John Plankinton Statue

When I posted this in June, 2012, I had not yet found evidence of the age of the statue. Since then, I have learned it was created in 1892, after John Plankinton died (See later posts). When this post was written, I thought it was built during his lifetime. History often ‘gets it wrong’ when speculation is assumed fact. I will further postulate that there are many ‘known facts’ about the Plankintons’ that are merely speculation. Stay tuned!

The monument to John Plankinton, circa 1886, is impressively situated in the center of a circular atrium in the Plankinton Building of the Grand Avenue Mall, near the corner of Plankinton and Wisconsin Avenues in downtown Milwaukee. The statue stands on a tall pedestal centered in a rotunda with four spiral staircases, evenly spaced, taking visitors to a lower level. Carved marble railings, about two feet high, surround the circle. The stair railings are made of decorative black wrought iron topped with mahogany handrails. The floor tiling on the entry level emphasizes the circular nature of the memorial. The bronze statue and pedestal arise from a water basin in the floor of the lower level of the building. The floor tiling below makes a starburst pattern around the water feature. The statue’s placement is about six feet inside the circular railing, with Plankinton’s feet above eye level. The atrium, open to the second story, has a glass ceiling covering the center of the entire building, east to west. Balconies on the second story overlook the statue. The full impact creates a strong symmetrical visual with rich materials and vast open space surrounding and protecting a full-size bronze statue of a businessman from another era.

The simple words, ‘John Plankinton’, ‘1820-1891’ are written on the base atop the pedestal. On one side, readable with a zoomed digital camera, is the sculptor’s name, R.H. Park. The bronze faces Wisconsin Avenue, with its back to the parking structure entrance. Plankinton is dressed in a long, unbuttoned frock coat, with the back of the coat reaching midway to the knees, and the front tails tailored at an angle. The coat is open, exposing a bowtie and vest with all seven buttons closed. His watch chain hangs between two buttons and an inside vest pocket. His left hand grabs his left jacket lapel while his right hand is reaching in his right pants pocket. His left footsteps forward, with the front part of the foot placed beyond the edge of the base. He stands straight with his head bent slightly to the right. His eyes look down slightly, his mouth is closed, and his facial expression is calm.

In a Kirk Savage article, providing a very detailed analysis of a particular statue, I learned that everything about a statue; the size, the pose, the position of hands and feet, the clothes, the facial features, the props, etc. is intended to convey a specific meaning about the subject.[1] The sculptor of the John Plankinton statue shows a man of action, wealth, and confidence, in the clothes, the watch, the pose, and the position of the feet. The clothes and the date on the base tell us he is from another era. The position of the head and hands indicate a man who, although wealthy and powerful, is still approachable. The head position shows a man bending to listen, a man interested in what others have to say. The hand in the pocket appears to be a more casual pose, supporting the image of a person not too proud to talk to a man on the street.

The only information provided about the monument is a small sign in the lobby, far enough from the statue that only the most curious viewer would be able to search and find. With this simple sentence, we learn who he was and when he lived, but not what he did or why he deserved a statue, “One of Milwaukee’s early civic and business leaders, John Plankinton, was born in 1820 and died in 1891.”

In Lies Across America[1], author, James Loewen, provides a list of ten questions to ask when evaluating historical monuments. The questions, who sponsored and why, are very relevant to this privately owned but publicly accessible statue. “What were their ideological needs and social purposes?”[2] The bronze statue was originally placed in the Plankinton House lobby, a hotel established on this same site, supposedly during the lifetime of Plankinton. No reliable source was found to indicate the actual date of creation. By inferring from comments made in several articles, I believe the date of creation was between 1880 and 1885, several years before Plankinton died, in 1891. Since learning this was built during his lifetime, I wondered why a living man would build a full-size statue of himself to place in his public Hotel? The available information suggests a few answers.

A profile of the Plankinton House in the 1892 book, Milwaukee’s Great Industries, provides what is probably the ‘public relations’ explanation.

“The spirit in which the welfare of the hotel is guarded was recently manifested in the placing of a life-size bronze statue of John Plankinton in the lobby as a tribute to the memory of the man who made the house popular and a token that the generous policy of the founder would be continued by his successors.” [3]

When the original site of the statute, the Plankinton House, was demolished and replaced with the current building, the Plankinton Arcade, in 1917, the statue was integrated into the new design. A 1946 newspaper article about the Plankinton Trust, which owned the Plankinton Arcade, provides some background regarding Plankinton’s attitude about the statue and its placement in the Plankinton Arcade,

“The story goes that an arcade was discussed before John Plankinton died and he agreed to the plan only on the condition that the huge bronze Plankinton statue which stood in the hotel would remain intact. Today Plankinton still stands in bronze effigy with his feet in the Arcade’s fish pond.” [4]

It is also possible that Plankinton’s daughter, Elizabeth, convinced her father to employ the sculptor, Richard Henry Park. Elizabeth ‘discovered’ Park in Florence, Italy and commissioned him to make a monument of George Washington, which she then presented to the city as its first public monument. This monument was dedicated in 1885, about the same time as the John Plankinton statue was built. A final explanation may simply be that personal busts and statues were a fashion of the time, as several busts of prominent citizens from that era can be found in Milwaukee museums today.[5]


[1] James Loewen, Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong (New York: New Press, 1999) 459.

[2] Biographical Dictionary and Portrait Gallery of Representative Men of Chicago, Milwaukee and the World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago: American Biographical Pub.,1892) 807-808.

[3] W.J. Anderson and Julius Blever, ed., Milwaukee’s Great Industries ( Milwaukee: Assoc. for the Advancement of Milwaukee, 1892) 240.

[4] Milwaukee Journal, “Plankinton Trust Headquarters Have Come Back to Milwaukee,” 11 Jun. 1946, sec. Green Sheet.

[5] George Washington, (sculpture), Art Inventories Catalog, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Smithsonian Institution Research Information System, http://siris-artinventories.si.edu.


[1] Kirk Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 52-68.

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About RPJHistories

Graduate Student UW Milwaukee, studying Public History. Background in computer science, non-profit management, politics. Interested in Midwest history and using digital tools to produce and share historical information.
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