On your next visit to a local post office, we encourage you to scan the seemingly dull walls. There may be more than what meets the eye! Your post office could be one of several locations across the country housing a 1934-1943 mural commissioned by the United States Department of Treasury. The purpose of these murals was to provide high artistic pieces for public buildings that were accessible to all people. It was meant to uplift the spirits of the American people that were suffering from the aftermath of the Great Depression. Artists for these murals were selected through an open competition. Nearly eight hundred and fifty artists were selected, one hundred and sixty-two of them being women and three of them being black Americans. These artists were commissioned to paint 1371 murals, most of which were installed in post offices.
The Altoona Post Office happens to be one of those locations, so while you are visiting, feel free to check out this historic artwork. Two conjoined murals titled, “Pioneers of Altoona” and “Growth of the Road” are located at 1201 11th Avenue Altoona, PA 16601 in the lobby of the United States Post Office. The murals were painted by Lorin Thompson in 1938 and were created with help of funding from the Treasury Relief Art Project.
The murals are oil-on-canvas paintings reminiscent of American Realism featuring a wide and busy landscape displaying different scenes. On the front left, there is a woman churning butter and another woman nursing a child. In the distance, you can see a man plowing the field with a horse. Next to him is a church where a large crowd of people seems to be gathering. The dome of a cathedral in the back is a familiar sighting for many locals in Altoona. It is the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament which is located at the top of Gospel Hill. In front, there is a set of young school children sitting at their desks and studying. On the right side, there is a group of men lumbering and surveying the land as a train is moving past them. The roadhouse that can be seen behind the train is still well preserved at the Altoona Railroader Memorial Museum. In the distance, you can see the emergence of a city with pipes filling the air up with smoke. Looking at the murals as a whole, any observer can see that the landscape before them is displaying the growth of a city. It visually lists the actions and values that are required by a young community to make any city successful like education, faith, and hard work. It also emphasizes the city of Altoona’s core pillars, including railroading, agriculture, nature, and industry.
The murals seem to encapsulate the clock hung in the middle of the wall. The clock seems to enhance the mural rather than interrupting its flow which I believe symbolizes the passage of time. It is meant to inspire each viewer looking at it by providing a glimpse into the city’s humble beginnings.
Whether you are in Altoona or across the country, next time you visit a post office keep out an open eye for a piece of art you may have never noticed before. Maybe this time, take the time to appreciate the beauty of the history before you and the lives of the people that shaped the roads you walk on.