When my family first moved into our home on South Main Street a few years ago, we were constantly asked about the Archibald Willard murals in the house. Some folks had only heard about the murals and wanted to confirm whether they actually existed. Some claimed to have seen the paintings with their own eyes and wanted reassurance that they survived unscathed. The one constant in all these narratives was the attribution: everyone called them “the Willard murals.” It is completely understandable why this should be so. Archibald Willard was, after all, a nationally-known artist with a connection to the town. But while the commonly-held belief may be understandable, it is almost certainly incorrect.
Archibald Willard died in Cleveland in 1918, aged 82, following nearly a decade of ill health. Our bungalow was completed barely a year prior to his passing. Numerous notices in The Wellington Enterprise explicitly named the decorator, interior house painter, even the man who laid the stone walkway from the house to the street in the summer of 1917. Nowhere is there a mention of a famous painter visiting the construction site, let alone executing a massive and time-consuming mural commission.
Beyond this evidence “by omission” is a stronger clue that Willard was not the responsible party. In 2013, we were paid an impromptu visit by a member of the Schweller family, who occupied the house from the mid-1930s to the mid-1980s. Mr. Robert Schweller informed us that his father, Florian, hired a man called Leslie Tripp from Rochester, Ohio, to beautify three areas of the bungalow: the dining room; another small room on the ground floor; and a basement space that runs the width of the house. (Schweller, Sr. reportedly liked Tripp’s work well enough that he also retained him to decorate two of the family’s downtown businesses.) The dining room frieze of ducks in flight, and the four seasons encircling the walls of another ground-floor room, are now covered over by contemporary paint and wallpaper. Only the basement mural remains. If there is any signature on the work, we have not yet found it.
Does Mr. Schweller’s telling of this story prove that it is absolutely correct? With every respect to the man, it does not. Human memory, of both the short- and long-term varieties, is demonstrably unreliable. But weighing all the evidence currently in hand–Willard’s advanced age and ill health; no timely press coverage of such a notable project; and a first-person account fleshed out with numerous detailed anecdotes–the most reasonable working hypothesis is that local artist Leslie Tripp is our man. The next logical step would be in-depth research to disprove or substantiate that claim.
Why am I relating this story? The Wellington Enterprise recently published a full-page, heavily illustrated feature in which it reported that “the village’s oldest house” at 308 East Herrick Avenue is now for sale, and quite possibly contains three original vignettes by Archibald Willard. I was not intending to offer any public comment on the matter, but I have since been asked on several separate occasions for my opinion of the article’s accuracy, so I decided to write this post in response.
Let me begin by saying that I am not an art historian. I can only assess the available evidence as I understand it. Nineteen-year-old Archibald Willard moved to Wellington with his family in 1855. By 1857, he was capable of producing work that looked like this:
When the house at 308 East Herrick Avenue first became available for sale, I made an appointment with the realtor and went to see it. It is known in local lore as the “Alanson Howk House” and I was very interested to look at some of the architectural details up close. I took snapshots of the small paintings at that time. Here is an example of one of the panels in question:
If we stipulate that Willard came to Wellington in 1855, and we acknowledge that he was a painter of some technical and aesthetic accomplishment by 1857, then it seems to me that we are left with two possible conclusions about the East Herrick panels. The first is that Archibald Willard painted them after he arrived in town, but before he (rapidly?) developed the talents evident when he painted Village of Wellington. Remember though that Willard did not begin to enjoy commercial success or a measure of renown until fifteen years later, with his Pluck paintings and lithographs. His earlier work is not likely to have been so prized, and therefore protected, prior to that time. The second possible conclusion is that Archibald Willard did not paint the East Herrick panels. They were created by someone with less sophisticated artistic abilities and later incorrectly attributed to the town’s most famous citizen. In the absence of further documentary evidence, I favor the second theory.
Regarding the claim that 308 East Herrick Avenue is the village’s oldest house, I can only say that it was not built in 1815, as the article asserts. Alanson Howk is popularly credited as the builder of that house. He was among the first white settlers to arrive in the area we now call Wellington in late 1818, but he continued to live in his older brother’s household until at least 1826. This is shown by census documents and corporation tax records. Howk married Theadocia Clifford in October 1828; it is not improbable that a house was constructed to shelter the new family. Again, until further research can be conducted, I would only be comfortable stating that–if Alanson Howk was indeed the builder–the house was erected prior to his death in 1850. An architectural historian might have been able to offer a significantly tighter date range, but the Enterprise article indicates that major changes have recently been made to the interior of the structure.
Did Archibald Willard paint the three small works inside 308 East Herrick Avenue? Connoisseurship and artistic authentication are not my fields of expertise. But if you are asking for my best guess, I have my doubts.