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Saving frames from flames


by Mary Niehaus

An acrid smell of burning asphalt drifted through Baldwin Hall at the University of Cincinnati, warning of a fire on the roof. Engineering students would have time to get out of the building safely, but what about all the wonderful paintings on the walls, many of them gifts from graduates?

It was January 1920 when Anna Teasdale, Dean Herman Schneider's secretary, efficiently sounded the alarm -- and began fretting about the fate of the building's valuable artworks. Then she had an inspiration: Students could form a kind of art-saving brigade. According to witnesses, they "marched single-file from Baldwin into the winter air of the quadrangle," carrying the paintings out of harm's way.

It's not just a reading room any more. The renovated Baldwin Library, with its freshly cleaned early 20th century mural, has become a site for formal receptions and gatherings in the UC College of Engineering. A detail of one panel shows Cincinnati's suspension bridge across the Ohio. photos/Dottie Stover

The renovated Baldwin Library mural includes a detail of Cincinnati's suspension bridge across the Ohio. Photos/Dottie Stover

Baldwin Hall was unique on the UC campus at the time. Credit for its wealth of original art goes to Schneider, dean of the College of Engineering, creator of cooperative education (1906) and later president of the university. He insisted that students needed not only practical work experience, but opportunities for daily appreciation of the fine arts. He saw to it that examples were brought into the engineering building.

Taking his lead, a significant gift was presented by the graduating class of civil engineers in 1916: a huge multi-panel pastoral mural by artist Frances Faig that romanticizes engineering achievements such as suspension bridges, river transportation and tall buildings. To the dean's delight, it was the beginning of a tradition of class gifts of artwork.

Faig's mural, completed in 1917, still graces the walls of the original library [above]. After 86 years, both the room and the artwork look as fresh as new, following a recent library renovation and a conservation effort that removed layers of soot and dirt from the mural -- the latter funded by James Morand, civil engineering professor emeritus, and his wife, Diane.

"The mural is beautiful, now," says Anne Timpano, UC Fine Arts Collection manager. "And with new track lighting installed, this really has become a showpiece space."

The mural and other works originally given to the College of Engineering -- including Edwin Abbey's "Winter," Lewis Meakin's "Three Landscapes," L.C. Vogt's "Fountain Square in the Rain," and H.H. Wessel's "The Coal Miner" and "Jamming Barges Under the Suspension Bridge" -- are now part of the UC Fine Arts Collection