Effort under way to restore New Deal murals in Ellicott City

As a 5-year-old who adored her father, Shirley Bossom contentedly tagged along with him 70 years ago on daily errands that often included business in the granite-clad Ellicott City Post Office on Main Street.

The lifelong Ellicott City resident recalls with clarity the imposing murals depicting Ellicott City life that still adorn the east and west ends of the building's lobby and how, from a child's vantage point, the figures in the scenes were large and scary.

Now, Bossom is taking the lead on jump-starting a private effort to restore the oil-on-canvas paintings installed in 1942 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. The historically significant works of art, which have darkened tremendously over time, are housed in a county-owned building that is getting a second chance at life as the Howard County Welcome Center.

Though she talks of her love of history, it is her love for her late partner, Cliff Hughes, that moved her to honor his memory by donating $5,000 to a fundraising drive by the Ellicott City Restoration Foundation. The effort had been limping along on the pocket change of drop-in visitors.

Hughes, her partner of nearly eight years till his death at age 89 on Jan. 14, 2011, had been employed as a guide with the Howard County Office of Tourism and Promotion, a job she said he not only cherished but for which he was perfectly suited. The pair had met at a bereavement group after they'd lost their spouses.

"Cliff could have been a Shakespearean actor," said Bossom, 74. "He was so dramatic that everyone loved him and requested him as their tour guide."

She said her donation to the nonprofit corporation is intended to spur contributions for the restoration, which will cost approximately $20,000 and take six weeks to complete.

Historic Ellicott City Inc. has offered to match her $5,000, leaving another $10,000 or so to be raised, according to Ed Lilley, the welcome center's manager and president of the restoration foundation.

Lilley confirmed that Hughes was in high demand as a guide, especially for the popular Ellicott City ghost tours. A 10-minute "Spirits of Ellicott City" video made in 2010 demonstrates Hughes' considerable narration skills, complete with a sinister laugh and animated facial expressions.

Hughes also frequently led the county's fourth-graders up and down the hilly town on field trips as they learned about their county seat.

"Cliff loved to be with people and loved telling the stories," he said.

A respiratory disease forced the former factory manager to retire at age 84 after years of mastering the town's challenging topography with the aid of a cane, Lilley said.

The welcome center moved upstairs Dec. 2 from its 15-year home in the building's cramped basement after $325,000 in renovations — a move Hughes didn't live to see. But he appreciated the murals and would be happy knowing that a campaign is under way to restore them, Lilley said.

Lilley said he's thrilled with the welcome center's spacious new location on the main level of the now-defunct post office, which had operated for 68 years, and the building is listed on the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties.

The county purchased it for $640,000 in 2008 to allow for the expansion of the privately run tourism council, whose primary funding comes from a county grant.

About 20,000 people visit the center annually, and they have come from 39 states, 18 countries and three territories, he said. Visits this year are up by 500 over the same period last year, he added, though some people are stopping in just to see the new center itself.

Lilley couldn't resist putting out a box to solicit donations for the one feature that wasn't refreshed during the renovation, especially now that the murals seem that much more prominent in the repurposed space. When he mentioned the donation box casually to Bossom, she offered to donate to the foundation's efforts.

"We're told a professional cleaning is all they really need," Lilley said of the two paintings, which were among 16 commissioned in Maryland post offices between 1934 and 1943 to provide income for artists during the Depression. Titled "Building of Ellicott Mills" and "Landscape of Ellicott City," the paintings were part of a nationwide beautification project.

For much of their lifetime, the paintings were subjected to two damaging types of air pollution: cigarette and cigar smoke — which was common in public spaces — and car exhaust wafting through open windows. Mix in decades' worth of dust and grime, and the scenes that were once bright and full of contrast have become muted and dull, Lilley said.

A black-and-white photograph of a young Petro Paul De Anna as he finished painting the mural filled with recognizable Ellicott City landmarks was taken by The Baltimore Sun in 1942 and appears in a brief history on display in the center. Even minus the vibrant colors of the paintings, the photo highlights the startling contrast between then and now.

"The foundation is hoping to raise the entire cost through private donations since everyone's looking to save money," said Lilley, referring to budget reductions in county and state governments across the country. "We'll have to re-establish the actual cost and select a conservator to do the work."

Jim Irvin, county public works director, said, "These murals represent a part of Howard County history, and I appreciate the efforts … to preserve a visual piece of our past."

Rachelina Bonacci, director of the not-for-profit tourism office, said she and her employees are honored to be keepers of a small part of Howard County's history.

"For us, it's another way of holding on to the past and preserving it for the future," she said.

Ellicott City has had its share of famous visitors, including Mark Twain, Davy Crockett and Robert E. Lee, Lilley said. Such a past deserves to be honored by returning the historic murals to their former glory, he added.

"They're just going to pop when they're done," he said. "People will be really surprised."

Bossom said she hopes the project will be completed in her lifetime.

"My first husband was rather sedate, and Cliff was just so lively," she said, recalling how he'd gotten them jobs as Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus in Historic Ellicott City and Savage Mill for a couple of years.

"Cliff was a thespian at heart and quite devoted to the tourism council," she said. "If everyone who was ever impressed by these murals contributes to this project, then we can get it done."

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