Friday, January 25, 2013

Saint Louis Native, Nancy Coonsman Hahn, sculpted WWI Memorial for Missourians who died in France during the War

Nancy Coonsman Hahn (1887-1976) studied sculpture at the St. Louis School of Fine Arts and won many commissions for large memorials and public fountains.  One such commission was to sculpt a memorial to Missouri soldiers who died in France during WWI. This commission was unique because the memorial was to be located in France. According to an article in the St. Louis Post Dispatch on June 25, 1922, the memorial was to be erected on the historic highway between Cheppy and Varennes on a triangular piece of land about half a mile from Cheppy.  This location was significant because it was “connected with some of the most stirring annals of the Thirty-Fifth Division." This Division along with the Eighty-Ninth Division contained the bulk of Missouri troops that participated in the War.

The Memorial to the U. S. 35th Division and the Men of the State of Missouri. The monument was erected in 1922 and is located south of the village of Cheppy, France on the D19, between Varennes en Argonne and Montfaucon.

Background on the Memorial

In 1921, the Missouri Memorial Commission, received $25,000 from the state to develop a memorial to soldiers who died in France during WWI. They found two possible locations and used a former officer of the French Army to negotiate for the sites. Neither of the proposed sites was their first choice. Their first choice were actually the Argonne Cemetery, but the War Department denied their request. At the time, it was recommended that all monuments be located on battlefields rather than in cemeteries. The two proposed sites were located near battlefields where many Missourians lost their lives.

The Memorial Commission used a competition to determine who should design and execute the memorial. The only stipulation was that competitors be born in Missouri. The bulk of entries came from sculptors and artists who lived in Chicago.  There were a total of seven competitors. Each one had to submit their models anonymously to a jury of experts that had been selected by the Memorial Commission. According to the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Hahn’s design featured a statue of the figure of "Victory", bearing a wreath of laurel in the right hand, and an olive branch in the left hand. The base of the statue was to be made of granite and feature the state seal of Missouri. In addition, two transcriptions, one in French and the other in English were to be carved on the base. The English version reads: “Erected by the State of Missouri, United States of America, to the memory of her sons who died in France for humanity during the Great War 1917-1918.”
Hahn's design won first place in the competition. She was unanimously selected  by the expert judges and members of the Memorial Commission. In 1922 Hahn traveled to Europe with her husband, Emmanuel, who was in charge of engineering details for the project to supervise the making of the bronze castings of the sculpture. Forty years later, when the memorial was scheduled to be repaired, Hahn wrote a letter to the St. Louis Post Dispatch providing details on her experiences in Europe. Hahn described her excitement about the monument being refurbished. She wrote “The monument is so solidly built that it would require a bomb to shake it down, but it could look very shabby without some surface work and, of course, some landscaping.”   

 Hahn’s Other Works

The Doughboy Statue located at Overton Park in Memphis, Tennessee

The memorial in Cheppy, France was not the only WWI memorial that Hahn sculpted.  In 1926, she was commissioned by the Memphis chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution to design a monument to the soldiers from Memphis and Shelby Counties that died in WWI.  Hahn sculpted a World War I U.S. Army soldier charging up a rock with a drawn bayonet.  The Doughboy Statue caused quite a stir in the local media when it was unveiled. In fact, a local sculptor went so far as to label it “the attack of the vicious beast.” Hahn agreed that it was a rather large statue that “seemed overwhelmingly huge” in her studio, but argued that it fit in with the parks surroundings.  

The plaque on front of base reads: "1917-1919 Honor Roll, To the memory of Memphis and Shelby County men who gave their lives to their country in the World War" (a list of 230 names follows). The plaque on the rear of the base reads: "Erected by the Memphis Daughters of the Revolution with the aid of a grateful public and school children

In 1915, Hahn won a commission to sculpt a public drinking fountain. According to the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission, Mrs. Margaret Kincaid of Louisiana, Missouri, bequeathed funds for a drinking fountain in "some park in St. Louis" with the stipulation that the competition be open only to women. Hahn’s winning design featured two nude girls being sprayed by four frog fountain figures. This caused an uproar with the Women's Protective League who demanded that the girls wear clothing. A newspaper cartoon actually featured the fountain design with the girls wearing raincoats. As a result, the custodians of the funds demanded a revision. Hahn's new design, which was inspired by old Italian well heads, features six very young children dancing around the fountain base carrying a garland. She also designed the two concrete benches nearby which are supported by elves.

 Margret R. Kincaind Fountain. Located in Downtown St. Louis, Lucas Ave. at N.13th St. Dimensions: 3’x 2’x 2’ Materials: Bronze and granite 
In addition to the Margaret Kincaid Fountain, Hahn created many small statues and busts. Her work has been featured in several exhibitions in art museums and galleries throughout the United States that includes: the Art Institute of Chicago, Corcoran Gallery, Washington DC and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Hahn also exhibited her work in the Panama Pacific Exhibition of 1915. Most recently, her work was featured in an exhibit at the Winnetka Historical Society. Hahn was a resident of Winnetka, Illinois until her death in 1976.  

Missouri’s War Monument to Rise Beside a Country Road in France, St. Louis Post Dispatch,
June 25, 1922.

Letters From the People, St. Louis Post Dispatch, September 16, 1962.

 The Doughboy Statue – Overton Park’s“Vicious Beast”