John Anton Mallin: Ecclesiastical Artist and Decorator in Twentieth-Century Chicago
John Anton Mallin was a well-known ecclesiastical artist and decorator in Chicago, whose works are found in more than one hundred churches and chapels, as well as several residences, banks, and theaters. His career spanned almost sixty years, from the time he came to Chicago in 1907 until he retired in 1963. Although he primarily decorated Roman Catholic churches, he also decorated Greek Orthodox and Protestant churches. His work was in high demand and received lavish praise. A 1932 letter from his alderman, James Quinn, to Colonel Isham Randolph, a manager at the Century of Progress, introduced Mallin as “one of the outstanding designers and interior decorators in the City of Chicago. His class of work has been the subject of very high recommendation and many of our leading churches have been the objects of his wonderful efforts.”1 Mallin’s work was so well known that a wealthy businessman, John Cuneo, hired him in 1940 to decorate a chapel in his mansion in Vernon Hills, Illinois. Cardinal Stritch of Chicago was able to obtain a permit from Rome for the Cuneo chapel. Mallin later decorated three other rooms in the Cuneo mansion.
John A. Mallin was born Jan Anton Malinkoviˇc on April 14, 1883, to parents Jan Malinkoviˇc and Barbora Drobiliˇc in Hlohovec, in what is now the Czech Republic, but which at that time was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1897, when he was fifteen years old, Mallin became a painter’s apprentice in the School of the Interior and Decorative Painters’ Guild in Vienna. He learned the art of church and interior decoration by working with a variety of master painters. He apprenticed in Vienna and throughout Europe. His workbook from this time period includes references to his good workmanship, diligence, and behavior. The last workbook entry was from Sankt Pölten, Austria, where he worked until December of 1906, when he was released due to lack of work.
In January 1907, he immigrated to Chicago, where his future sister-in-law was living. His bride-to-be, Rosalie Vokáˇc, a native of Prague whom he met in Vienna, joined him in Chicago later that year along with their infant daughter, Angela, who died within a few months of arrival. They subsequently had five additional children: Mildred, John, Louise, Anthony, and Ralph.
Mallin originally worked as a contractor on jobs throughout the Midwest and elsewhere. One of his first jobs, in 1907, was as a decorator of façades for the Riverview Amusement Park in Chicago. His other contracting jobs between 1907 and 1918 were in banks, theaters, courthouses, homes, and churches in several locations throughout Illinois, Iowa, and Indiana. Little documentation of these earlier works exists except in postcards he sent to his family and some photos. Most of the buildings are no longer standing.
In 1918, he formed his own decorating company, John A. Mallin, Interior Art Decorations, and one of his first contracts was the decoration of the Main Chapel in the Bohemian National Cemetery (BNC) Columbarium in Chicago. According to his contract, he was paid $545 for the job. In 1929 and 1931, Mallin added to the decorations in the chapel. Mallin later changed the name of his company to John A. Mallin and Sons, although his eldest son John was the only son who worked with him on a permanent basis. His daughter Mildred also worked as his secretary until the 1950s.
Mallin’s workers’ timesheets show that he employed a number of workers at any one time, depending on the job. Many of them were of Slavic origin. Other documents show that Mallin sometimes worked on more than one job at the same time. Some jobs took up to six months or more; others were shorter in duration.
Some of the churches Mallin decorated include Saint Mary of Czestochowa (Cicero, Illinois), Saint Edmund (Oak Park, Illinois), Saint Joseph (Hammond, Indiana), and, in Chicago, Saint Mary of Perpetual Help, Holy Rosary Slovak Church, Saint Mary of the Angels, Saint Hedwig, Saint Hyacinth, Saint Jerome, Saint John of God, Saint Basil, and Saint Procopius. Mallin worked closely with such well-known church architects as Joseph W. McCarthy (Saint Basil, Our Lady of Lourdes, Saint Jerome) and Henry Schlacks (Saint Ignatius, Saint John of God, Saint Mary of the Lake, Saint Ita). Although many of his churches have either been torn down or redecorated, there are still many churches with his original or slightly revised decorations.
Work documents exist for many of his church decorations, which include sketches and details of the decorations that he would provide to the priests based on what they had proposed. The priests would also suggest revisions to his proposals, which could be quite detailed. Many priests also had their own faces painted into the decorations.
Two churches, Saint Joseph in Hammond and Saint Edmund’s in Oak Park, are highlighted here. These church decorations are quite different and highlight the versatility of Mallin as a decorator. Documents for these churches also show how Mallin engaged with the priests whom he was working with.
Saint Joseph’s, 5310 Hohman Ave, Hammond, Indiana
Saint Joseph Church, located in Hammond, Indiana, was founded in 1879. In 1927, Father Francis J. Jansen was appointed pastor of Saint Joseph, which had eight hundred families at that time.2
In 1934, Mallin received a copyright for a drawing of the arch above the altar of Saint Joseph Church. The copyright states, “The work of St. Joseph. Composite picture within semi circular arch. Central group at top: The Holy Family at work, four angels around them. Group of modern laborers at work with other men studying plans and model, below at left and right.”3 However, it wasn’t until several years later that Father Jansen hired Mallin to decorate the church. Many of the parishioners of the church worked in the numerous steel mills in the area, which were hit hard by the Depression. It is likely that the church did not have sufficient funds for the decorations in 1934.
In November of 1942, John Mallin received a letter from Father Jansen asking him to come and see him regarding the decoration of the church.4 Father Jansen also wrote a detailed description of what was to be included in the frescoes, which included a history of the parish and the industries in the area.5
In Father Jensen’s description, he stated that he wanted to show workers of all varieties, including steel workers as well as the artist himself. He wrote, “It would be nice to have steel workers painted as working the glow of the white hot metal of the furnace. Down below, Father Berg showing . . . the cartoons, or sketches of the stained glass windows of the church (he had them put in) to the present Bishop John F. Noll. Instead of the two clergymen with the Bishop, we might have a stained glass worker and an artist (yourself).”
An article in the Hammond Times newspaper in February of 1943, entitled “Laborers in the Vineyard,” described the frescoes above the altar.6 The article stated that Father Jansen wanted Mallin “to carry out the theme that there are no idlers in the kingdom.” It also stated that “another picture presents Bishop John F. Noll, Msgr. Edward Mongovan, chairman of the building committee of the diocese, and Father John Berg, the third pastor, examining a model of the stained glass windows, depicting the life of Christ, which were installed by Father Berg.” The final mural, which was not yet complete at the time the newspaper article was written, includes the artist, John Mallin, wearing his distinctive bow tie, showing the sketch of the arch design to Bishop Noll.
The 1934 Mallin drawing included angels around the Holy Family. However, describing the center-arch picture of the Holy Family, Father Jansen states, “The angels around the Holy Family are out. There should be an open house, the front left out, in which they are working. Father Baumgartner’s head to represent St. Joseph. He was the first pastor.” The Hammond Times stated, “At the highest point and in the most central position the Holy Family is shown engaged in useful occupations as told by sacred records which have it that Joseph was a carpenter, or as many like to term it, a home-builder. As nobody living knows what Joseph looked like, his face in the painting is that of Father Francis X. Baumgartner, the first pastor of the parish. St. Joseph is shown at work on his carpenter bench. The Holy Mother is spinning. With a hammer and chisel the Christ Child is shown putting a hole in a plank, assisting his foster father. (The picture is 16 x 11 feet and the figure of St. Joseph 6 feet 5 inches tall). Thus the Holy Family is presented as a model for workers.”
Father Jansen described his ideas for the left arch: “On the left side (looking at the picture), Father Henry Plaster, the second pastor, and Father Jensen, the present pastor, discussing plans. Father Jansen to have the purple cincture and also purple Pom-pom on biretta. The architect to have on an ordinary present day business suit.” The Hammond Times further elaborated, “To the left and a little below the Holy Family are shown a brick mason, a stone mason and structural iron workers and to the right and under the level of the main picture are scenes from the steel mills. Under a drawing of a building in course of construction appear Father Henry M. Plaster, who built the church, and Father Jansen, who built the parish school, discussing plans with an architect. To the credit of Father Plaster, who was shepherd of the flock for 33 years, it must be said, the building, dedicated in 1913, was so well constructed there is not a crack in the structure to this day.”
The construction perhaps also protected the church against three attempts to burn down the church, in 1956, 1960, and 1971. The first attempt in 1956 may have prompted Father Jansen to ask Mallin to add additional decorations and restorations to the church in 1957. In a letter written to Father Jansen dated January 16, 1957, Mallin states, “There will be some new improvements made in the Sanctuary wall, color scheme and design. The wall will be laid in with genuine XX 23 carat gold leaf and worked out in a mosaic effect and symbols. All the mural paintings will appear like new after restoration and you will find all the decoration to come up to all your expectations.”7 In fact it was common for Mallin to add decorations or restorations to many of the churches he decorated.
Saint Edmund’s, 188 South Oak Park Ave, Oak Park, Illinois
Saint Edmund’s Church was the first Catholic parish established in the village of Oak Park, a town just west of the city of Chicago. Oak Park was predominantly Protestant at that time, and this community opposed the establishment of a Catholic church, believing, among other things, that “a horde of undesirables would rush in upon them with advent of the great Democratic church which draws no line between rich and poor.” The Reverend John J. Code was first appointed by Archbishop James Quigley to organize the church in 1907.8
The first Mass in 1907 was said in a barn, and with the help of a local banker, John Farson, funds were raised to build a church. In 1910, a new church designed by the architect Henry Schlacks was dedicated. The church was built in the English Gothic style of the fourteenth century using blue Bedford stone. Reverend Code chose an English saint for the parish, Edmund Rich of Abington, Archbishop of Canterbury.9
The Saint Edmund Preservation Society website notes that the church was decorated in 1920 by the artist John F. Sturdy, and the decorations were described in the 1920 parish bulletin. Describing the apse, it states, “Amid a wealth of wheat and grape foliations clad in priestly garments . . . is the figure of Christ upon a miniature altar. . . . On either side of him, surrounded by hovering and adoring angels are the kneeling figures . . . of the Jewish high priest, censer in hand, and Melchisedech with bread and wine.”10
Monsignor Code was still at Saint Edmund’s in 1943, celebrating his fiftieth anniversary as pastor. It was in this year that he hired John Mallin to decorate the church. The 1943 decorations are described in detail in the golden jubilee book for Monsignor Code. For example, in the sanctuary, “the decorations are in the Gothic style of ornament in which red, blue, and gold colors predominate. The cobalt blue and vermilion reds are made from expensive minerals and are very durable, while the gold color is real beaten gold leaf over 23 carats fine.”11
The Saint Edmund Preservation Society website indicates that the same three apse figures from the 1920 decorations appear in the 1943 decorations, suggesting that “Mallin was probably instructed by Msgr. Code to keep and restore these figures in the apse.” These include the figure of Christ in the center, with Old Testament priest figures Aaron and Melchisidech on either side.12 The Preservation Society notes:
To judge from the particular motifs of his floral and geometric stenciling, Mallin, like many other decorators and architects, may have owned a copy of the 1849 pattern book of A.W. Pugin, Floriated Ornament, now long out of print. Pugin’s immensely influential pattern book was based on his antiquarian research into medieval Gothic designs. His aesthetic premise that shapes found in nature (such as grape leaves) should be used, not naturalistically, but rather in two-dimensional, geometric patterns had a profound influence on the later Arts and Crafts movement and also on such Prairie School architects as George Maher and Frank Lloyd Wright.13
The 1943 golden jubilee book described the four large murals in the ceiling of the crossing: “the Descent of the Holy Ghost upon the Apostles, the Ascension of Christ into Heaven, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, and the Four Evangelists.” Other noted decorations were also mentioned: “Above the capitols [sic] in the transept where the ribs and arches meet are eight life size figures of angels. Four prophets are depicted on the north and south end of the transepts. In the nave ceiling are depictions of several ‘chief doctors of the church,’ and on the ceiling of the sanctuary are portraits of Peter, Prince of the Apostles, Paul, Apostle of the Gentiles, and Agnes and Aloysisus, patrons of youth of both sexes.”14
In 1951, additional decorations were added by Mallin, which took approximately six months to complete. The “Edmund Echoes” church bulletin from 1951 stated, “Walls and ceilings are covered with beaten pure gold leaf of 23 carats, in mosaic pattern adorned with delicate floral designs and symbols, furnishing a delightful background for more than two score oil paintings, illustrating teachings of the church from scenes in the life of its divine founder.”15 Mr. Don Giannetti, the parish assistant at Saint Edmund’s, remembers the gold leaf being applied to the ceilings in 1951. He described the process whereby the ceiling was painted the same color as the grout, after which stencils were glued to the ceiling. The gold leaf was applied over the stencils, and any excess gold leaf flaked off and fell to the floor.16
The 1951 church bulletin describes the paintings found in the vaulted ceiling, the transepts, sanctuary ceilings, and the front vestibule. The cost of the decorations was $25,000, and parishioners were asked to help defray the costs by making votive offerings, with the suggested donations of $330 for large paintings and $100 for medallions representing about half the cost of the paintings. Descriptions of the nineteen large paintings and twelve medallions are found in the bulletin and in a hand-written document of Mallin, which describes the placement of each painting and medallion. Of note, the medallion of Saint John the Baptist on the ceiling has the face of Monsignor Code. Monsignor Code also had Mallin paint the face of Saint Thérèse the Little Flower with that of Sister Urban, who was a principal at Saint Edmund’s School at the time.17
In the late 1990s, some restoration and renovations were done to the church. Major changes in the decorations included painting over the gold stenciling on the sanctuary and church walls.18 One can still see the original stencils in a photo of the sanctuary at the Saint Edmund Preservation Society website.19 The other paintings and decorations are still intact.
Mallin’s Studios, Advertising, and Travels
Mallin advertised his company through word of mouth and through his many brochures that included photos and descriptions of his work. He originally worked out of his Chicago residences but later rented a studio at the Fine Arts Building at 410 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago in the 1920s, and he stayed in the studio at least through the 1940s. In 1929, he had a two-story flat built at 2252 West Devon in Chicago that he also used as his studio. Mallin traveled back and forth to Europe several times for his work and to visit his relatives. He would visit churches and other buildings to get ideas for his work. He also imported oil paintings from European art houses to supplement his church decorations.
In retirement, Mallin painted portraits of his family at his Devon Avenue building. Mallin also purchased a farm property at the corner of Lake Cook and Waukegan Road in Deerfield. He and his family would spend some weekends there when he was not otherwise busy working. It probably reminded him of the farm and wine region where he grew up in Moravia. On January 9, 1973, Mr. Mallin died at the age of eighty-nine years old.