COLUMBIA — The City Council's move last month to its new chambers left a lot of people feeling nostalgic about the old chambers, which served the city for decades. And with that nostalgia came the question of what happened to "The Pony Express Rider," the giant painting that loomed behind the council dais for 21 years.
While "The Pony Express Rider" is an iconic image, it is not well-loved by council members past and present, and those who spent a lot of time in the old chambers. Although tracing the history of the painting proved quite a challenge, getting opinions about it was not.
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"It was just plain ugly," said Rex Campbell, art appraiser and former Fourth Ward councilman. Campbell spent years in the chambers not only as a councilman but also as a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission and, later, the Board of Adjustment.
"I kept hoping that the arrow would catch up with the rider," Campbell said, referencing an arrow in the painting that looks as if it's about to strike the rider in the back.
Mayor Darwin Hindman has fond memories of the painting.
"As to its value as art, I don't think I'm a very good judge, but it has a certain nostalgic and historical value as it hung behind the mayoral position in the old council chambers for many years," he said. "If it is returned, there will have to be a decision made as to where it will be placed."
Other council said that while the painting has historical value, it wasn't so pleasing to the eye.
"The painting had its own following, I suppose, because it did hang in the chambers for so long," Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala said. "There are always some people that appreciate some art, but the value of the painting was that it was a local artist and an icon. I've been assured that it is not returning to the council chambers."
Fourth Ward Councilman Jerry Wade, who also served years on the Planning and Zoning Commission, said he had "mixed feelings about the painting."
"I sort of enjoyed it and got a kick out of it," Wade said. "It's symbolic of days gone by, but it probably wasn't appropriate for that location."
Where did the painting come from?
The painting was commissioned under the Section of Painting and Sculpture, otherwise known as "the Section," in 1936 during the New Deal, according to documents housed in the city's Office of Cultural Affairs. The U.S. Treasury Department administered the Section from 1934 to 1943, contracting with arts to create site-specific murals or sculptures for new federal buildings. Eduard "Buk" Ulreich painted "The Pony Express Rider" and a sister painting, "Indians Watching Stage Coach in Distance," for the former U.S. Post Office. Now known as the Federal Building, the structure today houses the Youzeum.
Ulreich is considered a local artist because of his ties to Missouri. He was born in Hungary in 1889 but grew up in Kansas City, where he attended the Kansas City Art Institute. He received a scholarship to Pennsylvania Fine Arts Academy and traveled to Europe in 1913 and 1914.
Ulreich was fascinated by the landscape of the West and worked as a cowhand. That inspiration is evident in both "The Pony Express Rider" and "Indians Watching Stage Coach in Distance." Ulreich also created murals for the Radio City Music Hall in New York City, for the 1933 Chicago World's Fair and for post offices in Missouri, North Carolina and North Dakota.
How did the painting end up in the council chambers?
Richard Knipp, a former Second Ward councilman and mayor, salvaged the painting when his construction company was renovating the Federal Building in 1965, Cultural Affairs Manager Marie Nau Hunter said. His contract for the renovation stated that Knipp was free to do what he wished with anything left in the building. He apparently interpreted that to include the two Ulreich paintings.
Knipp, who died in 2004, at one point considered them trash, according to a 1985 Missourian article. "I was just considering hauling them off with the other debris," he said at the time.
But Knipp obviously changed his mind. He stored both works in a Hallsville barn and later in the basement of his company's building. In 1981, Hiram Hoelzer of New York restored the paintings for $3,000, according to thesame article.
Hunter said Knipp donated the Pony Express painting to the Boone County Historical Society in 1981, which then presented it to the city in 1983. "Indians Watching Stage Coach in Distance" was returned to the Federal Building in 1985. In 1997, Knipp made an open-ended donation of $100,000 to the historical society, in part for the preservation of "The Pony Express Rider."
Where is it now?
The General Services Administration (GSA) is responsible for all federally commissioned art created during the Works Progress Administration and the New Deal, so when the Youzeum wanted "Indians Watching Stage Coach in Distance" moved from the Federal Building in 2004, GSA decided to remove "The Pony Express Rider" for preservation as well.
The legal title to the artwork states that the federal government owns and always has owned both paintings and that the GSA could reclaim them if they were ever removed from the original location.
Removing "The Pony Express Rider" from the council chambers wasn't easy because it had been glued to the wall. Hunter did an assessment of the artwork before it was removed and found it had sustained blistering, crackling, damage to the finish, loss of paint, scraping and tearing. The colors also had faded, and it still had warp lines from being rolled and stored.
Sylvia Augustus, an architect for the GSA, said "The Pony Express Rider" and "Indians Watching Stage Coach in Distance" are stored away in a climate-controlled building in Virginia. Although it's possible the paintings could find their way back to Columbia, it doesn't appear likely.
"It is our understanding that there was no place in Columbia interested in maintaining the art," Augustus said. "The artworks must be located in a federal building, and we are currently exploring different places in Missouri that the pair could be placed together."