Sunday, August 19, 2012

The "lost" Courthouse Mural

We were two chicks in a sporty convertible with the top down on a sunny summer day, hunting down a rumor at least fifty years old.  Nancy Drew never had this much fun on a lunch hour!

But I digress…as usual.
I work in a splendid little Art Deco courthouse built near the Lake Michigan shore in the 1930s as part of the put-folks-back-to-work ethos of the FDR administration’s New Deal and more specifically, the Works Progress Administration.  It shares an architect with Chicago’s gorgeous One North LaSalle building, which I believe was the last skyscraper of that era to be erected in Chicago before the Great Depression brought such lavishness and excess to a halt.  The Sheboygan Courthouse sports an interior of polished peach colored Georgia marble with black and silver veins; pressed plaster ceilings; ornamental frosted glass and aluminum sconces throughout the lobby; two snarling lion heads over the front entrance; and Art Deco geometric details throughout.

The conversation that led to the ride in the convertible started out, as usual, on a completely different subject.  I had been trying, without success, to figure out why the ornate eagle emblems on the first floor elevator door and several ventilation screens in the courthouse so closely resembled the Eagle of Saladin on the Egyptian flag. I still haven’t come close to figuring that out, but while I sat in court recently, waiting for the judge to arrive and start calling an afternoon’s worth of cases, courthouse history was a subject being bandied about by the rest of us working stiffs.

I had heard several times that many years ago, the courtroom of the chief judge—the very courtroom in which we sat—had sported an enormous mural behind the bench (that’s the term for where the judge sits, for people who don’t spend a whole lot of time in court!). The courtroom had been one of two on the second floor of the courthouse that originally came with ceilings fully two stories high.  However, a few decades ago, the courthouse was remodeled to install more courtrooms above, and so the ceilings were dropped and the mural disappeared.  To where or to what end, no one knew. Nobody was still working in the courthouse who had been there in the 1950s or 1960s.
In my imagination, the mural was still there, somehow an intrinsic, non-removable part of the original structure, quietly and tragically sitting out of view behind an impenetrable veil of newer sheetrock and duct work. The judge’s court reporter, who was similarly quite curious about the mural, envisioned it instead as having been something along the lines of a ceiling fresco that did not survive the remodeling. But someone had told her that the local historical society possessed a photograph of the original mural before it had been destroyed or hidden.

“Road trip!” I begged before the judge walked in to the courtroom and the business of handling “initial appearances” in criminal cases started, and two days later we were in her convertible and on the hunt.  I’m going to digress here again (to absolutely no one’s surprise) and say that the last time I’d been in a car as low to the ground as this one was when I was about twenty-one and borrowed fellow Milwaukee Sentinel reporter Joe Huddleston’s robin’s egg blue stick-shift Fiat to get to a story when my old Chevy was in the shop.  Both times I had the distinct sensation of sitting in a large, old-fashioned roller skate, utterly invisible to bigger, taller cars and trucks.
At any rate, we pulled up at the Sheboygan County Historical Museum, only to find that the museum—which has a lovely collection of Sheboygan stuff I’m going to have to return to see one of these days—didn’t have the mural, and didn’t have a clue as to what had become of it.  However, the staff steered us to the privately held Sheboygan County Historical Research Center a few miles away and one town over in Sheboygan Falls.  What the heck, we still had a half hour left on that lunch break, and so off we went.
Again, we introduced ourselves and explained our mission, which was to locate a photograph of a mural dating back to the 1930s so that we could see what all the fuss was about.  As we stepped into a larger room containing large wooden tables and rows of free-standing book shelves and file cabinets of assorted research and documents, the black-and-white photo in question was located and we looked at it appreciatively, noting the gargantuan proportions as it hung behind the judge’s chair. And then we looked up and over to the back wall of the room, covered floor to ceiling with an oil painting about ten feet wide, and eureka, we’d found it!
I’m pretty sure that the words “Oh…My…God” dropped from my lips at least a dozen times.  The staffers at the research society were pretty amused. It wasn’t like the painting had been hidden under a rock or squirreled away in a cave. It was right there…in living color. You couldn't miss it if you tried.
The odyssey of the painting was described in 2007 in a publication called “Time Lines,” a membership magazine for the patrons of both of the Sheboygan historical museums, in an article written by Dawn Belleau.  According to the article, the painting was originally commissioned by Sheboygan Circuit Judge F.H. Schlichting. Schlichting was one of two judges with courtrooms in the newly built courthouse—Edward Voight was the other.  Schlichtling and Voight each wanted a painting for their respective courtrooms—Schlichtling wanted one featuring Native Americans while Voight wanted settlers in his.  The artist commissioned for the work offered to create a painting that included both elements, and so just one painting was produced.  Since Voight was the senior judge, the painting hung in his courtroom until he retired.  Then Judge Schlichtling moved into the courtroom with the mural, which stayed there until 1969 and the courthouse remodeling project. 
The mural depicts Sheboygan founding father William Farnsworth trading furs for cloth and trinkets with a Native American chief while several other Indians congregate near or in a canoe on the Sheboygan River. The painting also features a pioneer family in a log cabin, and a covered wagon drawn by oxen. According to the “Time Lines” article, Schlichtling had the mural removed before it could be damaged, and stored it, all rolled up like a carpet, at his home for several years.   Apparently, none of the expected venues such as the public library and local university extension had the space available to hang the huge painting for public viewing. The painting originally measured 12 x 16 feet.
However, it finally found a home in what is now known as Turner Hall Tavern in Plymouth, Wisconsin, and hung there for nearly two decades before it was ferreted out by local journalist and historian Janice Hildebrand and brought to the attention of the Sheboygan Historical Research Society. Somewhere along the line, the painting lost some canvas on top, but fortunately this section only contained sky and trees.

With our curiosity sated, we finally returned to our jobs and respective offices, positively gleeful at our discovery.  And as for what’s next on the agenda…well, I still have to figure out those eagles!!

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