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Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Sunday, February 10, 2013
Glynn Archer's old Hoffmann murals get new lease on life

For decades, two Great Depression-era murals painted by artist William H. Hoffmann have adorned the auditorium stage of Glynn R. Archer Elementary School.

Over the years, the oil-on-canvas works have borne witness to generations of school plays, graduation ceremonies and perhaps even a fervid teenage first kiss or two shared behind the stage curtains, back when the building housed Key West High School, up until the early 1950s.

Over the years, the two works, which were painted in 1936 in what is now Building 21 in Truman Annex, have endured some wear and tear, but they're about to receive a restorative makeover thanks to the pending conversion of the aging school building into the new City Hall.

"It was made clear in our resolution that we're going to require the restoration of the historic aspects of the auditorium, including the murals," said Key West Mayor Craig Cates, whose father, brother and a host of other family members attended classes in the old building. "Our intent is to keep them there, and keep the same basic look. We may have the dais up on the stage, to keep it usable, and perhaps use it for other functions as well."

The significance of the paintings -- one depicting the construction of the Florida East Coast Railroad Extension through the Keys, the other portraying the arrival of Spanish explorers on the "isle of bones" Cayo Hueso -- lies as much in the history of the pieces as in the art itself.

Hoffmann, who was born in Savannah, Ga., won a national poster competition at the age of 17. He worked as an illustrator and letter maker for silent movie notices and advertisements, and later studied at art schools in New York City, Germany and France.

By the time Key West was suffering in the depths of the Great Depression, in 1934, the artists had helped paint notable murals at the Carnegie Library in Savannah.

That work led to Hoffmann being invited to Key West to join a number of artists working for the Federal Art Project (FAP), the visual arts arm of President Franklin W. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration employment program (which itself took over from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration in 1935).

During his short tenure on the island, Hoffmann painted a number of works as well as sets for a stage production of "Pirates of Penzance," in which he also performed.

Hoffmann also created the two murals in what was then one of the island's most important public forums: the assembly hall of Key West High School.

"They were specially designed for the school," said Monroe County Library Historian Tom Hambright. "At the time, the auditorium was where most of the major civic activities took place."

Other WPA/FAP artist murals, such as the one painted by Alfred Crimi at the Key West Aquarium, were a crucial part of the plan to beautify Key West and beat the Depression by turning the town into a vacation destination.

Most of these artistic reminders of the birth of Monroe County's tourist industry in the 1930s have been lost to history.

A handful of examples remain, though, such as the Hurricane Monument at Mile Marker 82 in Islamorada; two bas-reliefs by Joan van Breeman at the Harvey Government Center, at White Street and Truman Avenue; and a number of watercolors, prints, and other Federal Emergency Relief Administration artifacts by Crimi, F. Townsend Morgan, Stanley Wood and Martha Sauer at the Heritage House Museum, 410 Caroline St.

Still other works exist in private collections, and smaller museums around town.

Not long after arriving in Key West, Hoffmann married a local girl, Julia Jones, with whom he left the island in 1936. The couple retired to Key West in 1965, however, and Hoffmann continued to paint portraits until his death, some 30 years ago. In the 1970s, a plaque was affixed to one of the Glynn Archer murals recognizing the painter's contributions to the community.

Now Hoffmann's most significant Key West pieces will be restored to their original splendor for future generations to enjoy.

"It's in the contract," said architect Bert Bender, whose Key West-based firm Bender and Associates was awarded the conversion job at Tuesday's City Commission meeting. "It's going to happen. And I have a few people in mind that might be perfect for the job. It also might involve the Art in Public Places program. We still have to flush out the details."

Florida Keys Council of the Arts Executive Director Liz Young, who has been interested in the murals for years, was pleased to hear the news of the forthcoming project.

"They're fantastic murals," she said. "They deserved to be cared for. I'm very excited that they're going to be restored."

tschmida@keysnews.com

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