Lee Lawrie

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Statue of Atlas in Rockefeller Center on 5th Avenue in New York City, opposite St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Lee Oscar Lawrie (October 16, 1877 – January 23, 1963[1]) was one of the United States' foremost architectural sculptors and a key figure in the American art scene preceding World War II. Over his long career of more than 300 commissions Lawrie's style evolved through Modern Gothic, to Beaux-Arts Classicism and finally into Moderne or Art Deco. His work includes the details on the Nebraska State Capitol building in Lincoln, Nebraska and some of the architectural sculpture and his most prominent work, the free-standing bronze Atlas (installed 1937) at New York City's Rockefeller Center.[2]

Lawrie's work is associated with some of America's most noted buildings of the first half of the twentieth century. His stylistic approach evolved with building styles that ranged from Beaux-Arts to neo-Gothic to Art Deco. Many of his architectural sculptures were completed for buildings by Bertram Goodhue of Cram & Goodhue, including the chapel at West Point; the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.; the Nebraska State Capitol; the Los Angeles Public Library; St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in New York; and Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago. He completed numerous pieces in Washington, D.C., including the bronze doors of the John Adams Building of the Library of Congress, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception south entrance portal, and the interior sculpture of George Washington at the National Cathedral.[3]

Early work[edit]

Lawrie was born in Rixdorf, Germany, and came to the United States in 1882 as a young child, settling in Chicago. It was there, at the age of 14, that he began working for the sculptor Richard Henry Park.

Reredos of Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street, New York

In 1892 he assisted many of the sculptors in Chicago, constructing the "White City" for the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. Following the completion of the work at the Exposition, Lawrie returned East and became an assistant to William Ordway Partridge. The next decade found him working with other established sculptors: Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Philip Martiny, Alexander Phimister Proctor, John William Kitson and others. His work at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St Louis, 1904, under Karl Bitter, the foremost architectural sculptor of the time, allowed Lawrie to further develop both his skills and his reputation as an architectural sculptor.

Lawrie received a bachelor's degree in fine arts from Yale University in 1910. He was an instructor in Yale's School of Fine Arts from 1908 to 1919 and taught in the architecture program at Harvard University from 1910 to 1912.[4]

Collaborations with Cram and Goodhue[edit]

Lawrie's collaborations with Ralph Adams Cram and Bertram Goodhue brought him to the forefront of architectural sculptors in America. After the breakup of the Cram, Goodhue firm in 1914, Lawrie continued to work with Goodhue until Goodhue's premature death in 1924, then with his successors.

Lawrie sculpted numerous Bas Relief's for El Fureidis,[5] an estate in Montecito, California that was designed by Bertram Goodhue. The bas reliefs depict the Arthurian Legends and remain intact at the estate today.

The Nebraska State Capitol and the Los Angeles Public Library both feature extensive sculptural programs integrated with the surface, massing, spatial grammar, and social function of the building. Lawrie's collaborations with Goodhue are arguably the most highly developed example of architectural sculpture in American architectural history.

Lawrie served as a consultant to the 1932 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago. He was a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the National Academy of Design, and the Architectural League of New York. Among his many awards was the AIA Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects in 1921 and 1927, a medal of honor from the Architectural League of New York in 1931, and an honorary degree from Yale University. He served on the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts from 1933 to 1937 and again from 1945 to 1950.[6]

Lawrie's work at Rockefeller Chapel, University of Chicago, circa 1929

Commissions related to Goodhue[edit]

Rockefeller Center[edit]

After Goodhue's death, Lawrie went on to produce important and highly visible work under Raymond Hood at Rockefeller Center in New York City, which included the Atlas in collaboration with Rene Paul Chambellan. By November 1931 Hood made it known that "There has been entirely too much talk about the collaboration of architect, painter and sculptor", and relegated Lawrie to the role of a decorator.[7]

Wisdom, 30 Rockefeller Plaza

As a result, Lawrie's most recognizable work is not architectural: it is the freestanding statue on Fifth Avenue at Rockefeller Center, standing 45 feet tall, with a 15-foot figure of Atlas, supporting an armillary sphere, with a total height of 45 feet.[8] As its unveiling, some critics were reminded of Benito Mussolini, while James Montgomery Flagg suggested that it looked as Mussolini thought he looked;[9] the international character of Streamline Moderne, embraced by Fascism as well as corporate democracy, did not find favor during the Second World War.

Featured above the entrance to 30 Rockefeller Plaza and axially behind the golden Prometheus, Lawrie's Wisdom is one of the most visible works of art in the complex. An Art Deco piece, it echoes the statements of power shown in Atlas and Paul Manship's Prometheus.

Other commissions[edit]

Other Lawrie commissions include:

Lawrie's work in popular culture[edit]

  • Featured on the cover of The New Yorker magazine, Dec. 20 & 27, 2010.


Bronze doors of the John Adams Building[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Lee Lawrie, 85, Is Dead;Sculptor of Statue of Atlas" The New York Times, January 25, 1963
  2. ^ In 2008 the Atlas is to received a steam cleaning and the application of solvents to remove accumulations of lacquer ("Atlas statue to get makeover in New York").
  3. ^ Civic Art: A Centennial History of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, 2013
  4. ^ Civic Art: A Centennial History of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts
  5. ^ http://www.montecitoparadise.com
  6. ^ Thomas E. Luebke, ed., Civic Art: A Centennial History of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, 2013): Appendix b, p. 548.
  7. ^ "'Wisdom with Sound and Light' by Lee Lawrie". Museum Planet. Retrieved 2008-11-25. 
  8. ^ Dianne L. Durante, Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide 2007:139ff.
  9. ^ Durante 2007:141 offers this and some further negative quotes from artists and critics in New York during the forties.

External links[edit]

  • Bisonwerks - Website of Gregory Paul Harm, Preeminent researcher on the history and works of Lawrie
  • LeeLawrie.com - Additional Website of Gregory Paul Harm. Features additional Lawrie works recently added by Harm to the Smithsonian Institution's Art Inventory Catalog.
  • Lee Lawrie - Stalking Lawrie: America's Machine Age Michelangelo.
  • Lee Lawrie page on philart.net - pictures of artistic details on the Perelman building
  • [1] - Lee Lawrie's Prairie Deco: History in Stone at the Nebraska State Capitol, new book on Lee Lawrie's work on the Nebraska State Capitol, which was Lawrie's largest commission of his 70 year career. For sale through Blurb.com
  • [2] Article on Greg Harm's research and discoveries about Mr. Lawrie and his work on the Nebraska State Capitol.


  • Bok, Edward W., America's Taj Mahal - The Singing Tower of Florida, The Georgia Marble Company, Tate, Georgia c. 1929.
  • Brown, Elinor L., Architectural Wonder of the World, State of Nebraska, Building Division, Lincoln, Nebraska 1978.
  • Fowler, Charles F., Building a Landmark - The Capitol of Nebraska, Nebraska State Building Division, 1981.
  • Garvey, Timothy Joseph, Lee Lawrie Classicism and American Culture, 1919 - 1954, PhD. Thesis University of Minnesota 1980.
  • Gebhard, David, The National Trust Guide to Art Deco in America, John Wiley & Sons, New York, New York 1996.
  • Kvaran & Lockley, Guide to Architectural Sculpture of America, unpublished manuscript.
  • Lawrie; Lee, Sculpture - 48 Plates With a Forward by the Sculptor, J.H. Hanson Cleveland, Ohio 1936.
  • Luebke, Frederick C. Editor, A Harmony of the Arts – The Nebraska State Capitol, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska 1990.
  • Masters, Magaret Dale, Hartley Burr Alexander—Writer-In-Stone, Margaret Dale Masters 1992 .
  • Nelson, Paul D., Courthouse Sculptor: Lee Lawrie, Ramsey County History Quarterly V43 #4, *Ramsey County Historical Society, St Paul, MN, 2009.
  • Oliver, Richard, Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, The Architectural History Foundation, New York & The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts 1985.
  • Whitaker, Charles Harris,Editor, Text by Lee Lawrie et al. Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, Architect-and Master of Many Arts, Press of the American Institute of Architects, Inc., NYC 1925.
  • Whitaker, Charles Harris and Hartley Burr Alexander, The Architectural Sculpture of the State Capitol at Lincoln Nebraska, Press of the American Institute of Architects, New York 1926.