The Colossus of Lake Montebello

He is one of the most famous theologians in modern history, responsible for forever changing Christianity when he instigated the Protestant Reformation in 16th-century Europe.

The man is Martin Luther, a firebrand German academic and cleric who challenged the Catholic Church over what he saw as abusive practices by preachers selling indulgences (certificates to reduce punishment for sins committed by the purchasers in the afterlife.)

A controversial figure, not only because his writings led to significant religious reform and division, Luther held other radical positions; denouncing Jews, and insisting the Bible as the sole source of religious authority.

Why does this religious firebrand, who nailed his famous 95 theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, thus starting a religious revolt, have an 18-foot tall statue dedicated to him Baltimore?
To understand how this five ton colossus came to rest on the grounds of Lake Montebello, it’s important to know the influential role Germans played in Baltimore’s history.

Germans began settling in Maryland in the early 1700s. By 1850, 20,000 German-born people lived in Baltimore. Between 1820 and 1860, Germans were the largest group of immigrants to the city. They began banks, insurance companies, restaurants, and newspapers (Baltimore’s last German-language publication ceased publication in 1976). At one time there were more than 30 German congregations in the city. Today, the historic Zion Lutheran Church near City Hall still offers worship services in German.

By 1920, Baltimore’s German population had risen to nearly 1000,000 residents comprising about 20 percent of the city’s population. German was so side widely spoken in Baltimore that until World War l, notes from City Council meetings were published in both English and German.

Against this backdrop, Arthur Wallenhorst, a prominent German-American jeweler whose store was on Gay Street, willed $50,000 for the construction of a monument to Martin Luther.

Wallenhorst “had a deep respect for Luther throughout his life and always dreamed of creating a monument to him,” wrote Cindy Kelly in “Outdoor Sculpture in Baltimore: A Historical Guide to Public Art in the Monument City.”

To create the monument, Wallenhorst’s heirs turned to another prominent German-American Baltimorean—celebrated sculptor Hans Schuler, Sr., who later served as director of the Maryland Institute College of Art from 1925 to 1951. Schuler was the first American sculptor to win a Salon Gold medal in Paris. Schuler’s monuments can been seen throughout Baltimore, especially in Green Mount Cemetery.

Known as the Monument maker of Monument City (as Baltimore has been termed for its plethora of classic monuments), Schuler studied contemporary portraits of Luther painted from life and read Luther biographies for inspiration.

From his studio on east Lafayette Avenue—site of the present-day Schuler School of Fine Arts that his family founded, Schuler began assembling the massive homage. The monument was so unwieldy hat it had to be cast in pieces since the roof of Schuler’s studio was too low for the completed work.

Fritz Schuler Briggs, Hans Schuler’s grandson, remembers as a child playing on another version of the sculpture (that Luther monument stands on the grounds of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, PA).

Finally, on October 31, 1936, the massive statue, which sits on a 12-foot-high base, was unveiled before a crowd of more than 8,000 cheering Baltimoreans, many of them school children from Lutheran schools in Baltimore.

Dr. Hans Luther, the German ambassador and a direct descent of Martin Luther was the featured speaker that day. His daughter, as reported by the Baltimore Sun, did the honors of unveiling the statue that stood, not at Lake Montebello, but at Mount Royal entrance to Druid Hill Park. There, the bronze statue of a robe-clad Luther, Bible in hand, left foot placed forward, right hand sternly raised, stood until 1959 when the city deemed it necessary to relocate it because of construction of the Jones Falls Expressway.

History doesn’t record details of the Luther monument’s move to Lake Montebello where the monument stands a stone’s throw from the lake. It surely must have been a massive undertaking to move the monument across town.

In 2011, Lutheran clergy and congregants gathered at the base of the monument to sign hymns in honor of the monument’s re-dedication it on its 75th anniversary.

Most days a parade of joggers, cyclists, and walkers pass by Baltimore’s Luther colossus, few giving little thought to the monument.

Now in his 80s, Fritz Schuler Briggs, an instructor at the Schuler School of Fine Arts where painting, sculpture and drawing are taught in the style of Old Masters, laments that outside of protesting, people pay attention to Baltimore’s grand monuments.

“I think the day of the big monuments are gone,” said Briggs. “He [Hans Schuler, Sr.] was one of the last of his line that did that.”

Photos: Jill Yesko