UPDATE: After this piece aired on WGN News last week, viewers from across the country sent in their dollars to help save Alfonso Iannelli’s Guard Memorial.
In the early 1900’s, a number of Chicago based artists chose to live in Park Ridge. One of them was Italian sculptor Alfonso Iannelli. Though you may not know Iannelli’s name, we think you’ll recognize his work. Now, almost a half century after his death, Steve Sanders reports, the Park Ridge arts community is trying to save one of Iannelli’s cherished works, and mark his unmarked grave.
In the 1920’s, Alfonso Iannelli was already well known for collaborating with architect Frank Lloyd Wright. And to this day, many of his works hold prominent places in Chicago; the Prudential rock at Michigan and Randolph, the zodiac plaques that mark the corners of the Adler Planetarium, and the Pickwick Theatre in park Ridge are all Iannellis. So is a crumbling, fading memorial to a little girl along the east fence of Town of Maine cemetery in Park Ridge. Her name was Georgia Guard. “That’s my sister, my mother and my father,” says Sam Guard, who shows us their cemetery plots. Sam never knew his sister Georgia because she died in 1924 before he was born. He likes to call himself, “The Replacement.” “She was lost very rapidly, in just a few hours. So this was a huge tragedy to my parents at that time.” Simple strep throat claimed Georgia’s life just before her 7th birthday. The Park Ridge paper reported the entire city was deeply affected over the loss of the talented child with the bob haircut. Sam says his mother was inconsolable. So the Guards turned to close friend and sculptor, Alfonso Iannelli, a man who had known their child, to create a loving, lasting memorial. “Part of the sculpture’s genius is when you look at the statue is this could be anybody’s child. Anybody’s little girl.” Iannelli made the Georgia Guard memorial of cast concrete and covered her with marble chips to catch the light. Her baby face rose from a straight column that was placed at the edge of an ornate bird bath. Tall pylons stood guard on either side of a row of pine trees that created a beautiful, reflective space for all to enjoy. Sam says Iannelli showed him the beauty in art. But, 85 years of Chicago weather has taken it’s toll. Earlier this year, the statue was moved indoors to the Iannelli Studios on Northwest Highway, recently saved by the non-profit Kalo Foundation. “My sister needs to be reconditioned thoroughly,” says Sam Guard. “The bird bath must be replaced. And that’s why I’m so thankful that I’m getting the help from community people.” Sam and his supporters are hoping an online Kickstarter campaign will stir enough interest and donations to restore the memorial. It was idea of Andrew Schneider from Preservation Chicago. “If we could get 15,000 people to donate one dollar, maybe that’s easier than convincing 100 people to part with a thousand dollars each.” Kate Kerin grew up in Park Ridge not far from the memorial and is part of the community effort to save the Iannelli. “It has an elegant delay about it, that is just so moving to me as a mother. But, it really saddened me that the site has been left to fall apart.” We asked Chicago cultural historian Tim Samuelson why anyone outside of Park Ridge should care? “ It’s not about just preserving the work of Iannelli. It’s not about just preserving a memorial to his sister. But this is a work of art that was meant to be shared and experienced by everybody.” The Guard family asked that the memorial be placed in the so-called pauper’s section of the Park Ridge cemetery, to be shared by all families of loved ones buried there. But there was a mystery surrounding Iannelli’s own death that took Sam Guard decades to solve. “Where are his remains? Where is he buried? And what is there?, only to discover that his ashes were placed in my own family’s cemetery plot. “He’s on this side of the aisle, while my family’s on that side.” Sam Guard is hoping they can raise enough money to also mark his dear friend’s unmarked grave. He looks at it as the least he can do to repay the man who taught him how to look at art, and changed his life. “This gave me an appreciation of a world that I’d never been exposed to. That’s the debt I want to pay back.”
An Iannelli exhibit at Chicago’s cultural center this summer, and a new book on Alfonso Iannelli by David Jameson, have sparked new interest in the sculptor’s work. You can find the Kickstarter project, the Kalo Foundation, and the book by clicking these links. You can also share the link to this video.