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February 07. 2013 12:16AM

Mark Hayward's City Matters: Mural seeks a place in city's future


 

If any organization in Manchester embraces history, it is St. Mary's Bank.

It brags about being the nation's first credit union. Its original name - "La Caisse Populaire Ste-Marie - adorns its buildings, even on the non-Franco, east side of our city. And its first location is now a historical museum.

Yet, even for St. Mary's Bank, time moves on. When the organization's West Side headquarters moves to a new, $10 million building later this year, one historical tidbit will be staying behind.

For 43 years, a two-panel mural has hung in the lobby of the current St. Mary's Bank building at McGregor Street. One image depicts a waterside meeting between French settlers and native Americans. The other shows two settlers on what appears to be a hillside, overlooking a log cabin down below.

Underneath it is a caption written in Quebecois French, wording that twists my brain as much as my tongue as I attempt to decipher it with the Parisian French I struggled through in college decades ago.

As it turns out - this is their story and they're sticking to it - there is just no space for the mural in the three-story, 29,000-square-foot headquarters under construction beside the current bank building.

The new building is designed on a curve, company officials said. (If you were looking at it from a helicopter, it would look like a quarter piece of pie.) So the lobby and most public areas will be curved walls, glass walls or walls that are both curved and glass.

Just no place to hang a mural that is roughly 18 1/2 feet long and 5 feet high.

"We just don't have a large enough, flat wall on the interior of the building where it will fit," said Ronald Covey, president and chief executive officer of St. Mary's Bank.

So St. Mary's Bank is searching for a home where the public will be able to see it.

First choice - Manchester Historic Association. Executive Director Aurore Eaton said the Historic Association is having conversations about the mural, but nothing is resolved yet. The acquisition has to go through an internal review process (it's not the documents and photos the association usually accepts). And Eaton said the association would not be able to display it immediately.

Covey, who is also trustee chairman of the New Hampshire Institute of Art, has asked the Institute of Art about a place for the mural. The Institute doesn't know if it has a large enough space for the mural, said spokesman Christopher Williams.

I'm not the first to ask about the mural, said Elizabeth Stodolski, marketing director for St. Mary's Bank. Her department has started to research it.

In 1969, directors authorized the use of an unspecified portion of the clock budget for the art work, upon the suggestion of Sherman H. Jones, the Melrose, Mass., architect who designed the current building.

No artist is ever mentioned, not in records or on the mural. But a pencil sketch of the piece gives references to history books about Manchester and the Merrimack River Valley.

Another thing: It's not wood. While framed with hardwood, the scenes are painted on some type of a metal. Rub your fingers along it, knock it, and it's obviously metal, Covey said.

It's clear that St. Mary's Bank is sensitive about the piece. My questions to Stodolski were bumped up to Covey, and when I visited McGregor Street yesterday, customers bemoaned its loss.

So let me be brave and say, frankly, that it does not belong in the new building. In history, as well as art, there is timeless, and there is dated.

This is dated. No one working at St. Mary's Bank headquarters yesterday could tell me whether the French on the caption was Quebecois or Parisian. (I had to ask a customer.) Painted tin has gone the way of Victorian ceilings.

And most importantly, the scene doesn't depict Manchester. The mountains in the distance aren't the Uncanoonucs. The water body is a lake (not a river), the land is flat like a Midwestern plain, and the vegetation consists of three birch trees with jungle-like canopies.

It's kitsch, and the new corporate headquarters of St. Mary's is anything but that.

Designed by Lavalle Brensinger Architects, the new building represents the triumph of the little guy. It is being built while big Wall Street banks nurse self-inflicted wounds caused by arrogance and careless greed. Stay prudent and above-board, this building announces, and a bank can build a palace of rock-solid stone and transparent glass.

No need to clutter up this showcase with a dated amalgam of history and art.

But my word is not the last one here. My fellow Union Leader columnist Eaton loves the piece.

"I think it's beautiful folk art," she said. It represents the French history in North America - the French as explorers. The French as homesteaders. The French who befriended and married natives.

"That's part of our history and cultural lore as Franco Americans. Growing up I learned that history," Eaton said.

So although the mural is only 40 years old, and although it may have some geographic inaccuracies, it depicts how French-speaking people look at themselves, she said.

"There is," Eaton said, "a context to this thing that's lost on anyone who hasn't studied it."



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Mark Hayward's City Matters appears Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at mhayward@unionleader.com.


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