Sure, I thrill at the ring of my telephone and the ding when a new e-mail arrives on my iPad, but I much prefer the refined sound my engraved pewter letter-opener makes when it opens the envelope of a handwritten note that’s been mailed to me. As Alexandra Stoddard observed in her 1990 book, Gift of a Letter, a thoughtful letter that takes minutes to write can become a treasured source of joy for its recipient that lasts for years.
My fondness for handwritten notes derives from a gift my uncle Steve and aunt Shelley gave me back in the early 1980s — a box of pale blue, white-bordered Crane & Co. folded notecards and a matching Paper Mate retractable ballpoint pen. Ever since, I’ve been splurging on fountain pens, collecting stationery, and selecting just the right commemorative stamps to share with my pen pals.
Devoted correspondents may be dwindling, but if you’re a throwback like me who is willing to go out of your way in search of a stamp beyond the Forever flag, consider making the trip to a small-town post office like the one I discovered on the campus of Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.
There, beside the College Relations Center where I interviewed for a position with the Office of Public Affairs, across from the bookstore where I stocked up on Caspari greeting cards, and steps away from the Middle Path I’ve walked while attending three Kenyon presidential inaugurations, you’ll find a Colonial Revival structure built of stone, topped with a wooden cupola. Just as college and village officials requested when it was designed in 1940, the post office is in perfect architectural harmony with the character of its neighboring buildings.
Open the front door, enter the lobby, and step up to the service windows to conduct your postal business. But before you leave, look to your right and admire something that caught me by surprise. A one-paneled painted mural situated over the postmaster’s door and bulletin boards depicts two men on horseback taking in a picturesque view framed by lush trees.
“Bishop Chase Selects the Location for Old Kenyon” is the title that the late Norris Rahming, professor and director of Kenyon’s art department, gave to the mural he created for the post office. It depicts Bishop Philander Chase, Kenyon’s founder, with his friend, a Mount Vernon, Ohio lawyer named Henry B. Curtis, at the top of Gambier Hill. In his hands, Chase holds the blueprints for Old Kenyon Residence Hall.
Chase originally established the college on his Worthington, Ohio farm that once was located just a few blocks southeast of my home. Increasing student enrollment and development of Worthington convinced Chase that he needed to find a new home for Kenyon. Curtis helped Chase discover 8,000 acres of land in Knox County along the Kokosing River’s Owl Creek.
Legend has it that on July 24, 1826, Chase and Curtis led their horses through a thick tangle of oak bushes and grape vines up Gambier Hill. When they reached the top, they surveyed the beautiful panorama before them. “Well, this will do!,” Chase exclaimed.
While a Celtic-style cross now marks the spot of this historic happening, college historians point out that how the mural depicts the event isn’t exactly accurate. The climb up the hill was so slow and difficult that Chase and Curtis left their horses behind and completed their journey on foot. That’s how Rahming had originally portrayed the scene, but those responsible for approving his design in 1942 decided that placing the legendary pair on horseback made the painting more dramatic and picturesque. The mural was installed in the post office in 1943.
The mural does more than introduce people to Kenyon’s history. It is also typical of other murals created as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs designed to help the country recover from the Great Depression.
From 1934 to 1943, the Section of Fine Arts of the Public Building Administration supported thousands of struggling artists by commissioning them to create around 1,400 murals for 1,100 post offices throughout the country. The murals also helped to enrich people’s lives by incorporating beautiful art into an important community meeting place where citizens habitually gathered every day.
Significant local historical events — especially those that showed the activities central to founding the community — were popular subjects for post office murals. The depictions conveyed pride in a community’s past accomplishments and hope in its plans for the future, a perfect cure for the feelings of uncertainty caused by the Depression.
Other New Deal-era post office murals can be found around the state. My next post office mural stop is going to be to see the one in the Granville post office. “The First Pulpit in Granville” depicts the first settlers in Granville who cut down a tree near the center of the village to serve as an altar and pulpit and offered a service in thanksgiving for their safe arrival after a difficult trip crossing the Appalachians. The mural was painted by a Woodstock, New York artist named Wendell Jones around 1936, and was restored for Granville’s bicentennial celebrations in 2005.
The Gambier post office is on the northwest corner of Chase Avenue and Scott Alley. For more on Depression-era post office murals, read Wall-To-Wall America: A Cultural History of Post-Office Murals in the Great Depression, by Karal Ann Marling; “Not By Bread Alone: Post Office Art of the New Deal,” an article by Gerald Markowitz and Marlene Park in the June-July 1989 issue of the Ohio Historical Society’s TIMELINE; and “Colonial Design Chosen for Gambier Post Office,” from the July 22, 1940 issue of the Mount Vernon News, on display in the post office’s lobby. Color transparencies, color negatives and black-and-white negatives of photographs of the New Deal artworks in 25 Ohio post offices comprise the Ohio Post Office Artwork Collection (AV 48) at the Ohio History Connection’s Archives/Library and can be requested for study in its reading room. Click here to see the finding aid for the collection.