Charles Umlauf eagle flies home to Austin sculpture garden

12:00 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017 Local
Charles Umlauf’s American eagle sculpture as it stood in First Federal Plaza. Contributed

Does anyone remember the eagle that stood at First Federal Plaza in front of an angled, mirror-clad office building opposite St. Mary’s Cathedral at 208 E. 10th St.? Well, the Charles Umlauf sculpture, originally unveiled June 18, 1968, landed on Sept. 11 on its natural turf at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum.

According to the Umlauf researchers, in 1967 the First Federal Savings and Loan Association sought a major American artist to create a landmark sculpture. President John T. Mahone selected Umlauf and they agreed that the subject would be the bank’s symbol, an American eagle.

Umlauf submitted a signed pencil and conté drawing of a bald eagle landing on a rock with its wings outstretched, researchers say. As was characteristic of Umlauf’s process, the design changed slightly from the drawing to the wax models and the final larger-than-life bronze.

Mahone wrote to Umlauf, “I am sure that First Federal people as well as all the Austin citizens will derive pleasure from this beautiful example of your talents for many years.”

In 1975, the state purchased the structure, which became Thomas Jefferson Rusk State Treasury Building, and Umlauf’s eagle became state property. Over time, it was obscured by a metal railing and was in need of professional conservation.

So how do you negotiate with the state of Texas to obtain its property? The Steen family knows how. Roberta Crenshaw, the benefactor most responsible for the Umlauf museum, enlisted Lias “Bubba” Steen from the State Purchasing and General Services Commission to negotiate a land swap with the city of Austin to obtain the grounds where the sculpture garden now lies.

His son, Jennings Steen, a current member of the Umlauf board, followed in that tradition and helped negotiate a long-term loan of the eagle to the museum. How’s that for a happy ending?

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