Reflecting on a Painted Wall
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Painted Lady on Portsmouth Mural 1982HISTORY MATTERS

There really are wormholes in time and space. I saw one 30 years ago In Portsmouth. Ask people who were downtown during the last few pendulum swings of 1982. They'll back me up. We all saw it -- a full blown in-your-face breach in the space-time continuum. (Continued below) 

It all started when the Foye Building in Market Square fell down on December 23, 1981. To be honest, it didn't really fall. The building just moaned and shivered and crunched a bit as an ancient brick wall gave way. There was a quick evacuation and no one was hurt. There were lawsuits and recriminations, but eventually there was a decision to rebuild.

To mask the reconstruction site and protect passersby, the builders put up a giant wall made from 50 sheets of four-by-eight foot plywood. It was ugly. Every journalist in town, myself included, described it as a monstrous missing tooth, an unsightly gap in our beloved gentrified downtown. It hunkered there obscenely between the Portsmouth Athenaeum and what is now Starbucks, leering across the street at the Old North Church. We hated it.

Five local artists decided to paint the plywood wall. They were nuts, of course. The planned two week project took 12 weeks and the all-volunteer team sacrificed income, sanity, and friendships to paint over the gap. The plaque that isn't there should read -- With thanks to Cary Wendell, Steven Lee, Pat Splaine, Thom Cowgill, and Valerie Cooper. Others helped and will go equally unrewarded.

What they did was brilliant. The muralists filled in the 1,600 square foot gap space with a painting of the two buildings that had previously stood just behind the plywood wall. But they added a twist. They painted the former Foye and Pierce buildings as they had been nearly a hundred years earlier. Viewed from across the street, the painted buildings looked surprisingly real.

The differences were subtle. Old store signs from the Victorian era, for example, reappeared in the giant mural. On closer examination we could see items in a long-gone bakery window with ghostly shop owners inside, and even the painted reflections of Market Square as it once was. The bricks looked like bricks. The granite lintels and wood trim were hauntingly realistic. The trompe-l'oeil ("fool the eye") painting style was so successful that pigeons attempted to land on the two-dimensional window sills.

The town was enchanted by the biggest painting in its history. The artists called it a giant business card and it got them a few mural painting jobs including the nave of a Catholic church and a prison cafeteria.

Market Square Mural by Ralph Morang 1982

Behind the wall, construction continued. Out front on Market Square time passed. The newly planted trees changed color and dropped their leaves. Watching from across Congress Street, pedestrians appeared to step briefly into the past, then re-enter the modern world a few yards ahead. Eddies of time swirled on either side of the painting like leaves caught in a tiny tornado. Here and there a few seconds fell out of step and were lost forever. One man in the painted store shifted position, or maybe it was just a trick of the sunlight.

These were early warnings of a temporal storm that erupted with the arrival of the woman in the window. She appeared one day peering down from the third floor. She seemed to be Spanish. She was young with soft skin and dark hair. She wore her dress wide open at the neck and there appeared to be a flower in her hair. Propping her head in one hand, she gazed with fascination into the street below. Everything amazed her, even the empty street at night, night after night, through the winter and into the spring of 1983 until the wall came down around her.

It was rumored that the woman in the window had an unsavory reputation. The mural artists admitted that she might, indeed, represent a "lady of the evening" in one of Portsmouth' many waterfront bordellos. Some of the town fathers and mothers were shocked. But no one could quite figure out how to arrest a painting of a prostitute. And historians had to admit that our economy had sometimes fueled itself on bordellos and slavery and privateering.

The woman was allowed to remain at her window and the artists were allowed to remain unheralded and unpaid. The wormhole continued to hover around the painted lady who seemed to study us as much as we studied her. She was transfixed by the horseless vehicles and the oddly dressed passersby. The North Church steeple had been painted brown in her day. Now it was white. The stores were now brightly lit and filled with unfamiliar items. 

The woman in the window stared as if she could not look away. She leaned just slightly forward. The curtains at her sides lifted ever so slightly in the salt air. She was day dreaming now about the future, imagining her city a hundred years ahead in time. She could see the future clearly, but it only lasted for a few seconds. Then she blinked, the wormhole flashed, and the mural was gone.

Photos by Ralph Morang

Copyright © 2013 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site SeacoastNH.com. He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS and AMERICA’S PRIVATEER, available on Amazon.com and in local stores.

Painted Lady in Market square Mural 1982