Maryland House's historic art to be preserved, but won't return

The Maryland House on I-95 near Aberdeen may be known more for its fast food and bevy of bathrooms than for fine artwork, but its murals portraying Maryland history, that have adorned the travel plaza for more than 40 years, have a significant history of their own.

When the Maryland House went into what will be at least a one-year hibernation this past weekend, so did the mural pieces done by artist William A. Smith that depict significant events in Maryland's history and have long hung around the building.

The Maryland Transportation Authority says it is working to ensure the mural panels will survive the plaza's demolition and reconstruction. They will not, however, be a part of the new Maryland House.

The perennially-busy Maryland House closed overnight between Saturday and Sunday until the fall of 2013, when it will return as a new and expanded spot for travelers to stop.

"The first action on [Sunday was] for a qualified art conservationist to remove the eight panels of the mural remaining at the facility," MDTA spokeswoman Kelly Melhem wrote in an e-mail.

Mr. Smith, who died in 1989, created a piece of art for the state of Maryland that is "historically and artistically valuable," she said.

The Smith work "ranks high among the notable historical murals of the past 50 years," according to a 1987 letter by appraiser Raymond Spiller, Melhem said.

"The conservationist will ensure their safe removal and transport to a climate controlled storage facility that handles fine art," Melhem said. "This process is part of the agreement with the new concessionaire."

Maryland House is one of two travel plazas to be part of a $56 million renovation funded by Areas USA, which also will operate the rebuilt plazas.

Not returning

Melhem said the murals will not be rehung in the new Maryland House. Instead, MDTA will be storing the Smith murals "in a climate controlled fine art storage facility, but currently does not have long-term plans in place" for displaying them in the future, she said.

"In 1966, the State Roads Commission contracted with Gladieux Corporation to make decorative improvements to the Maryland House Travel Plaza," Melhem explained about the mural pieces' origin. "Gladieux [the travel plaza's concessionaire at the time] commissioned Pennsylvania artist William A. Smith... to create a mural for the travel plaza." 

"Depicting significant individuals and events of Maryland history, the mural was installed in the lobby of the Maryland House on April 2, 1968," she said.

"Mr. Smith labored extensively during 1967 and 1968 to research Maryland's history and to create the nine-panel, oil-on-canvas mural," Melhem said. "Eight of the mural panels, four on each side of the building, flank the lobby above the stairways leading to the facility's second floor. The mural's largest panel was installed directly in the lobby of the Maryland House." 

The two four-panel murals are valued at $200,000 each, according to a 2011 survey by the state treasurer, Melhem said.

Artists' rights case

The Maryland House murals also became a case study in the issue of artists' rights, after Mr. Smith found someone had altered the central panel and the state refused to remove his name from the piece. The alteration of the panel, which depicted the founding of Maryland with a group of white settlers and Native Americans, occurred during the 1987-88 renovation of the building by a new concessionaire.

Mr. Smith discovered the alterations, done by an artist and restorer from York, Pa., who then co-signed the mural, when he was traveling on I-95 and stopped to view the progress of the renovations, according to a Jan. 3, 1988, article in the Toledo Blade. Mr. Smith was a Toledo native.

He had no legal recourse at the time because he did not own the painting, but his case is widely cited as one that helped to pave the way for the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990.

According to A Guide to the Visual Artists Rights Act published by Harvard Law School and written by Cynthia Esworthy, the law, called VARA for short, "...recognizes only attribution and integrity as legal causes of action. Attribution includes the rights to claim ownership of a work, to prevent attachment of an artist's name to a work which he did not create, and, where there has been significant distortion of, mutilation, or modification of the work prejudicial to the artist's honor or reputation, the right to disclaim authorship and to prevent identification of the artist's name with the work."

According to the MDTA's Melhem, the disputed mural "was removed several years ago. MDTA worked with an art conservator to restore two portions of this panel and gifted them to St. Mary's College. The remaining portions of this panel are in storage at the above referenced [climate controlled] facility.

A pioneering artist

Mr. Smith helped pioneer the use of fine art for commercial purposes and was the first fine artist to design a postage stamp, in 1972, according to the James A. Michener Art Museum of Doylestown, Pa., which has some of his work in its collection and whose website contains biographies of prominent Bucks County, Pa., artists.

Besides the Maryland House murals, Mr. Smith was commissioned to complete portraits of historically significant people and stamp designs of American revolutionary history.

Mr. Smith's work is displayed in museums that include the National Portrait Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Library of Congress, according to the Pennsylvania museum's biography of the artist.

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