Although not Fort Myers’ first public artwork, Lorelei is certainly its oldest. The white marble sculpture dates back to circa 1880, when her creator, Boston-born Emma Elisabeth Phinney, carved her in Italy from a single block of stone measuring 60-68 inches high. She is on view in the Hibiscus Garden at the Fort Myers Lee County Garden Council on Wyatt Street in downtown Fort Myers, where she was moved on January 6, 2014 after the public library on Central Avenue moved to its new 40,000-square-foot home at the corner of First Street and Royal Palm Avenue.
What remains of Lorelei is enchanting, from the folds of her sleeveless shift to the long braid of hair cascading down her back. Unfortunately, today the head, left elbow and two of the toes of her left foot are missing. The damage was perpetrated by one or more nameless vandals in 1997. The missing parts have never been recovered.
The figure reclines on a pedestal carved in the shape of stacked shale, the type of rock found on the island in the Rhine River which also bears her name. The workmanship is delicate; the piece rich in intricate details that are not obvious on mere cursory glance. Pearls dangle from a thick braid of hair and follow the contour of her right thigh before being lost in a fold of her form-hugging gown. Dainty fingertips hover above the teeth of the comb that rests on the stone beside her. Her narrow waist is circled by a finely-carved belt, and ferns and flowers decorate the shale that forms the pedestal on which Lorelei lounges languorously.
Many of these intricacies were eclipsed from view by the hedge and plantings that surrounded her in the landscaping bed she occupied for more than half a century outside the old Fort Myers-Lee County Public Library. But these and other features are now enticingly on display in Lorelei‘s new home in the Berne Davis Gardens at the Garden Council, which has assumed responsibility for her care, custody and conservation going forward.
The Fort Myers-Lee County Garden Council is located at 2166 Virginia Avenue (off McGregor Blvd), Fort Myers, Florida 33901. For days and times of operation, please telephone (239) 332-4942 or visit http://www.fmlcgardencouncil.com.
Lorelei‘s sculptor was Emma Elisabeth Phinney. The New York Times interviewed her in Rome on May 26, 1881. She was there studying at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, the best art school in the ancient city. Phinney was one of the first women to receive a degree from the Royal Academy “following its thorough reorganization by the Italian government.”
According to the Times, Phinney’s “short career as an art student has been crowned with more than the usual success. Within the five years she has been at work, she has produced several popular statues; those that have attracted the most attention being a Lorelei, the bust of a North American Indian, and one of a negro [sic] boy formerly in the Grosvenor Gallery in London and now on exhibit in the Paris Salon. Mrs. Phinney is a realist in art, as these subjects testify.”
At the Royal Academy, Phinney studied under sculptor Luigi Amici and alongside Antonio Rossetti. Amici’s greatest work is regarded to be the tomb of Pope Gregory XIV in St. Peter’s, although he also contributed sculptures for the fountain located in the Piazza Navona. Rossetti executed a number of works in Britain, including The Nubian Slave (c.1858) in the botanical gardens at Kibble Palace in Glasgow and The Reading Girl (1883) at the Lichfield Public Library, of which an earlier copy (1873) known as Time is Precious‘ is in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.
At the June 1880 Grosvenor Gallery exhibition referenced in the Times article, Phinney exhibited with Henrietta S. Montalba, Evelyn Pickering and Alice Chaplin. Art Journal Magazine not only praised her bronze bust, but opined that she and her co-exhibitors held their own with their male counterparts.
While Phinney is mentioned in Who Was Who in American Art, 1564-1975, published in 3 volumes in 1999 by Peter Hastings Falk, no information has been found regarding her later work or career.
History of the Lorelei
The sculpture was purchased by Evelyn D. Rea in 1930 during a trip to Italy. A member of the Periwinkle Garden Club, Rea maintained a well-tended garden with a small goldfish pond at her residence on the Caloosahatchee River not far from the Burroughs House. It is there that she put the Lorelei on display. Among the guests who admired the sculpture over the years were Thomas and Mina Edison, Mrs. Hitchcock, and Evelyn’s neighbor from across the street, Mrs. Clarence B. Chadwick.
Banyan author Cynthia A. Williams was another early admirer. In a 2014 blog post, Williams recounts her first encounter with Lorelei when she was a young girl. “As I was walking the seawall bordering the Rea estate, I must have glimpsed a bit of white in my peripheral vision, for I stopped on the seawall and turned and saw her. I don’t think I breathed for a full minute. She was more beautiful than anything I had ever seen in my life. I honestly could not believe what I was seeing. Stepping down off the seawall, mindful that I was trespassing on private property, I approached her cautiously, as to a shrine. The curves of her body were liquid, graceful as cool, slow-curling milk. Her small, perfect face was tilted downward on a neck as gently curved as the stem of a new flower. The thick braid trailing over one soft shoulder was intertwined with a rope of pearls and her dainty white fingertips, pearl-like themselves, hovered just above the teeth of the comb beside her on the bench.
Williams writes that from that moment, Lorelei was her secret mermaid. “I began to visit her secretly, always on tip toe, and finally, defying Authority, which dogs the footsteps of children, I touched the pearls in her hair, the teeth of her comb. Her marble shoulders were cool to the hesitant palms of my hands. I glanced frequently toward the house across the sweeping lawn, nervous that the old woman in the house would see me.”
The old woman would have probably welcomed the child’s adoration of the Italian marble. After all, she once felt those same emotions – when she saw, purchased and brought Lorelei home. And though no record of her thoughts or motives remains today, Rea bequeathed Lorelei to the Public Library of Fort Myers in her Last Will and Testament dated July 20, 1955. After Rea died in 1959 and the period for creditors to file their claims against the estate closed some time in 1960, the sculpture was distributed to the library.
According to Fort Myers resident James Butler, the statue languished in storage at the library until in 1961. “I asked to borrow it to use at our senior prom at the Exhibition Hall. There was so much dirt and dust on the piece that it was muddy grey. We cleaned it and used it for the centerpiece of the dance,” the theme of which was the Gardens of Elysium (which in Greek mythology was the final resting place of the heroic and the virtuous). “When it was returned to the library, the staff was impressed by the newly cleaned marble and had it placed in front of the building.”
It graced the library’s entry from that time until the night of October 29, 1997, when one or more vandals knocked off her head along with a piece of one arm and some toes. The culprit(s) were never caught and the head has never been recovered. “I was hoping when they cut away all the bushes and brambles, then they’d find the head,” said Sally Jane, who was the reference librarian at the time. “We never knew who did it. It wasn’t like they left a note saying, ‘I got your head.’ It just disappeared.”
The library wrapped the damaged statue in plastic and tape while they contemplated what to do. The damaged Lorelei caused a rift among library personnel. “We had a great debate about whether to remove it or try to repair it, and repairing it was problematical,” recalls Jane. Meanwhile, people sent indignant letters to the News-Press Mailbag. Raul Jordan of Fort Myers wrote, for example: “With sadness I noticed that the statue rests on its pedestal armless and headless only in a grotesque pile of worthless stone. Two thoughts come to my mind: Either mystically we believe that the wicked goddess taken away from the green-blue waters of the Mediterranean chanted herself to self-destruction; or that our city fathers do not show appreciation for valuable art and simply do not give a ‘siren’ about it.”
In the end, the library removed the packing and left the enchantress to languish headless outside their front entrance. In truth, the technology to restore the sculpture did not exist back then. It was only in 1999 that researchers at Florida Atlantic University developed computer algorithms that now make it possible to fabricate a new head, elbow and toes for decapitated siren using historic photographs of the sculpture as it looked in 1930 when Ms. Rea brought her to Fort Myers. Even so, conservators Rosa Lowinger and Lauren Hall don’t think a new head, elbow or toes should be fabricated for the sculpture.
“From a conservation standpoint, these elements can be recreated; however it is [our] opinion that the piece could be equally exhibited without those portions added,” state conservationists Rosa Lowinger and Lauren Hall in a May 15, 2013 conservation report commissioned by the Fort Myers Public Art Committee. “It is possible to refabricate elements that could be put in place to simulate the original components. It is our opinion, however, that the extensive invention, cost, and simulacra that this would constitute would leave the piece heavily restored.”
Aside from these restoration issues, Lowinger & Associates noted a number of other conservation issues caused by the sculpture’s proximity to moisture-retaining shrubs and plants, UV from direct sunlight, and half-a-century of exposure to wind and rain. “Atmospheric dirt and biogrowth were noted throughout the surface,” RLA’s conservation report states. “The damaged proper right elbow exhibits lichen and spalling. Portions of the surface were slightly friable to the touch, particularly areas that are exposed to constant direct sunlight and have been affected by UV.”
Relocation to the Fort Myers Lee County Garden Council
Lorelei was relocated to the Fort Myers Lee County Garden Council on January 6, 2014, with the firm of Flint & Doyle digging up Lorelei and transporting her gratis to her new home in the Berne Davis Garden at the Fort Myers-Lee County Garden Council. “We are over-the-top excited to bring her here,” said Second Vice-President Sandy Kavouras as the statue was being placed by Flint & Doyle in the Hibiscus Garden next to the front entry. “It feels like she’s finally coming home.”
Kavouras is referring, of course, to the fact that Rea was a member of the Periwinkle Garden Club, which was one of nine garden clubs that banded together in 1957 to form the Garden Council. Today, the Periwinkle is one of twenty member garden clubs, eight plant societies and two affiliates that comprise the Garden Council, which represents more than 1,800 individual members throughout Southwest Florida.
The Council, which occupies its location of Virginia under a long-term 2007 lease from the City of Fort Myers, has undertaken Lorelei’s conservation and care. This will initially involve cleaning the marble to remove dirt, grime and soluble salts and applying a fungicide to help mitigate staining from fungus and mold. After that, injection and other repair methods will be required to stabilize the marble, which is flaking and spalling as a result of more than 50 years of exposure to direct sunlight, wind and rain. But these repairs will only constitute a temporary fix unless the Garden Club either moves Lorelei indoors or covers her with a gazebo or other structure that eliminates or mitigates UV and other environmental factors such as either of which potentially entails additional significant cost.
Lorelei comes from a picturesque section of the Rhine River valley in central Germany. But she’s not a seductive young siren. Instead she is a rock that rises 435 feet above the surface of the river across from Rheinfels Fortress in St. Goar (left), not far from Schoenberg Castle (also known as Castle Cat) in Sankt Goarshausen. Since the Middle Ages, this part of the river has been regarded by mariners and fishermen as the most treacherous stretch of the Rhine. Passage is narrow, and the current runs swift and deep. Many a boat has smashed into the jagged shoreline of the cliff and foundered on the rocks at Loralei’s feet. Not surprisingly, river travelers and locals humanized the cliff, creating stories in verse, lyric and prose about a siren named Loralei. According to the legend, Lorelei was a distraught young maiden who threw herself into the river in despair over a feckless lover. She was transformed in death into a siren or mermaid whose hypnotic music ever after lured sailors and fishermen to their death.
Sailors claim the Lorelei’s song is loveliest they’ve ever heard. The sound originates from the water lapping against the rocks at the base of the cliff, which then echoes throughout the surrounding hillside vineyards. On a clear night, after the daily drone of whining engines and rubber on asphalt has subsided for the day, you can still hear Lorelei’s melodic tune, which many liken to a young woman plaintively singing (although some characterize the echoes as sinister, wrath-filled laughter). Either way, the siren’s song lures boaters toward seven jagged boulders lurking just beneath the surface of the water at Lorelei’s base. Called the seven virgins, the rocks pose a threat to boats that travel the river even today.
Just last year (2011), a tanker carrying 2,400 tons of sulfuric acid capsized after it struck Loralei, killing two crew members and blocking ship traffic on the Rhine from Mainz to Koblenz for more than a week. A pontoon and four cranes were required to raise the tanker from the river’s rocky bottom. The cause of the accident remains unclear to this day.
The Rhine is the longest river in Germany, and runs from the Swiss Alps to the North Sea in the Netherlands. The river’s commercial use dates back to the Roman Empire, when the Rhine formed the empire’s northern frontier. More than 60,000 ships travel the river annually, transporting some 60 million tons of goods. Several cities and municipalities, including Duisburg and Düsseldorf, rely on the river as a source of drinking water. Until 2011, there had not been a major accident at the site of the Loralei rock in the past 30 years.
Lorelei and German Poet Henrich Heine
Perhaps the most famous literary work dedicated to the legend of Lorelei was penned by Heinrich Heine in 1823. Titled Die Lorelei, it reads:
- I wish I knew the meaning,
- A sadness has fallen on me.
- The ghost of an ancient legend
- That will not let me be.
- The air is cool in the twilight
- And gently flows the Rhine;
- A mountain peak in the setting sun
- Catches the faltering shine.
- The highest peak still gleaming
- Reveals enthroned in the air,
- A Siren lost in her dreaming
- Combing her golden hair.
- With golden combs she caresses
- Her hair as she sings her song;
- Echoing through the gloaming
- Filled with a magic so strong.
- The boatman has heard, it has bound him
- In throes of desire and love.
- He’s blind to the reefs that surround him,
- He sees but the Maiden above.
- And now wild waters awaken
- Then boat and boatman are gone.
- And this is what her singing,
- The Loralei has done.
Following Heine’s death, German sculptor Ernest Herter was commissioned by Empress Elizabeth of Austria to create a fountain memorializing Lorelei for the poet’s home city, Dusseldorf. However, political groups blocked its installation there because of Heine’s Jewish origins and his dissident political views against the rising tide of German nationalism. The fountain was purchased by a German-American group in 1893, who installed it in the Bronx in 1899. Soon after its installation, the sculptures were vandalized and the fountain endured decades of deterioration and tagging by graffiti writers. The Lorelei fountain and the surrounding landscape were finally restored in 1999 (left) with $1.87 million in funds allocated by the mayor, the city council and the borough president. Fully restored, the Lorelei fountain sits today Joyce Kilmer Park, which is located at the corner of Grand Concourse and 161st Street, directly across from the Bronx County Courthouse.
The marble sculptural group depicts Lorelei seated on a rock in the Rhine River among mermaids, dolphins and seashells. The bas relief around the pedestal includes a profile of Heine.
- The sculpture is located at 2050 Central Avenue, Fort Myers, FL 33901.
- The sculpture is located at 26d 38′ 22.4808″ N longitude and 81d 51′ 54.9246″ W latitude.
- Lorelei sits on a pedestal that stands 34 inches tall.
- The sculpture is 62 inches tall from the bottom of the pedestal to the top of the siren’s neck.
- Lorelei is 26 inches across at her widest point, which is from her knee to her right hand.
- The sculpture is 20 inches deep at her widest point.
The author acknowledges the contribution of Fort Myers resident James Butler, who provided much of the information about the history of this sculpture. In fact, this entire profile would not have been possible without the research binder and photographs he has compiled and maintained over the years.
- No photograph or rendering of Emma Elisabeth Phinney has been located.
- The Southwest Florida Museum of History maintains a booklet titled “The Epic of the Fort Myers – Lee County Library” by Richard Powell which states on page 9, “In  … a gift of a lovely statue named Lorelei was willed to the library by Mrs. Evelyn D. Rhea (sic), who thoughtfully included $200 to have the statue moved from her home [at 410 First Street] to the library grounds.
- The account misspells the donor’s name (which is Rea), and the actual will makes provision for a cash gift to cover moving expenses, although it is conceivable that the executrix of Ms. Rea’s estate may have paid the cost of moving the sculpture to the library grounds.
- The Southwest Florida Museum of History also holds a record of a statement given by Lewis A. Pearl, who tended Ms. Rea’s garden. Pearl maintains that Ms. Rea wanted to give Lorelei to the Edison Estate, but the putative gift was refused by Robert Halgrim because it did not have a sufficient connection to the Edisons, who admired it on one or more occasions in Ms. Rea’s garden.
- On February 5,1985, Southwest Florida Museum of History Director Patty Bartlett interviewed Lewis’s son, Bob Pearl, who speculated that the sculpture may have gone from Rea’s garden to that of a Mrs. Chadwick before it went on to the library. However, there exists no evidence to substantiate this claim, and it would have been a breach of fiduciary duty for the executrix to move the sculpture to someone else’s home prior to distributing the siren to the library in keeping with the devise mandated by the will.
- According to Director Sheldon Kaye, the Lee County Library System did not exist at either the time Ms. Rea made her will or it was admitted into probate in 1959. Thus, it is presumed that Lorelei’s ownership is vested in the City of Fort Myers rather than either the library or Lee County. Lee County agrees, as it omitted Lorelei from the inventory and appraisal it made of its public art holdings in 1999.
Related Articles and Links.
- Field Notes: Historic Lorelei statue beheaded but bewitching (03-02-14)
- Lorelei finds new home at Fort Myers-Lee County Garden Council (01-06-14)
- Headless sculpture Lorelei could be sold or moved when library moves (06-10-13)
- Deciding whether Lorelei should be restored to her former glory – 3 (02-13-13)
- Deciding whether Lorelei should be restored to her former glory – 2 (02-11-13)
- Deciding whether Lorelei should be restored to her former glory – 1 (02-09-13)
- Library’s Lorelei can’t sing without her missing head (07-11-12)
- The legend of Lorelei, the siren who inspired Fort Myers’ headless statue (07-11-12)