Lost and Found features brief profiles of historic landmarks and structures, one lost and one saved.

Lost

Under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, a myriad of ambitious economic recovery initiatives, the Section of the Fine Arts of the U.S. Department of the Treasury commissioned artist Niles G. Spencer (1893– 1952) in 1937 to paint a mural for the post office in Aliquippa, Beaver County. Born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Spencer attended the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, from 1913 to 1916, after which he moved to New York and enrolled in the Art Students League. He studied with George Bellows and Robert Henri at a private school in the Bronx.

By the early 1930s, Spencer focused on works that featured dynamic, clearly drawn architectural forms of skyscrapers and machinery, a style which closely aligned him with Precisionist painters such as Charles Sheeler (1883–1965) and Charles Demuth (1883–1935), both Pennsylvania natives. (Precisionism is a style in which a subject is reduced or simplified to elemental structural forms and rendered by abstractionism and realism.) Captured with starkness and elegance, Spencer’s reductive urban compositions of buildings, factories, and smokestacks became his signature.

For his Aliquippa commission, Spencer created Western Pennsylvania to fill the upper half of a wall in the post office’s public area. The community was not picturesque in the conventional sense, but its enormous mills, forges, and freight stations appealed to him. “Even the smoke-laden atmosphere, which simplified shapes and colors, and the grimy precipitous hills of the area were used as integrating factors giving harmonies and counterpoints to this harsh symphony of industrial America,” wrote Richard B. Freeman, of the University of Kentucky’s art department, in 1971.

Spencer’s Western Pennsylvania adorned the post office for nearly thirty years. Remodeling of the building in 1969 required the removal of the canvas during which it sustained numerous tears and holes, as well as extensive cracking. Since its removal, the mural has been relegated to storage by the Smithsonian Institution. Because of the severity of the damage, many art historians consider it a “lost” work of art.

PHMC is observing the seventy-fifth anniversary of the New Deal in Pennsylvania as its annual theme through 2008.

 

Found

Although many people think of a mural as a painting on canvas affixed to a wall or paint applied directly on a wall, murals created for post offices as part of the New Deal consisted also of basreliefs and sculptural works in glass, cast stone, aluminum, plaster, wood, terracotta, and bronze.

For the post office in Mount Pleasant, Westmoreland County, Alexander Sambugnac (1888–1965) created Air Mail, a plaster relief, in 1937, that epitomized the art moderne style, a late branch of art deco, an international design movement popular between the mid-1920s and 1940. Both styles were based on geometric shapes and bold outlines to render an eclectic form of elegant and stylish modernism. Art moderne was heavily influenced by twentieth-century technology and transportation, including aviation, which Sambugnac celebrated in Air Mail.

Born in Zemun, Yuogslavia, Sambugnac studied at the Royal Academy of Budapest, Hungary, and in Munich, Germany, before settling in Paris in 1913 to study with Antoine Bourdelle (1861–1929), who had been an assistant to Auguste Rodin. Sambugnac’s work is represented in the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, a cathedral in Vienna, and Cuba’s capitol in Havana. He became a naturalized United States citizen in 1938. An art teacher and member of the Architectural League of New York and the National Sculpture Society, Sambugnac lived in New York and later in Florida. In 1984, a year before Sambugnac’s death, the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art acquired a collection of his papers which document his New Deal post office commissions.

In addition to his mural for Mount Pleasant, he also created cast stone reliefs for post offices in other locations. He designed Communication (1937), for Rochester, Michigan, and Wisdom and Courage (1938), for Miami, Florida.

Construction of the building housing Mount Pleasant’s post office, located on South Church Street, was completed in 1936. Forty years later, in the 1970s, when a new postal facility was erected on the community’s Rumbaugh Avenue, the building became home to the Mount Pleasant Free Public Library. Fortunately for library patrons and admirers of twentieth-century American art, Alexander Sambugnac’s Air Mail still adorns the building.