The Courier-Post tells the history behind the Roebling Museum’s latest exhibit of paintings from the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. The paintings were a mystery when they were found in 1980, a mystery area museums and historians are still unraveling more than 30 years later.
Trenton Times articles from 1982 chronicle the discovery of the paintings by a Mercer County worker in a vault in the old John A. Roebling’s Sons Co. building in Trenton, found when the county took over the space that once manufactured steel wire for some of America’s most famous bridges.
The first article didn’t pin down the origin of the paintings the county gave to the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie for safekeeping, but a follow-up interview with a former Roebling company employee revealed the paintings were made for the Roebling exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.
The paintings depict scenes from the Roebling factories and some of the company’s famous bridges — bridges made possible by wire rope produced on the very grounds where the paintings now hang.
“Roebling Goes to the Fair,” the exhibit of these paintings, is on display at the Roebling Museum in Burlington County through the end of the year.
“It’s interesting to think who might have gone and seen these paintings,” said Varissa McMickens Blair, the executive director of the museum.
The exhibit is a different sort of attraction for the museum, with the opportunity to bring in not just those interested in history or engineering, but also art.
The oil on canvas paintings are realistic in style but according to those familiar with the company, the painter took some artistic license, splicing different aspects of the work into the same compositions. White- and blue-collar workers are shown together in an artistic celebration of the working man.
These industrial portrayals and a circular painting of the Brooklyn Bridge are yellowed with age, but a painting of the George Washington Bridge is fresh and gleaming with hints of blue sky. The latter has been restored, a gradual effort funded through individual sponsorships.
“I always thought they were kind of wonderful-looking,” said Martha Moore, the president of the board of Roebling Museum and a descendent of John A. Roebling and his son Ferdinand Roebling. “They have that WPA, 1930s palette and feel to them.”
Two of the works had been on long-term loan to the museum but it was Moore’s idea to group the paintings — an example of the priority the company placed on art and design —for an exhibit at the Roebling Museum.
The Roebling family had a long history of mounting World’s Fair displays dating to the 1876 Centennial exhibition in Philadelphia, where they showed a length of the wire rope being used on the then-under-construction Brooklyn Bridge. So it is no surprise they would also plan an extensive display at the New York World’s Fair of 1939, said author Clifford Zink.
Zink has written two books on the Roebling family and their company, “Spanning the Industrial Age: The John A. Roebling’s Sons Company” and “The Roebling Legacy.”
“When the New York World’s Fair came along, it was a chance to showcase industry in the New York area,” Zink said. “This was kind of an era when there was a celebration of the common man and workers, man and machine working together to produce products that made American great.”
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