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All of the paintings were commissioned by the U.S. Treasury Department and most of the paintings originally hung in the rotunda of the U.S. Government Building at the 1893 Fair. The six paintings that hung in the theatre were originally part of a group of eight. They were 11 feet by 16 feet in size. An article in the Scientific American, Spring, 1894, listed J.C. Rogers as buying the eight paintings from the rotunda of The Government building. The disposition of the other two was an early mystery.

In April 1992 Becky Peters, a research volunteer for the theatre, found an article written in 1896 by L.B. Leech. The article describes his visit to Rogers' new gentlemen's club in the reconstructed Wisconsin building in Kansas City. His description of two large paintings at the ends of the great hallway matched in every detail the two missing paintings from the Wamego suite. Those paintings are assumed to have been destroyed when the building was demolished in 1960.

The eight paintings were two sets of four -- one set representing the leading economic features of the regions of America: North, South, East and West. The other set depicted prosperous trades and industries. These included "Steel and Industrial Trades," "Architecture and Building trades" and "Tapestry and Weaving Trades" and "Ceramic and Pottery Crafts." The latter two were installed in the Kansas City men's club and destroyed.

Early in the research we could not determine who had painted the works. A contract in the National Archives showed an arrangement with Phillipson Brothers of Chicago to paint the interior of the Government building and eight paintings called the "Children's Frieze." This does not match our paintings, and, in fact, a Chicago newspaper reported in February of 1893 that the paintings by Phillipson were of poor artistic quality and that the Treasury Dept. had rejected the pieces. Phillipson refused to repaint the murals pleading insufficient time before the fair opened. The Treasury withheld the final payment for the paintings and the matter was settled in the courts some five years later in favor of the Government.

The Treasury also sent several artists to Chicago who were under contract to the department for other things such as currency and the art work in the Library of Congress. They were slated to paint the new murals that were displayed at the fair. A Chicago scholar by the name of Ron White presents a theory that one of the painters was William H. Lowe, since there is a strong likeness to him as young man in the stone mason figure in the painting titled "Architecture and Building Trades." Furthermore a likeness of his girl friend Mary MacMonnies, wife of celebrated artist Frederick MacMonnies, is the central figure of the painting titled "East." Mr. White's belief is that Lowe used his artistry to inconspicuously put himself and Mary in the public eye without her husband being aware. Another possibility was raised when we found one of the Chicago papers had a Theodore Behr depicted in a sketch working on the painting titled "Architecture and Building Trades."

Behr as the artist was confirmed when the paintings were restored. The conservator found the painting titled "East" signed E Behr and the painting titled "Steel and Industrial Trades" signed ETB. It appears that Behr was the principle artist, but it does not rule out that other artists assisted. Art historians have found evidence of at least four different hands during their inspection of the paintings. It is likely the search for the rest of the story will continue for years.

In the fall of 1990 the Columbian Theater Foundation held a "historic dig" to sort through the numerous items on and under the stage. About 50 people from all parts of Kansas worked on the dig. The dig "unearthed" numerous motion picture items, equipment used in the theatre, such as the gas light manifolds and gas generator, many flyers and correspondence from the era of live theatre.

One of the most important items found under the stage was a large crate that initially was thought to contain stage backdrops. However, a month later, upon closer inspection, fourteen additional paintings from the 1893 Columbian Exposition were found in the crate. These included two 4 feet by 9 feet eagles clutching a shield and two American flags, four 8½ feet by 4 feet individual female allegorical figures, two 7½ feet by 14 feet semi-circles canvasses (one of a mountain scene with mountain climbers in the foreground and the other of the Garden of the Gods in Colorado).

The last six paintings are 9 feet high and 19 feet long, and depicted scenes of America: the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington D.C., the Golden Gate north of San Francisco, Niagara Falls, Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone Park, Yosemite Valley, and the Florida Everglades. Each of these six paintings is titled in 12 inch gold lettering. There were originally eight of these panels, as they hung in the U.S. Government building rotunda above the other paintings that are now on the walls of the Columbian.

It is clear that Rogers bought all eight, but two were used for other purposes in the Wamego theatre. One was painted silver and used as the silent movie screen. The canvas was found on the stage, well used and showing parts of the gold lettering through the overpaint. It is believed to be a cityscape of Chicago. The painting is not restorable. A similar fate may have befallen the other missing painting, as the top 8 or 9 inches of it was found fastened to a 20 ft board, the canvas long since discarded.

The Eagle and Female figures are done in oil and the American scenes are done in a water based medium called distempera, which is a paint pigment in an animal glue or gelatin. Finding the fourteen paintings under the stage changed the collection from, in the words of noted art historian Charles C. Eldridge, former director of the National Museum of Art in Washington, "six interesting paintings to a nationally significant twenty painting collection." The Columbian's collection represents 60% of the decorative art that was in the Government building.

Other pieces of decorative art at the Fair were given to fair officials at the end of the Fair. These items were stored along with other artifacts in one of the buildings selected to be kept as a museum. The building burned in 1894 about four months after the Fair closed. All items were lost in the fire. This has strengthened the belief that The Columbian collection is the only decorative art from the 1893 Columbian Exposition to have survived.

 


 


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