On July 3, 1927, Franklin H. Boggs, George M. Bennett, Joseph C. Blair, and Lorado Z. Taft met on the steps of the recently completed Urbana-Lincoln Hotel to give a dedication ceremony honoring the newest addition to the hotel, a bronze statue of the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, titled “Lincoln the Lawyer”. The statue was designed and sculpted by Taft, a nationally known sculptor and University of Illinois graduate. It was beautifully executed with a standing Lincoln resting his arms across a slab of stone, looking as though he is about to give a speech or offer an argument in court.
Boggs, Bennett, and Blair were the trustees of a memorial provided by a bequest in the will of Mary Cunningham, wife of Joseph Cunningham, known friends and supporters of Lincoln during his time as an Illinois Circuit Court attorney. Following Mary Cunningham’s death in 1921, these men fulfilled her wishes and sold Cunningham’s home for $10,000 to pay for the statue. Taft was approached by his friend Blair to do the statue, but Taft was reluctant because he felt Lincoln was artistically overrepresented. He ultimately agreed to do the piece, despite his artistic qualms as well as the low offer of $10,000 for a bronze statue at the desired scale.
Taft began work on the statue in 1924. For its design, he used Blair and Siegfried Weng, one of his UIUC students, as models for the statue. Taft brought Blair to the Champaign County Courthouse to find the pose he sought for the piece. He had Blair stand in various positions in the Courthouse and Circuit Court room for hours until he said, “hold it, that is the pose I want.” Once he established the position, he had Weng, who was 6’4” like Lincoln, pose for the statue wearing Weng’s fathers minister garb, something Taft felt was representative of mid-19th century attorney attire. The hands and face for the statue were taken from life masks of Lincoln modeled by sculptor Leonard W. Volk.
Despite its beauty and grandeur, the statue was not fated to stand in front of the hotel. Unfortunately, the Urbana-Lincoln Hotel failed to acquire the deed of land on which the statue was built, and thus a legal formality forced the removal of the statue from the hotel’s entrance the same year it was dedicated. The statue was relocated a little less than a mile south to Carle Park across from Urbana High School. The statue was relocated again in December 1955 approximately 20 feet closer to the street. The statue was also placed facing southwest, rather than its former northeast facing, a request of the belated Taft who hoped the sun to shine on Lincoln’s face.
There was another push in 1964 spearhead by The Urbana Free Library’s own Nellie Carpenter to have the statue moved again. The Lincoln statue was the victim of regular vandalism in Carle Park. Citizens were displeased with the vandalism and the non-centralized location of the station in relation to downtown. Carpenter and other citizens wanted the statue to be placed in the lawn of the Champaign County Courthouse, land Lincoln treaded regularly as an Illinois Circuit rider. Despite Carpenter’s relocation push and a unanimous vote by the city council to move to the statue, it remained in Carle Park where it is still viewable today.
- Tom K.