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Douglas Tilden

by Ulla Kaprielian

As we travel along Market Street, we can admire two splendid survivors of the 1906 earthquake. On the corner of Market/Bush/Battery stands the Mechanics Monument, dedicated in May 1901, and just a few blocks further, at Market and Montgomery, is the Native Son Monument, unveiled on September 5, 1897.

Both of these statues were created by Douglas Tilden. What do we know about this artist?

Born in Chico, California, on May 1, 1860, he was the son of William Peregrine Tilden, M.D., and Catherine Hecox Tilden. At age four, Douglas became ill with scarlet fever. As a result, he became deaf-mute.

Two years later, he was enrolled in the California School for the Deaf, located at UC Berkeley. An honor student, Douglas graduated from the school in 1879, accepted a teaching position there, and stayed for eight years.

Summer vacations were spent studying drawing and painting. In the summer of 1883, he discovered the joys of sculpture. He returned to teaching in the fall but continued making models in his leisure time. He dreamed of studying in Paris, then the mecca of most would-be sculptors. His clay model Tired Wrestler, a young, athletic, male nude figure, impressed the Board of Trustees of the California School for the Deaf enough that they gave him a loan of five hundred dollars for study in New York. In 1887, he resigned his teaching post and left California.

Thanks to a grant of $600 per year from the Durham Fund, administered by the California School for the Deaf, Douglas embarked for Paris in May 1888. After visiting the Salon des Artistes Français on the Champs-Elysees, he went to work on the Baseball Player. With his unorthodox, purely American motifs, Tilden was the first California-born sculptor to win recognition outside of the U.S. by being accepted in the Paris Salon in 1889, then again in 1890, 1891, 1892, and 1894.

In September 1890, the bronze Baseball Player or The National Game (original title) was shipped from Paris and exhibited in New York and San Francisco. William E. Brown of the Southern Pacific Railroad bought the statue for $1700 and presented it to the city to be erected in Golden Gate Park. The statue is still standing across from the Garfield Monument near the Conservatory of Flowers.

When Brown heard that Douglas wanted to continue studying in Paris, he gave him a monthly allowance to remain in Paris several more years. In gratitude, Tilden presented his benefactor with the statuette Young Acrobat, a work in marble and bronze with gold-plated base. This treasure was recently discovered in the basement of the Monterey Public Library.

Brown, along with Leland Stanford, Charles F. Crocker, Timothy Hopkins, and James Fair, purchased the Tired Boxer for the Olympic Club in San Francisco. The bronze monument was displayed for the first time at the dedication ceremony of the Club’s new building on Post Street, January 2, 1893. (The statue did not survive 1906.)

In 1892, Tilden finished a huge monument, the Bear Hunt. He wrote, “My Indian and bear present a full front, both in so full a vigor that who wins must forever be a question in the spectator’s mind.” The Bear Hunt arrived at the California School for the Deaf in Berkeley in 1895 after being exhibited for several months at the Art Institute in Chicago. Both the school and the Bear Hunt are now located in Fremont.

Tilden’s last statue created in Paris was cast in bronze in 1893 and shipped to San Francisco. The Football Players was exhibited at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1898 and then purchased by San Francisco Mayor James Phelan. To this day, the statue adorns the Berkeley campus.

In September 1893 Tilden received a letter from his benefactor, William E. Brown, informing him that the enclosed draft of $75 would be the last because of the economic downturn. Thus, without warning, Tilden’s income was cut off. Although hailed as the “silent genius” and the “Michelangelo of the West,” Tilden had no choice but to end his studies in Paris and sail for home.

The San Francisco Art Association, founded in 1871, had a powerful influence on the cultural growth of the city. Edward F. Searles, who had married Mark Hopkins’s widow and then inherited her palatial home on Nob Hill, in February 1893 deeded the house to the Regents of the University of California, who endowed what became known as the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art.

It was here that deaf-mute sculptor Douglas Tilden, hailed as the “Michelangelo of the West,” was offered a teaching position shortly after his return from nearly six years in Paris. For the first time a deaf-mute teacher instructed art students who could hear and speak.

On June 6, 1896, Douglas Tilden married Elizabeth Cole, the deaf, adopted daughter of an Oakland entrepreneur. Willis Polk was best man. James Phelan was among the guests. The marriage, a tumultuous union that eventually ended in divorce, produced two children – daughter Gladys and son Willoughby Lee.

Tilden’s first commissioned work following his return was an architectural embellishment (six Medusa heads) for the front portico of industrialist George Gibbs’s residence at 2622 Jackson Street. He also designed four buffalo heads over the tunnel entrance of the bridge on what is today J.F. Kennedy Drive, directly behind the de Young Museum.

James Duval Phelan, during his three terms as mayor of San Francisco, appealed to the citizens to beautify the city by spending his own personal fortune for public works of art. Phelan commissioned Tilden to create the Admission Day Fountain (known today as the Native Son Monument, the meeting place for the City Guides’ Cityscapes and Public Places tour), unveiled on September 5, 1897. The angel on top was modeled by the artist’s wife. She holds an open book, yet to be written, on its cover the date September 9, 1850, the day California was admitted to the Union. The young miner is holding the flag in his left hand, reason for some criticism at the time. Willis Polk designed the base and column. It was not until 1977, having been moved twice before, that the fountain was placed at its present location at Market & Montgomery Streets.

After the unveiling of the Admission Day Fountain, the trustees of the Donahue estate commissioned Tilden to create a memorial to industrialist Peter Donahue. [For more on Donahue and his family, see the article “Baroness von Schroeder” in the December 2005 GuideLines.] The completed design included five semi-nude men. At the base are symbols of Donahue’s professions – the anvil (foundry), propeller (shipping), driving wheel and connecting rod (railroad). The debate over whether or not the semi-nude men should wear trousers continued in the newspapers for quite some time. Finally local artists drew up a petition and obtained enough signatures for the statue to remain as intended. The Mechanics Monument was dedicated on May 15, 1901.

Another commission from James Phelan was Tilden’s monumental bronze likeness Father Junipero Serra. Tilden completed the plaster statue in March 1906. Luckily it survived the earthquake, and the statue was dedicated in Golden Gate Park in November 1907, the bronze casting having been done in Chicago.

At the end of the Spanish-American War, when the troops returned, San Franciscans went wild. Sixty-five thousand dollars was raised, $25,000 of which was allocated for a memorial. Douglas Tilden won the national competition. California Volunteers, a bronze work sixteen feet high and ten feet long mounted atop a granite base ten feet high, stands at the corner of Market and Dolores Streets. The monument shows an American soldier, with pointed gun in one hand and a sword in the other, standing over a fallen comrade, a cannon nearby. Above them the goddess of war, Bellona, is astride the winged horse Pegasus.

But in the years after WWI, not only did the demand for sculpture decline, but Tilden also lost his patron’s financial and moral support when Phelan became a U.S. senator and moved to Washington, D.C. For Tilden times became more and more difficult. Besides financial difficulties, his marriage failed. Repeated attempts to seek employment at the California School for the Deaf were unsuccessful. The school no longer employed deaf teachers.

In 1924 he moved to Hollywood to sculpt dinosaurs and other extinct animals for historical and educational films. The income enabled him to build a small studio in Berkeley where he created a number of plaster sculptures, took in private students, and continued to be interested and active in the deaf community.

Thanks to his friendship with professor Father Cornelius, Saint Mary’s College in Moraga hired him to guide a modeling class. The college now has several of his works.

In 1930, Tilden lost all hope for financial support when James Phelan died. He was forced to apply for welfare.

Douglas Tilden, the deaf genius who devoted his life to his art and the better understanding between the world of the hearing and the deaf, died August 4, 1935.

Other works by Tilden, some just recently found, include: Tired Boxer (bronze 29¼” high statuette), de Young Museum; Young Acrobat (35” high copy), Smithsonian Institution; Oregon Volunteers, Portland, OR; Le Conte memorial tablet, Yosemite; Stephen Mallory White Statue, Los Angeles, CA; twelve bronze bas-relief insets for the outer edge of the Georgian marble pool of the John E. McElroy Memorial Fountain at the Lakeside Park in Oakland.

Gladys Tilden, daughter of the sculptor, donated all of the files, unpublished books, scrapbooks, and photographs from her father’s studio to the Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley.

A version of this article also appeared in the newsletter of the Tour Guide Guild.

SOURCE: Mildred Albronda: Douglas Tilden, The Man and His Legacy

Historic photos reprinted with permission, S.F. History Center, S.F. Public Library

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Baseball Player Monument in Golden Gate Park, 1935

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Tilden’s Mechanics Monument on Market Street in 1948

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Tilden’s Native Sons Monument when it was located across from the Bank of Italy

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Tilden at work in 1926

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