An Art Legacy in Public and Private Spaces
Painter Peter Michael Gish speaks to Hartford High School art students about the murals he created in 1950 to describe the history of Vermont at the Hotel Coolidge in White River Junction. Gish went on to become a combat artist in the U.S Marine Corps.
Valley News - James M. Patterson
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Hartford High School senior Leea Seaver, 17, listens to the story of how Peter Michael Gish came to paint the murals that surround the Hotel Coolidge's Vermont Room in White River Junction, Vt. Friday, September 27, 2013.
Valley News - James M. Patterson
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Dick Ekwall, of Pike, N.H., left, takes a tour of the home of Tim and Lynn Cook in Lyme, N.H. on September 29, 2013. The recently restored home features murals on the walls painted by Rufus Porter in the early nineteenth century. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »
Works of art have a way of slipping out of the public eye, of becoming forgotten. They can be like the proverbial trees that fall unattended in the forest: When you aren’t looking at a painting, does it really exist?
Two sets of murals in the Upper Valley have this quality. Both made public appearances, of a sort, in the span of a few days recently. One set, in Lyme, is inherently private; the other, in White River Junction, is quasi public, but still exists in a quiet world of its own.
The murals in Tim and Lynn Cook’s house in Lyme are lucky to have survived at all. Painted sometime between 1825 and 1830 by itinerant artist and inventor Rufus Porter, the murals started life as a sort of poor man’s decoration. Expensive hand-painted European wallpaper was all the rage among the upper crust in New England, and Porter’s murals were a lower-cost alternative.
As murals, Porter’s paintings were bound up in the life of the house, and even a well-built house has its ups and downs. By all accounts, the Federal style home that Moses Kent built on the River Road in 1811 is tightly joined, but time has not always been kind to the house. After a succession of owners, it stood abandoned, at times with the front door open to the elements, for more than three years before the Cooks purchased it in 1981.
“It was cheap,” Tim Cook said. Cook, who worked for many years as a specialist in restoring historic buildings, got down to work on the house.
Owning the house also meant the Cooks became custodians of the Rufus Porter murals. Many of Porter’s murals have been painted or papered over, effectively destroying them. But no such fate had befallen the paintings in the Cooks’ house, which cover the walls in the main hall, the formal sitting room and the master bedroom.
At a reception last Sunday, a group of friends and neighbors gathered at the Cooks’ home to see the murals and to celebrate the execution of a preservation easement that will protect the murals from harm. The event, held on a sparkling fall afternoon, was a rare airing for the murals, public exposure that signified their hoped-for perservation for decades to come.
Over a wash of tempera paint, Porter used stencils to paint clusters of houses and long brushstrokes to make trees with feathery green branches. One tree reaches all the way up from the bottom of the narrow central staircase to the top of the second-floor ceiling. Tall-masted ships under full sail drift placidly close to land.
A few years ago, the Cooks and neighbors Barbara and David Roby brought in conservator Will Cady Perkins to clean and repair the murals. The soft muted colors of the sky, sea and trees are uniform and the houses appear brand new.
The perservation easement that protects the murals and house is a legal document that prevents future owners from demolishing the home or making major changes. The New Hampshire Preservation Alliance, which helped the Cooks craft the easement, hailed the donation of the easement as “a major preservation milestone for the state.”
While conservation easements on sensitive land or property ripe for development have become commonplace, relatively few historic homes or buildings have been conserved. And few murals by Porter and other itinerant painters of his era have been preserved, while many have been effaced.
The Lyme murals are now protected, but they are protected largely for history, rather than for the public. The murals in White River Junction’s Hotel Coolidge are also privately owned, and have some protection by virtue of the hotel’s placement on the National Register of Historic Places, but they are more widely available to the public.
Unlike the Porter murals, the Coolidge paintings are a one-off, painted in 1949 and 1950 by Peter Michael Gish, who graduated from Dartmouth in 1949. Now 87, Gish has stayed in touch with the murals and came back to talk to a Hartford High School art class about them last week.
One of Gish’s professors, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, put him up to painting the murals over dinner at the Coolidge. Gish remodeled the room, removing its large windows, repaneling the walls with lumber he purchased himself and building a massive fireplace out of stone he hauled to White River Junction in his Jeep. In exchange for his work, Gish received room and board at the hotel.
The story Gish told the art students included the original notion for the murals: Huessy and then-owner of the hotel August Zollikofer wanted a mural about Calvin Coolidge. After doing some research, Gish said, he realized he couldn’t paint 60 feet of murals about the nation’s 30th president, who was known as “Silent Cal.”
Instead, Gish was inspired by a pair of headstones he saw out in Plymouth, Vt., for an 18-year-old killed in the Civil War and for the young man’s father, who outlived him by 30 years.
At the time, Gish was still grieving his older brother, who was killed in World War II. “That changed my whole life,” Gish told the students. In 1945, he decided to dedicate his life to painting. “After this enormous loss and blow, there was no more risk,” he said.
The murals tell the story of Vermont from its earliest settling to its unsettling after the Civil War. They are painted in a style that mixes the idealistic realism of the Depression-era WPA murals with the dynamic modernism of muralists such as Jose Clemente Orozco, whose work Gish knew from The Epic of American Civilization, a suite of murals in Dartmouth’s Baker Library reserve reading room.
Painted in oils on canvas, the Coolidge murals are dark and earthy, full of toil, struggle and loss.
At the conclusion, after horses stampede toward Civil War battlefields that give way to the arid West toward which so many Vermonters traveled in the late 1800s, stands a blank-faced man, a symbol of the artist.
“I’d come back from the war with loss,” Gish said. “I wasn’t sure what the future was, so I stopped talking.”
The students didn’t have many questions for Gish, but applauded warmly. Hartford High history students have studied the mural in the past, but this was the first art class to come see it.
“I thought it was awesome,” said Forest Mattern, 18, a senior from Wilder. “It was good of him.” Mattern and another student filmed Gish’s talk and hoped to return to film the murals themselves. Having the class see and record the murals is another method of preserving them. “I didn’t even know they were here,” Mattern said.
Gish has said in the past that the murals seem to have darkened over the years. They are cleaned with Ivory Snow, said Gish and David Briggs, who has owned the hotel since 1985. “It needs more light,” Gish said.
The murals are living things, part of a living building. Business groups who have booked the Vermont Room have taped presentations to the paintings, not knowing what they were doing, Briggs said.
“They’ve been bumped and hit and everything else, and it’s durable,” he said.
To have survived so well since 1950 is a good sign, Gish said. “That’s a pretty long time even for a building these days. They seem to be in good hands with David,” he said.
What sort of care the murals will need in the future remains to be seen. With any luck, the Coolidge murals will stand the same test of time that the Porter murals in Lyme have endured, ensuring they’re available for future generations.
Alex Hanson can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3219.