Willy H. Lau

Willy H Lau
Willy Lau c.1890 Courtesy Dan Dungan
I was fortunate to make a connection with Dan Dungan, a Great Grandson of Willy Lau. Many thanks are due to Dan for allowing us to feature family photos and additional details of Willy and his career.

Willy Hans Lau was born in Berlin during 1866 and arrived at Ellis Island in 1882 at the age of 16. Details of Lau's early years on the east coast are unclear, however, when he was 24, he married Emily Lau in New Jersey and it's not unreasonable to suggest he was working as an apprentice. During 1889 and 1890 he became the U.S. Amateur Middleweight Wrestling Champion. The photo of Lau posing with his medals attests to his ambition and drive which became a hallmark of his character in years to come.

It is in 1893 that a visit to the Chicago World's Fair that drove Willy from the East Coast to Chicago. A year later the couple had a daughter, May, and in 1897 a son, Willy Hans Lau Jr. was born. After settling in Chicago, he specialized in the design and manufacture of lighting fixtures, a career he followed right up until his death in 1933.

Much of this website has focused on companies whose lighting was largely targeted towards the private residence, lighting sold either directly to customers via catalog or retail showroom, or indirectly through a distributor. In his early career, Lau's lighting fixtures were created in conjunction with architectural firms or firms specializing in decoration. While this may not seem like an important distinction, his work achieved a more formal, industrial esthetic than other designers addressing basic residential customers. Bold design and liberal use of hand-wrought metals ensured fixtures in keeping with his target audience. Clearly a fixture designed for a library or a bank would be somewhat different than one designed for someone's modest dining room and Lau’s early work reflects that.

In 1899, a new firm of decorative artists was taking shape, Giannini & Hilgart. An outline of their work is included elsewhere in this website, but they quickly developed relationships with top architects in Chicago. While G&H's specialties included stained glass, lighting and mosaics, there is currently no evidence to suggest that Lau was ever a permanent member on staff. More likely he was an independent, contracted on an as needed basis to fulfill commissions that G&H was awarded. In this capacity, Lau became one of Chicago's most respected lighting designers. Although Lau worked in lighting, his wrought iron work was also outstanding, rare examples have appeared to attest to his skills in that area. So, in summary, Lau was a metals designer and fabricator who used his skills in that medium as the foundation of his stained glass lighting fixtures. Giannini and Hilgart forged relationships with G. W. Maher and Frank Lloyd Wright among others and Lau's work can be seen in many of these architects' work. Attribution of many works credited to the firm of G&H are, by extension, designed and executed by Lau while working on their commissions.

Architectural Record 1905
Willy Lau Bracket Light For E. J. Mosser House, G.W. Maher, Chicago

Lau was an associate member and patron of the Chicago Architectural Club. In an early 1902 membership listing, Lau's first published place of business was his studio in the Pullman Building at 12 Adams Street. In 1905, and advertisement in Architectural Record shows examples of his lighting made for the E. J. Moser House in Chicago, designed by G.W. Maher. By 1910 he had sales rooms on 58 East Lake Avenue and also exhibited 6 lamps in the Chicago Architectural Club Exhibition of that year. Lau's address given at the exhibition was 26-28 East Lake, his showrooms.

Newspaper advertisements in November of 1912 show he was holding a clearance of his entire inventory of lighting at the sales rooms. Everything in stock was being sold at half price. According to advertisements for the sale, the entire inventory was valued at $100,000 which was a very large sum for the period. By October of 1916, another advertisement places him still at the Pullman & Fine Arts Building but announcing a move to a studio in the Stevens Building.

Examples of Lau’s work include G&H's collaboration with G. W. Maher in his design of the Blinn Residence in Pasadena. Other Maher commissions in which G&H provided lighting include the Stewert Inn in Wisconsin and the William Hirsch House in St. Louis. Advertisements in the The Architectural Record of 1905 show his lighting produced for the E.J.Mosser House in Chicago and a recent auction featuring a fixture from the Ernest & Grace King residence, Homer, Minnesota, another work of G.W. Maher.

Lau's work extended beyond Chicago. He built the original Iron Entrance Gates to Yellowstone Park, and the fireplace at Old Faithful Lodge at Yellowstone. Back in Chicago, he built the lighting fixtures at Second Presbyterian Church in the South Loop, and the entrance to the Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Building on State Street. In Dwight, Illinois he built the entrance lighting fixtures in the Frank L. Smith Bank building, a FLW commission. Reports of his activities are often sketchy and full of large gaps, but work continued and in 1919, Hotel Monthly Magazine featured an article about the new Lassen Hotel in Wichita, Kansas. It was opened on New Year's Day to much acclaim. The chandeliers and all fixtures in the public rooms were furnished by Lau.

Several years passed until in 1923, Lau was planning a move to Dayton, Ohio. His business in Dayton was not without problems however. In the Dayton Daily News of August 31st in 1924, the company was placed into receivership by the chairman of the board, Joseph Herzstam. The article mentions that despite the business being solvent; it was "unable to meet pressing obligations". Some years later, a reason for the company entering receivership became clearer due to details of a court case appeared in an August edition of the Dayton Daily News. Lau, Joseph Herzstam and his wife Cora apparently owned valuable land on the Scenic Highway, Muskegon County, Michigan. Dan Dungan reports that Lau had a summer home on White lake and there is even a road named after him there. It is probable that Herzstam wanted to buy out Lau's interest in the land and perhaps exit the company, or perhaps their relationship soured. This could be viewed as the "pressing obligations" previously mentioned. Herzstam acquired full ownership of the property in exchange for cash and Herzstam's stock holding in Lau's business. This must have been a contentious transaction because it was Lau's daughter May who brought the suit to court. The court ruled against her in her attempt to exercise any rights she may have had to the property. Herzstam did in fact leave the company after the transaction.

Newspaper reports of 1925 mentioned Lau's studio on Ludlow Street and within a year, his unique studio, a converted stable with great curb appeal, was well received and his business flourished. At the studio he was employing an unknown number of crafts people, continuing in wrought iron and lighting. Business on Ludlow Street continued and during May of 1926 he is advertising a second studio, this time in Cincinnati. It would appear that this was short lived; no other reports of this venture have surfaced. Just one year later in May of 1927, he was forced to liquidate his Ludlow Street Studio.

At some point after the sale, Lau returned to Chicago. Nothing more has surfaced about his return until news of his death on May 2nd, 1933 appeared in the Chicago press. Lau was 67 years old and the funeral details mention that he was the owner of a studio on North Wells Street in Chicago.

Doris May Mengen

Doris was Willy's granddaughter. She travelled the US with her husband in a camper visiting and documenting so much of the family history.  She wrote a book called Whispering Leaves which goes into detail about Chicago, White Lake, and the World Fairs. These are her words.

"Gumpy was my name for Grandpa. Willy Henry Lau was born in Berlin, Germany on the 19th January 1866. He was christened Rudolf Hans Willi at St. Jocobi Evangelical Church in Berlin. He had an older brother, Max, and a younger sister, Helene. Rudolf, his father, was a metal spinner, and his mother was Ida Thiems. As I understand it, there was a business problem, and when Willy was sixteen years old, the family immigrated to the USA. Just before leaving on the long voyage, Willy and Max went and bought roller skates. They spent much of their waking hours skating around and around the deck of the ship.

Willy was very interested in sports and took up wrestling and rowing as a hobby. In 1888 he won several Rowing Cups from the Hoboken Rowing Club. In 1889-90 he became the Amateur Middleweight Wrestling Champion of the USA. He loved to talk about this, much to his wife's dismay. Such display of strength was almost vulgar to her. Emily and Willy were married in Hoboken, New Jersey, on April 17, 1891, and soon a daughter, Grace, was born. A year and a half later another daughter was born, May. Grace died when she was two years old, from what would later be called Leukemia. Emily said that the Doctors told her that the child's blood was turning to water. The only treatment was to feed her Horlick's Malted Milk to keep her strength up. When May was four years old, a son, Willy Henry Lau, Jr, "Billy", was added to the family.

By this time the family was living in Chicago, having moved there in order for Willy to manufacture part of the exhibit of the Pullman Car Company which was to be displayed at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Willy was a designer of lamps, fixtures and wrought iron work. He had his own factory, and refused to unionize his shop. This caused great problems because the Electrical Union was very strong in Chicago. He always contended that he paid better wages and offered more benefits than the union demanded. Willy worked for all the prominent families and places in the Chicago area. Most of the wrought iron fences in the Near North side, including the Potter Palmer Estate on Michigan Avenue, are his work, as he was working with the leading architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright.
He worked on the First Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, The Old Faithful Lodge at Yellowstone National Park and for the Chicago Park Department designing the lamp post lights.

At one time Willy and Emily had a large house with a ballroom, stables, and servants’ quarters. This house was on Paulina near Wilson Avenue in Chicago. Their next house was on Melrose Terrace, near Greenview. This House is still there. Except for a few years when they lived in Dayton, Ohio, they lived in Chicago, or at their summer home at White Lake, Montague, Michigan. Both the summer home and the house on Melrose Terrace were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The house and studio in Dayton were unique in its day. It was a remodeled barn with wrought iron circular stairs up to the loft, which was the living area. I remember Gumpy as always trying to get me to be interested in gymnastics. He sprinkled swear words into his English but it did not sound bad coming from him. Like so many teen-age immigrants, learning English on the street and on the job rather than in a formal school, the words with the emphasis on them were the ones he learned first.

On the night of Willy's death his factory was assembling new fixtures for the jewelry department of Marshall Field and Company. The store was being spruced up for the Chicago World's Fair in 1933, and at least fifty years later these fixtures were still in place. Willy died on 22 May 1933. A few more orders went out and the shop was closed. He came to Chicago for one World's Fair and died at the beginning of the next one."

Doris May Mengen, 1985

Lau Gallery

For detailed photos, click on the thumbnails below, scoll through the images using the arrows or space bar.

  • Electric City, February 1910, Page 3
  • Electric City,June 1911, Page 24
  • Sweets Catalog 1910, Page 1132, Courtesy Paul Crist
  • Sweets Catalog 1910, Page 1133, Courtesy Paul Crist
  • Fireplace Screen, Courtesy Dan Dungan
  • Courtesy Ryerson Burnham Archives