarding the entrance were the final touch—Angell chose Michigan's native cats instead of the customary lions.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: Bronze replicas of the pumas were cast at the Fine Arts Sculpture Center in Clarkston. The Venus Bronze Works in Detroit has since added a black finish to match the terrazzo originals.