Lost painting found?
“I’m not allowed to comment on that,” said local arts figure Turkey Stremmel, not commenting on rumors that a long-lost painting in the former downtown Reno post office has been located.
“I don't know who told you that,” said local businessman Bernie Carter, who now owns the building.
After it stopped being a post office, the U.S. government handed the 80-year-old art deco building off for $1.25 million to the city of Reno, which promptly sold it in August 2012 to a company owned by Carter, who is converting it to retail shopping.
The building was a New Deal project, designed by local architect Frederic DeLongchamps (born Frederic DeLonchant) in a zigzag moderne style, with ornamentation that was widely admired.
There were rumors for years that a painting done by artist Ben Cunningham on a Works Progress Administration contract in 1936-37 was painted over by a local postmaster (“How the New Deal built Nevada,” RN&R, May 15, 2008). “I presume it was painted over,” said Nevada historian Phil Earl. “They had a postmaster here in Reno, and one of the things he did—he didn't like the New Deal, and he didn't like the Roosevelt administration—and he had them painted over.” He said there were also some exterior swastikas that were chiseled off after the symbol became identified with the Third Reich. Interior swastikas (a Native American symbol) on post office counters survived. The WPA was a New Deal agency, and it also provided for paintings in the Yerington, Winnemucca and Lovelock post offices. They have survived without vandalism.
A newsletter of the Historic Reno Preservation Society reported, “He [Cunningham] became involved with WPA mural art in California, beginning as one of the 26 artists chosen to record their impressions of the time on the walls of the interior of Coit Tower in 1934. A mural in the post office in Ukiah, Calif., painted in 1939, was also the work of Cunningham.”
“Ben A. Cunningham, former Reno artist now living in San Francisco, has been awarded a contract for painting murals in the lobby of the Reno post office building,” read a 1936 Reno Evening Gazette report. “He will be paid a total of $2,200 for the work, officials of the treasury's procurement division at Washington announced.”
A 1990 issue of the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly quoted painter Richard Guy Walton that the Reno painting was done by Cunningham in oil and that the mural was covered over by the postmaster soon after it was completed. “He had stripped Nevada of a great piece of art, the most beautiful ceiling I ever saw,” Walton told writer Ingrid Evans.
Rumors have been circulating in recent weeks in Reno that the edges of the painting are visible on a wall or ceiling of the former post office building. One local history buff said, “Everyone's been waiting for news on the painting.” It is not known whether current technology would make the painting recoverable. City officials have previously expressed concern about the need to protect the painting if possible, including a 2008 letter by Mayor Bob Cashell (Feb. 14, 2008, Historic Resources Commission minutes).
Carter would not say the painting had or had not been found. “We've been focusing on construction and demolition,” he said. “I'm not ready to talk about it [the painting] one way or another. We will make a concerted effort to find it when the time comes, but I'm not at liberty to talk about it now.”