George Snow Hill's magnificent mural in Perry, Florida, was painted in 1938

Florida's Frescos —
Old And New

by Barbara Bothwell

I HAVE A NEW HOBBY: FRESCOS (or murals, if you prefer). Not painting them but ‘discovering’ them. It all started when I visited Lake Placid in Florida. I had never before seen so many modern day murals.

Although Lake Placid’s murals are modern, I discovered that frescos in the United States go back a long way, painted for public buildings in the 1930s and 1940s under the Federal Art Project (FAP). The FAP was set up under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration, one of FDR’s schemes to help the country grow out of the depression, and created 5,000 jobs for artists who produced over 225,000 works of art.

Unfortunately, over the decades many of these frescos have disappeared, either because the buildings have been demolished or they were painted over or they simply disintegrated. Fortunately some remain — some in better shape than others.

My discoveries so far have taken me to seven of the sixteen locations in Florida.

Tallahassee, the State Capital, has frescos created in 1939 in the lobby of the Federal Courthouse that tell the history of Florida. There are illustrations of an Indian camp, Ponce de Leon (the Spaniard who ‘discovered’ and gave Florida its name) being greeted by Indians, Florida’s participation in the Revolution and a 1930s depiction of local pastimes such as golf, horseback riding, fishing and sailing. The artist was Edward Buk Ulreich.

West of Tallahassee are the towns of De Furniak Springs, which has a 1942 fresco called ‘Scene of Town’, and Milton, with its 1941 fresco called ‘Loading Pulp Wood’.

Perry, Florida, was famous for the logging of cypress trees so in 1938 George Snow Hill painted a magnificent fresco in the local post office. It shows a primitive steam crane and men at work.

Madison was a center for cotton and in 1940 Hill created a mural in that post office of a factory with men hard at work turning the cotton bolls into cotton fiber.

The post office in Jasper has a pair of murals — unfortunately in need of restoration — which were painted in 1942 by Pietro Lazzari. One is called ‘Harvest at Home’ and the other is ‘News from Afar’. From the expressions on the faces of the couple who received the letter, it looks like bad news from a war zone.

Across the State, a few miles west of St. Augustine, is the town of Starke with a post office mural by Elizabeth Terrell of the Reforestation of the area.

Both West Palm Beach and Palm Beach have post office frescos. Appropriately, the one in West Palm Beach is ‘The Legend of James Edward Hamilton, Mail Carrier’. In Palm Beach there is a pair of murals: a landscape and one of the Seminole Indians.

In nearby Lake Worth there is an exciting fresco of a ‘Settler Fighting an Alligator from a Rowboat’. This fresco was painted quite a bit later than most of the other murals in the area, created in 1947 by Joseph D. Myers.
Inside the famous domed post office in Miami Beach there is a mural depicting ‘Episodes from the History of Florida’, painted by Charles Russell Hardman. There is also a mural in the Miami Courthouse.

North of Palm Beach is Fort Pierce with its mural of Seminole Chief Osceola holding court. Two towns in the center of the State which also have frescos are Lake Wales and Sebring.

When driving along US 27 between Lake Okeechobee and Lake Wales, you drive through the town of Lake Placid, which has no less than 38 murals — at the last count. Lake Placid began ‘muralizing’ itself in 1993 as a means of beautifying the town and bringing it back to life. These murals are not not necessarily historical, but fabulous nonetheless. They cover all sorts of subjects from the dramatic to the amusing — all relating to Lake Placid and Florida.

One mural is called ‘The Jewels of Highlands County’ (where Lake Placid is situated), a wonderful montage of all things related to the county from water skiing and fishing to farming and wildlife. Other murals depict such things as an airboat ride in the Everglades, a tea party on a flower filled patio, the prairie, the caladium fields (a big industry in the area), a drug store, a bank robbery (that actually happened a long time ago), the train station, the post office, and a Country Fair.

There are also murals depicting Florida history, covering the turpentine industry, the citrus industry and the Native Peoples, as well as wildlife of all kinds, including Florida’s endangered panthers and black bears.
Murals throughout town honor all sorts of people from local doctors and clowns (Lake Placid is home to Toby’s Clown School), to the man who first grew Caladiums in the area, as well as Dr. Dewie, who invented the Dewie Decimal System (he once lived in Lake Placid, Florida and was responsible for having the name of the town changed to Lake Placid, after his New York State home town.)

One of the most impressive mural in town is the enormous ‘Cracker Trail Cattle Drive’, which is along the side of a large supermarket that advertises the fact that its beef is the best!

For more information about the WPA Murals which, incidentally, are to be found across the United States, log onto www.wpamurals.com For information about Florida’s murals log onto www.visitflorida.com. •

from the July-August 2008 issue

One mural in Lake Placid depicts a bank robbery.

Lake Placid, Florida, which has 38 murals, began 'muralizing' itself in 1993 as a means of beautifying the town.