The renovation of the Postal Plaza will preserve its historic character while redefining it for its new purpose. Old and new come together, however, in the striking mural that has hung in the lobby of the building since 1963. Whatever the ultimate design for the museum, it will incorporate—and celebrate—the artistic heritage of the building by showcasing Grace Hamilton’s mural. Today’s post is an excerpt from a research paper written by current director of the Gardiner Art Gallery Teresa Holder while she was a student at Oklahoma State.
Located in the 700 block of South Husband in Stillwater, Oklahoma stands the old Post Office building, now known as the Postal Plaza. Just inside the front door on the north wall is a mural depicting the history of Payne County in chronological events painted by Grace L. Hamilton. This mural was the first to be approved by the Commission of Fine Arts—which had taken on the legacy of WPA public art projects after World War II—outside of the Washington DC area.
After the war there was considerable rearranging in the Government. The General Services Administration (GSA) was established in 1949 to provide economical and efficient management of Government property and records. The US Post Office was a Federal building, and the General Services Administration (GSA), was the commissioning agency in control of the building process. According to the General Services Administration, murals are intended to become an integral and permanent part of the structure of the building.
The Fine Arts Commission in Washington DC was the agency in control of approving the artwork chosen for public murals. On February 20th, 1962, they approved Hamilton’s color sketch and in doing so they made this their first approved mural outside the District of Columbia.
In September of 1961 Ray Heath, the Stillwater Postmaster, and Bob Donaldson, a local builder and chairman of the City Planning Commission of the Chamber of Commerce set out to find their artist through a local competition. Their requirements were that the mural needed to be either historical or of some kind of community interest. The only other stipulation was that it could not be abstract. Artists were to present a brochure with prior works and qualifications. Several artists competed for the commission on this mural, and Grace Hamilton was selected.
Grace L. Hamilton was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania February 19, 1894. She graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 1918 with a degree in Fine Arts. In 1920, she married Don Hamilton, also an artist and in 1927 they moved to Stillwater. Don became the head of the Department of Architecture and Grace went on to receive her Masters Degree in English at OSU. She was a member of numerous art organizations and had received various prizes and mentions in regional and national juried exhibitions.
Hamilton chose the history of Payne County for the Post Office mural. She started by researching the County’s history, studying old photographs of the area and thoroughly researching all aspects down to the smallest detail, like how many spokes are on a wagon wheel. The approval process with the Federal agencies took a full year. Then Hamilton had three months to finish the project. The vast majority of the mural was painted in her studio. After it was moved and hung in the Post Office mid June 1963, she put on the final touches.
Over the golden plains of Oklahoma, Hamilton reveals the county’s history in an S pattern across the canvas. A buffalo herd and an Indian village lead to the Santa Fe Train under which the land run is portrayed. Along Boomer Creek dugout homes give way to sod-thatched cabins. Following the creek, we see early main street Stillwater. Heading out of town, we see a more modern dairy farm, Old Central and an old cotton mill.