by MARGARET JACKSON
Constructed in 1911, Monroe Hall is one of the three original buildings on campus. It served as the initial academic and administration building, and it holds a significant amount of history and value to UMW. However, one aspect of Monroe’s history is the cause for rumblings around campus: the murals.
The murals in Monroe were part of a larger project headed by Emil Schnellock, who came to the University of Mary Washington in 1938 to teach art. In the 1940s, Schnellock led his students in the creation of murals in George Washington Hall, Monroe Hall and Trinkle Hall—now Farmer Hall. According to the Washington Conservation Guild, “the murals portray student life and were based on various college organizations and traditions.” In this sense, these murals convey a sense of history to the school and the building.
In 1942, Schnellock and his students endeavored to paint murals in Monroe Hall that students based on state flags and seals as well as eagle imagery throughout the building. These paintings were touched up in November of 1973 and 1978 by Jerry Potvin, a former student of Schnellock’s.
But, due to their age and the shift of values at Mary Washington since their conception, the meaning of the murals changed, and they were concealed behind curtains in 2020. Since then, these murals have remained in Monroe without a decision on what to do with them. Whether this is restoration or revitalization, the curtains need to come down.
The interior of Monroe Hall is decorated with numerous murals, and four of them are hidden by curtains. Among the murals inspired by different state flags are depictions of historic American landmarks, such as Monticello, and renderings of presidents, notably Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe.
Bringing these murals into the 21st century sheds a different light on their meaning, which led to the Campus Environment Presidential Ad Hoc Committee’s evaluation of the message they convey and its reflection on Mary Washington’s values that have progressed over the years, which started in 2018. According to their Nov. 9, 2019 report, “results from the survey validated the concerns expressed about campus displays about the lack of diversity.”
The plan laid out in the report lists a series of goals with a timeline ending in 2024, as well as three recommendations to be completed “as needed.” Recommendations set on a timeline include but are not limited to: “a standing committee to assist in the development of temporary and permanent displays” on campus and the implementation of signage that contextualizes the works.
On an “as-needed basis,” the recommendations pertain to diversifying the names used for buildings around campus and the “installation of new murals and artwork throughout campus representing UMW today and reflecting the UMW community’s ASPIRE values.”
When Schnellock and his students painted these murals, the college was still segregated, which lasted until 1964, a decade after the Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. The Board of Education.
As a result of shifts in University-held values, the murals were covered in 2020, following the advice of the Committee.
According to Executive Director of University Communications Amy Jessee, “The University has been in the process of fully documenting the murals in Monroe Hall and GW Hall, and concealing them within historic guidelines and best practices or contextualizing and updating them, depending on the nature of the murals and their connection to the history and values of UMW.”
There are signs around Monroe that read, “Bear with us as we work toward concealing and contextualizing these murals to better reflect UMW’s current community and the values to which we ASPIRE. Protective concealment will also create space for rotating student and faculty/staff art.” Nevertheless, we haven’t seen anything of this rotating art or any renovations to the area.
An additional issue arises if the murals are to be kept up, for that would require that they be restored. Jessee said, “Over time, these murals have deteriorated and experienced some damage and condensation, particularly during renovations of Monroe Hall, potentially incurring increased costs to stabilize or update.”
The murals are a staple of the University, representing the work of students who have attended this university since it opened its gates; they are a living artifact of the lives that have walked these halls for over a century. But, obscured by large blue curtains and without a tangible plan for their restoration or renovation, the murals don’t convey anything except a temporary solution to establishing the values Mary Washington holds. The murals have been covered for three years, and there doesn’t seem to be any progress in terms of their restoration, preservation or revitalization.
When asked about what should be done about the murals, sophomore historic preservation major Adam Shinberg said, ”I believe they should be uncovered and given the correct context of when it was made, the people who made it, and why it was originally made.”
“Overall, I think the University of Mary Washington has done a good job of preserving its history and telling its history correctly,” said Shinberg. “It’s a part of our university’s history and Virginian history,”
Junior sociology major Quincy DuBois said, “I think the murals should be preserved digitally and added to some kind of historical archive, and then put in storage. Monroe is a great space that could host beautiful, modern, colorful art by students that reflects the things we all love about UWM and that makes people excited to come into the building.”
The murals themselves are a pillar of the University of Mary Washington’s history, but, after a while, the band-aid has to come off, and we need to have a clear picture of what to do with these paintings. Whether that plan is restoration, revitalization or preservation, some initiative has to be taken and enacted soon.