Rudolph Thiem—A Life in Art
Rudolph Thiem’s father, Ferdinand Thiem (1817-1892) was the son of a day laborer in east Brandenburg, Prussia. Ferdinand came to Berlin around age twenty. He started out waiting tables, became a proprietor of coffee houses and restaurants, and ended up manufacturing billiard tables and accessories.
Pauline Moritz (1827-1862) was Rudolph’s mother. She grew up in a middle class Berlin family. They were liquor distillers. Pauline’s older sister Bertha was Ferdinand Thiem’s first wife., Bertha died of childbed fever, after bearing nine children. Ferdinand then married her sister Pauline. She gave birth to five children, including Rudolph, before she too succumbed to the hazards of child-bearing, at age thirty-four. Rudolph was four when his mother died.
Rudolph was born October 22, 1857. A month later he was christened in Berlin’s Protestant Nikolai Kirche. In America, he said he was born in 1859. He may have been confused. More likely, he wanted everybody to think he was two years younger than he was. Throughout his life, he enjoyed playing a joke on people.
At age twelve, Rudolph entered the Berlin School of Applied Arts. There he studied drawing, modeling, and woodcarving. He mastered ornament design, pattern making, and electroplating—useful specialities in that new industrial age. While still a teenager, Rudolph was engaged by the Dresden sculptor Hermann Hultzsch to help model the colossal bronze statue of a fifteenth-century Saxon Duke.
Following the Second World War, the east Germans melted the statue down—to use the bronze for more practical purposes, like household plumbing.
(See the photo of “Duke Albrecht the Spirited” on the Bronze & Wood page of this website.)
After Rudolph completed his formal artistic education, he began, around 1880, to work as cabinet maker and carver in his father’s billiard table workshop. Rudolph’s younger brother Hermann, also a sculptor, joined him and Ferdinand in the family business.
In 1880, Ferdinand Thiem, age sixty-two, married a fourth time. He married an eighteen-year-old Berlin girl, Therese Leopold. This was too much for Rudolph, who was twenty-two. He didn’t want a stepmother younger than he was. He left “F. Thiem and Sons,” and set up his own shop as sculptor, wood carver, and mirror frame maker. His studio was down the street from his father’s billiard workshop in Berlin-Luisenstadt.
Rudolph did not stay there long. He emigrated to the United States in 1881. He wanted to get away from his father. Later in life, in an interview for the Centennial History of Butler County, Ohio (1905), Rudolph simply said he left Germany “to seek a new field for his talents and, leaving behind his relatives and friends, sought a home in the new world” (691). With characteristic reserve, he hid his more personal motives.
He crossed the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico in steerage class— on a steamship out of Bremen bound for New Orleans. Unlike most of his fellow immigrants who came through the great port, Rudolph did not go immediately up the Mississippi to the “German” cities of St. Louis or Cincinnati. He stayed in New Orleans four and a half years. There, he set up an art foundry with another Berliner, Paul Riess, who was an expert molder, foundry man, and saloon keeper. Riess was fifteen years older than Thiem. Soon after coming to America in 1864, the young molder from Berlin enlisted in the 110th Ohio Volunteer regiment and participated in some of the bloodiest campaigns of the Civil War.
In New Orleans, the two partners intended to make household fixtures, funeral monuments, and garden statuary, using zinc as a cheap substitute for bronze. They also designed, and cast, free-standing sculptures, in particular a plaster model of Three Cottonyard Workers (two of them white, one black), and a near-life-size statue of Robert E. Lee in bronze. It is ironic that Riess, whose regiment fought against Lee’s Army of the Virginia, honored his old enemy with a statue.
(See the Bronze & Wood page for a photograph of “Group of Three Cotton Yardmen.”)
Thiem lived with the Riesses. In Paul, he found a lifelong friend, and mentor, from whom he learned a lot about the arts of mold making and metal casting. Despite their abilities, industriousness, and clever marketing ideas, the two partners had a tough time getting clients in New Orleans. With the economic downturn of 1885, prospects did not look good. The business was failing. In 1886, Thiem decided to go back to Germany and start over again.
Before he could leave, however, he met an industrialist visiting New Orleans from the Midwest. Lazard Kahn, who had married into a family of Louisiana sugar planters, was an immigrant from Alsace. With his brother Felix, he had bought out an Ohio stove manufacturer, and established F. and L. Kahn Bros. In 1884 they moved their foundry to Hamilton, Ohio, a manufacturing town close to Cincinnati.
The Kahns offered Rudolph a contract to become their stove ornament designer. Thiem accepted. With this contract in hand Rudolph narrowly avoided having to go back to Germany. Instead, he moved to Hamilton, Ohio. And there he remained the rest of his life.
Thiem was now twenty-eight years old, entering his middle years. He had moved from subtropical New Orleans to a region of the United States that must have seemed to him like a different country. For the first time in his life he took up the kind of work, full-time, for which his Berlin education had prepared him: industrial arts design.
Rudolph designed the ornaments on cast iron stoves produced by the Kahn Bros. For over three years, he worked on parlor stoves and cook ovens. Drawings and photographs of his lavish embellishments are found in patent applications he filed, usually with Lazard Kahn. The Stove Design page of this site shows several examples, including a remarkable relief of blacksmiths on the prototype of a fire basket. After resigning from the Kahn Bros. in 1889, Rudolph continued to patent and sell his patterns to stove makers across the country.
During his employment at the foundry, Rudolph met Anna Margaretha Martin. Her parents were proprietors of the St. Clair hotel, where he took his meals. Anna and Rudolph married in July 1888, at the hotel. The pastor of St. John’s German Protestant Church in Hamilton officiated. Anna was eighteen, Rudolph thirty—by the standards of the time, already middle-aged. Like his father, he was drawn into wedlock with an eighteen-year-old girl.
In July of 1889 their first child, Alma Olga, was born. Around this time Rudolph gave up his position at Kahns.
Looking back on his career from the pinnacle of later achievement, Thiem explained why he left the foundry. Once his work at Kahns had spread his reputation as a successful designer, Rudolph decided to establish “himself in business on his own account, as a model maker, designer and ornamental carver” (CHOBC 691). The Centennial History of Butler County (1905) records his transition from employee of a large manufacturing concern to free-lance designer as smooth and unproblematic—and resulting in an immediate happy outcome. This was not entirely the case.
Thiem was on his own for less than half a year, when, in February 1890, he began a five-year stint as manager of the St. Clair hotel. This new direction was a direct result of his marriage to the daughter of hotel keepers.
Like Rudolph Thiem, Anna’s parents were immigrants. F. B. Martin and Susanna Martin came from different areas of southwestern Germany. They met in Ohio, and married in Cincinnati. Rudolph’s marriage into the Martin family deepened his ties to Hamilton’s German community. The elder Martins were well-known in the city. Since 1864, they had either owned, leased, or leased out the hotel at Canal and Fourth Street.
The St. Clair Hotel, circa 1890. Front row: 5th from left.: Anna Martin Thiem; 6th: Carl Martin; 7th: Susanna Armand Martin; 8th: F. B. Martin; 10th: Olga Martin; 11th: August Rudolph Martin; Second row: 1st from right: Constable Andy Dwyer; 3rd from right: John Albert Martin. Courtesy of the George C. Cummins "Remember When" Collection at the Hamilton Lane Library.
The Thiems established their home at the hotel and began having children. The financial demands of Rudolph’s new family may have induced him, in 1890, to become the hotel manager. A second milestone in his life took place on October 26, 1891, four days after his thirty-fourth birthday. Rudolph Thiem renounced his allegiance to the German Empire and became a citizen of the United States.
The travails of hotel keeping diverted Rudolph’s energies away from sculpture and design work. By all accounts he relished domestic life with Anna and their two young daughters, Alma and Mabel, the latter born in 1895. Work and family duties made big claims on his time. He managed not only the hotel, but also the St. Clair’s dining hall, saloon, and billiards room. During the hotel years, from 1890 to 1895, Rudolph did not file any design patents. As far as we know, he did not receive a single sculpture commission. The five tumultuous years at the hotel were, artistically speaking, a fallow time.
Thiem never owned the hotel. Though it was by and large a respectable establishment, his tenure as manager and proprietor from 1890 to 1895 was embedded in the convoluted story of his father-in-law’s financial schemes. Disputes arose between members of the Martin family. Rudolph had to deal with complicated transfers of titles and subleases, along with endless lawsuits. Usually he was the plaintif, but sometimes the defendant. At one point, he became court-appointed Receiver of the hotel. To crown it all, the St. Clair was a venue for various crimes and misdemeanors, ranging from non-payment of bills, illicit sex, attempted suicide, murder, and arson. At one point, Rudolph’s hotel clerk swindled him out of a considerable sum of money.
In January 1895, Thiem got out of the business altogether. At long last, he was able to set up shop as an independent sculptor and designer. He was probably ready. He was thirty-seven years old.
During his first thirteen years in the United States, Thiem’s occupations—free-lance sculptor, art foundry proprietor, industrial ornament designer, and hotelier—demonstrated his resourcefulness and self-confidence. This range of activity reflects the difficulty he had in staying the course as an artist. Both financial need and a desire to exercise his versatile mind in new enterprises were factors. The second half of his biography reveals a more stable pattern.
The year 1895 was a turning point. Whether or not Rudolph knew it at the time, that year brought to a close the first period of his life in Hamilton. He had worked hard and conscientiously those nine years, but he had yet to show that he could, over the long term, make a good living as an independent artist.
A year after leaving the St. Clair, in February 1896, Rudolph completed the bronze bust of a Hamilton educator. This commissioned work honored the memory of Ferdinand Soehner, master teacher of German, school principal, journalist, and labor activist who lived in Hamilton. Soehner had died December 1890. The imposing bust Thiem designed is, as of this writing, on display in the foyer of the Butler County Museum in Hamilton.
(See the Soehner Medallion on the Bronze & Wood page.)
Landing the commission for Soehner’s bust catapulted Rudolph into the next phase of his career as artist, a phase in which civic sculpture would play a crucial role. Because the Soehner medallion was hung in a public place, it showed off Rudolph’s abilities as a designer of bronze sculpture.
A year and a half after the dedication of the Soehner memorial, Rudolph achieved another coup. In June 1897, he completed a life-size bronze bust of General Ferdinand Van Derveer, a son of Butler County. Van Derveer’s brigade had played a notable role in saving the Union army at the battle of Chickamauga. In September, on the thirty-fourth anniversary of the battle, Thiem’s medallion was affixed to the 35th Ohio Volunteer regiment monument at Chickamauga.
(See the Van Derveer medallion on the 35th Ohio Volunteers monument, on the Bronze & Wood page.)
This commission was especially important for Thiem’s career because it honored a man who was neither German-born nor an American German. Rudolph had thus managed to win patronage from outside of his own ethnic community. This second commission, so soon after the Soehner medallion, added lustre to Rudolph’s growing reputation and launched his career as a free-lance Ohio sculptor.
The members of the committee for the Van Derveer bronze were Civil War veterans. Later on, some of them became members of Hamilton’s Soldiers and Sailors Monument committee. They already knew first hand Thiem’s virtues as a sculptor. When, in 1903, this committee wanted to commission a large Civil War statue to crown the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, Rudolph Thiem already had his foot in the door.
The political events of 1896 gave an additional boost to Rudolph’s fledgling business. This was the great election year that pitted Ohio Republican William McKinley against the Populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan. The last presidential election of the nineteenth century, it generated tremendous excitement among the general public, and ended up breaking all records for voter turnout.
Thiem wasted no time getting on the bandwagon—not just of one, but of both parties. This in spite of the fact that in 1895 he was not only a Democrat, but a particularly active one. Seizing the main chance, Rudolph designed, cast and mass-produced bronze-plated zinc campaign plaques, one for supporters of the Republican McKinley, the other for the Democrat Bryan. Sale of these mementoes made the designer a handy profit, and furthered his prospects. McKinley, for instance, wrote Thiem a glowing letter of appreciation.
(See the McKinley plaque in Bronze &Wood.)
As if to crown the artistic achievements of the late 1890s, Anna Thiem bore a son, Rudolph Ferdinand Thiem, in July 1898. The couple called him “Rudy.” At that time Anna was twenty-eight, Alma eight, and Mabel four. In 1900, Rudolph’s business was doing well enough that he was able to buy a three-bedroom house for his growing family. It was a two-story farmhouse with a barn situated at the top of North D Street hill, on the west side of the Great Miami River. An auspicious beginning for the new century. This house remained the homestead of four generations of Thiems, Rudolph’s descendants, until it was sold in 1962.
In the early years of the twentieth century, the perennial efforts of Hamilton’s Civil War veterans to erect a memorial building to honor the Soldiers, Sailors and Pioneers of Butler County finally bore fruit. The cornerstone of the structure was laid in November 1902. The following year, the committee-in-charge opened an international competition for a bronze statue to crown the two-story building. In November, the committee chose Rudolph Thiem’s design for a Victory statue: a Union soldier shouting “hurrah.” Rudolph used a mirror to model the face of the young beardless infantryman after his own.
(See the page “Billy Yank” on this website, for the full significance of Thiem’s design).
The year 1904 witnessed the rapid execution of the project: in April, Rudolph displayed a full-scale clay model of the figure in his studio on South A Street; in October the Hamilton Metal Pattern Company finished casting the seventeen-foot tall bronze statue; in December workers hoisted the ungainly piece a hundred feet to the top of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument building.
Thiem’s statue of “Victory”—or “Billy Yank,” as it came to be affectionately known—was his masterwork. It made his career as a designer. The statue is an original, yet thoroughly American, memorial in homage to a country in which the sculptor had once been considered a foreigner—and from which he had almost returned to his native land in defeat. The colossal statue, which celebrated a national triumph, also turned out to be a personal triumph for its maker.
In the decade following the erection of “Victory” in 1904, fortune was indeed kind to Rudolph Thiem, but also especially cruel.
In its effort to make an emotional recovery from the two catastrophes the city of Hamilton turned to Rudolph Thiem. He was asked to create two works: the first, to commemorate the deaths of the fire fighters and the second, the rebuilding of the bridge that the flood had destroyed. In 1914, a stark and elegant bronze plaque naming the three firemen, was placed in the courthouse, where it still hangs.
(See the bronze firemen’s memorial plaque, Butler County Court House, on the Bronze & Wood page.)
In February 1916, a large bronze plaque celebrating the new High Street-Main Street bridge was affixed to the “Watch House” near the bridge, which had been dedicated in May 1915. The bronze plaque gives viewers an unusual birds-eye perspective on the three previous bridges that had spanned the Great Miami River—including the last bridge the river had destroyed in 1913. Rudolph had the bridges plaque cast at the Kahns’ Foundry, which by then had changed its name to the Estate Stove Company.
(See the Bronze & Wood page for the bronze bridges plaque.)
Through the teens of the twentieth century, Rudolph Thiem presented himself as a “Designer and Woodcarver.” The three bridges plaque turned out to be his last known public commission. He now took on other design projects and devoted more energy to ornamental carving, especially of furniture.
(See examples on the Bronze & Wood page.)
Family affairs and the church activities claimed a great deal of his attention in this period. For Rudolph and his children, the two realms were always closely entwined. Meanwhile, his daughters found suitors and they were soon married, Alma in 1913 and Mabel in 1918. Alma’s wedding was a grand affair, Mabel’s more modest. Neither was to have children.
“Rudy” Thiem went through confirmation class at St. John’s in 1912. During his senior year in high school, 1916, he landed a leading role, in a high school production of Pinero’s play Sweet Lavender. He played a fashionable physician. Rudy’s father and sisters doubtless applauded his performance. In real life, however, Rudy took no interest in medicine, or much of anything else it seems, except for theater and acting. He had no inclination to follow his father’s footsteps as artist or designer. Although the two were not especially close, they got on well together.
After high school graduation in 1916, Rudy bounced around from job to job with various companies, and was sometimes out of work, which caused his father a good deal of worry.
In 1917, Rudy took a fancy to Hazel Howe, a fifteen-year-old girl whose father was a prominent farmer in nearby Trenton, Ohio. Rudy met her on the Howe family farm at a gala party that had taken place three months after the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917.
Rudy enrolled in the Student Army Training Corps in the fall of 1918. As part of the program, he took courses at the University of Cincinnati and did army drills. The American Expeditionary Force had landed in France that summer. Before the government could send Rudy to Europe, however, armistice had been declared. It must have been a relief to his father.
For Rudolph Thiem the declaration of war against his native land was disturbing news, as it was for all American Germans. He could not have remained unaffected by the virulent hatred directed against American Germans at this time, expressed in both words and deeds. Added to this was the possibility that his only son might die in action, or succumb to the Spanish Influenza, which took a large toll of young men in American military units.
Rudolph’s brother Hermann, living in Berlin, had two sons of draft age. The older son was, in fact, named “Rudolf” after his uncle in America. The prospect that Rudy and his two Berlin cousins from Berlin might clash in bloody actions would have been unnerving.
The precise views of Rudolph Thiem about America’s part in the controversial war are not known. We do know that in July 1918, the pastor of St. John’s spoke out against the anti-German bigotry that was sweeping the country. Rudolph, looking back on this period in October 1927, mentioned the “trials and difficulties” faced by St. John’s and other German churches. In the St. John’s Echo of the same year, Rudolph playfully changed the spelling of his son-in-law’s name from Baechle to Beckly—it was his way of making fun of changing German names so they looked “American,” a fashion that took hold after the war.
Through the 1920s, Rudolph, though afflicted by arthritis in his right hand, continued to take orders as an ornamental carver. Rudy and Hazel Howe married in 1922. Unlike Alma and Mabel after their marriages, the newlyweds decided to stay in the North D Street house with Rudolph. Rudy did not find a job which suited him until 1926, when, with a four-year-old son to provide for, he settled into a steady position as office manager with a firm in Cincinnati. Rudy and family, however, continued to live at home with Rudolph.
Undated photograph of Hazel Howe, in a World War I uniform. 1917-1918. Rudolph’s son “Rudy” Thiem and Hazel Howe became romantically involved in this period. From October to December, 1918, Rudy was a private in the Student Army Training Corps, stationed in Cincinnati. The war ended before he could be shipped abroad. Rudy and Hazel married in 1922. Their son “Cappy” (b. 1922) was Rudolph’s first grandchild, the only one he knew.
Undated photograph, the Horn and Kraus Lumber Company, Hamilton, Ohio. 1926-1928. Rudolph Thiem stands on the far right, holding a cigar or cigarette in his hand. The circumstances of the occasion are unclear. The “Cullen and Vaughn” lumber company was renamed the Horn and Kraus Company in 1926, and this photo may be related to that. Thiem probably acquired from the company speciality woods needed for his work as an ornamental carver, and he may have helped design some features of the standardized house plans the company sold.
Hazel and Rudolph struck up a close, trusting relationship, especially after her father’s death in 1919. Rudolph taught Hazel how to cook in the German manner (German-style cooking). She was disconcerted, though, whenever he insisted on eating his slice of apple pie before the main course. He justified himself saying that you should eat “the best while your appetite was at its best.”
The birth of John Rudolph Thiem in 1922 rejuvenated Rudolph’s emotional world and enlivened his last years. The old sculptor called his grandson “Cappy,” a nickname that stuck. The precocious boy, and his “grandpa” developed an exceptional bond. They enjoyed each other’s company. They spent lots of time together. Cappy liked to watch his grandfather working with wood. Rudolph carved the boy a little cane out of a lemon tree from his collection of tropical plants. The two visited candy stores together and the Cincinnati Zoo. On one visit, a lion peed on Rudolph. The artist probably got close to study a creature whose magnificent head adorns some of his carvings.
Cap Thiem in his later years told me he never thought of his grandfather as having died. This was because Rudolph remained for him a profound presence throughout his life.
In 1920, St. John’s church hired a new pastor, C. L. Langerhans. As a result, Rudolph took on more responsibilities than ever before. He and Reverend Langerhans worked closely together. Rudolph became editor of the St. John’s Echo, the church’s newsletter, writing up reports from the various departments, and contributing articles of his own. All of this in English. He also superintended the Bible School and the Junior Department, and served as a kind of roving ambassador for St. John’s, representing the church at synods and at other German Protestant churches. Rudolph exercised a great deal of influence in the large congregation, which numbered over a thousand individuals.
The rest of the family took their cue from Rudolph. His son became superintendent of the Young People’s Department, and gave lectures and sermons. As accomplished singers and actors, Rudy and Hazel became active participants in the church’s renowned musical and theatrical programs. Mabel and her husband Frank joined in. Little Cappy also took part, reciting poems and playing a shepherd boy in one production.
A joyous event of Rudolph’s later life was the surprise visit of his old friend and mentor Paul Riess from New Orleans. This took place in October 1925. Riess came up by train with his granddaughter, Miss Kate Poppins. He was eighty-three. Rudolph and Paul had not seen each other in thirty-nine years. Cap Thiem watched the visitor greet his grandfather through the astonished eyes of a boy: “This man came up the street and they hugged each other like lovers.” The Cincinnati Enquirer and two Hamilton papers saw fit to report on the reunion of the two artists.
Eight months later, in May 1926, Paul Riess passed away in New Orleans.
The last two years of Rudolph’s life were marked by the loss of his brother and of several close friends. Hermann Thiem died in Berlin in March 1927. This was two months after the death of Rudolph’s friend Christian Kaefer, another St. John’s church leader.
In March 1928, his old friend and employer Lazard Kahn died. Rudolph attended the funeral at United Jewish Cemetery, Cincinnati. After the ceremony he had a heart attack. For a year and a half, Rudolph had been having heart problems.
In August 1928, he went to the funeral of his dear friend Samuel Lowenstein.
At the time of Lowenstein’s death, Rudolph was at work on four bronze tablets bearing the inscription “The Samuel Lowenstein Building,” to be placed on the six-story edifice his friend had built in 1924.
On October 1, 1928, shortly after completing these tablets, Rudolph Thiem died. It was headline news in Hamilton’s newspapers. “Rudolph Thiem, Famed Carver, Taken by Death. Designed Statue Reposing Atop Monument—Was Leader at St. John’s.” Reverend Langerhans wrote a special tribute in the St. John’s Echo.
Rudolph was three weeks shy of his 71st birthday when a case of flu and a weak heart struck him down. The bronze Lowenstein tablets were installed on November 9th, when the building was dedicated in Lowenstein’s name. It must have been a solemn and sad occasion. A Hamilton newspaper reported on the occasion:
These tablets were designed by Rudolph Thiem whose interest in the assignment, the last of which he completed before his own death, was marked. He took such conscientious pains with the design, with a personal emotion aroused through his close friendship with Mr. Lowenstein, that he ignored warnings to delay his work until his physical condition improved.
When Rudolph Thiem passed away he was working on a major carving project, which death prevented him from completing. Powel Crosley, an inventor and the founder of the Crosley Radio Corporation, was building a mansion in Cincinnati, called “Pinecroft.” He had commissioned Thiem to “carve lion heads on the top four sides of structural beams in a special room in the new home.” According to a testimony by Cap Thiem:
The oak was extremely hard and Grandpa's chisels would chip or become dull. He had finished work on some of the beams but died before completing the job. It took several years before an acceptable carver could be found and before the work was completed.
No trace of these carved lion heads has been found in the house. Perhaps the room was not built and the beams never put in place. Or perhaps they were removed or covered over.
Conspicuous among Rudolph Thiem’s many qualities was the intense focus he gave to his work. In him the aesthetic impulse was joined by ambition and resourcefulness. He possessed an old-fashioned sense of honor, and yet he was modest rather than self-important. He had a gift for friendship. His daughter Mabel described his disposition as “unassuming” and “lovable.” Cap Thiem remembered him as “a sweet man,” but at the same time a stubborn one. Rudolph had a puckish sense of humor. He was known for eating his dessert before dinner.
In the course of time, a surprising number of Rudolph’s art works have been lost to present memory. Some were melted down, some were stolen, and many have never been securely identified as his. Yet Rudolph Thiem’s masterpiece, his emotional homage to Victory, still stands above the banks of the Great Miami river. It has survived storms, lightning, and the flood of 1913, after which it became a beacon of hope and renewal for the battered city. “Billy Yank” still stands, too high to be stolen, too large to be lost, too famous to be forgotten.
Jon Thiem is currently at work on a full-scale biography of Rudolph Thiem.
Copyright 2020 by Jon Thiem