The most visible and oldest pieces in the library’s collection of artwork are Poseidon and Athena, the griffins which flank the entrance of the library.
The exact origin of the griffins is unknown. The library griffins either were produced for the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876, or were copied from griffins on display there for the 1893 Chicago Exposition. Griffins are mythological creatures, half eagle, and half lion. They are said to guard precious treasures, which is why we feel they are the perfect guardians and symbols of our library.
According to Charles Kohl III, a member of the family who once owned the griffins, they first came to light in front of the “Everleigh Sisters” establishment on Indiana Avenue in Chicago. The globes on their heads glowed red at that time.
Charles Kohl Sr. bought the griffins when the Everleigh Sisters’ place was dismantled and put them in front of his “Dime Museums” on State Street in Chicago, where Marshall Field’s now stands.
John Ringling and Mr. Kohl were business partners. John Ringling wanted the griffins in front of his Side Show box office and they were there for years.
Following John Ringling’s death in 1936, Charles Kohl Sr. took the griffins back and moved them to the Kohl home on Lac La Belle, Oconomowoc. The griffins can be seen flanking the front entrance of the Kohl mansion in the photo on the left. When Mrs. Kohl died, they were moved to the front of Draper Hall, a hotel on Lake Road owned by the Kohls seen in the photo to the right. This old inn (reputed to be the site of the composition, “After the Ball”) later became Villa St. Ann, a Catholic home for elderly women. When the home moved to Racine, the property was sold for future condominiums.
Hearing about the future sale of the griffins and other artifacts of the Villa, the library director, Josephine Machus, the library board, staff and other friends of the Library felt that the griffins should remain in the community and what better place than to guard the treasures of the Library? At the auction of the Villa artifacts in 1967, Andrew Zafis, library board president at that time, spent the day at the auction in order to procure the griffins for the Library with gift funds from Mrs. Boalen Rowles, of Michigan. When other bidders for the griffins heard that the Library wished to purchase them for the community, they dropped out of the bidding and many offered money for the Library purchase.
Ernest Nicollette, a high school art teacher, repaired the griffins and they were moved to the Library in 1968. After years of exposure to the elements, it was necessary to have a major restoration of the griffins. In 1981, Frank Boesel, of Milwaukee, recommended by architectural historian Russell Zimmerman, was commissioned to restore the griffins. This was accomplished with the aid of a community financial drive.
In 1987, the Library moved to its new location on South Street, with the griffins continuing to serve as guardians for the collection. After standing many years in the front of the new building, the griffins began to deteriorate again. After consulting again with Frank Boesel of Milwaukee, it was decided that if the griffins were again restored, they should not be exposed to the winter weather. Mr. Boesel suggested having molds made of the originals and the reproductions made up of a material that could withstand the changing weather. This would allow the original griffins a place of honor inside the lobby.
In the fall of 2000, the Scherffius Fund granted a portion of the money needed for the repair and maintenance of the griffins. The City of Oconomowoc Utility Committee contributed additional funds to help cover expenditures.
In April 1983, the griffins were officially welcomed home and given names through a contest. Misty Rather, a fourth grader from Ashippun Elementary School, named the griffins “Poseidon” (after the Greek god of water because the Library was located on Fowler Lake and Lac La Belle) and “Athena” (the goddess of wisdom, representing the contents of the Library). They were mounted on new marble platforms donated by Mr. Mehelich. Poseidon and Athena were restored and returned to the library in April of 2002. The reproductions were delivered and mounted outside of the Library. To welcome them home, a Griffin Unveiling Ceremony was held on August 15, 2002.